Five Ways to Start a Script

Straight from our Cameo Archive award-winning writer Nicholas Turner gives us advice on the best way to start a script. Take it away, Nick!

The best scripts feel both original and familiar at the same time—no easy feat. Even more challenging: being able to capture that tone within the first few pages. Your script only gets one first impression, and if it doesn’t hook a reader immediately, its next stop may be the landfill.

That doesn’t mean the beginning needs explosions and car chases—or that it even has to be particularly fast-paced. What it should do is introduce a bit of mystery. Your readers should have a thread of suspense pulling them from page to page. What’s going on here? Who are these people? Why does one of them keeping sharpening his bowie knife?

Unsure how to start? Here are five classic beginnings you may want to try. A tried-and-true formula gives you structure and helps ground your reader in something familiar. The challenge is to give your opening a twist, making it your own.

1. The how-did-we-get-here opening. With this beginning, you plunge right into the action—showing your character in an intriguing predicament. Maybe your hero is by the gallows, getting a hood placed over his head. Maybe she’s dragging a trash bag full of twenties past a policeman—and the bag slowly starts to split open. In any case, as soon as you’ve hooked your audience, you flash back to the beginning of the story. If you’ve done your job right, they’ll be itching to find out how it all happened. The ultimate version of this opening may be Memento (2000), which is told backwards.

2. The who-are-these-people opening. Mysteries don’t have to be about murder and cover-ups. Just put two characters together and have them start a conversation. Don’t tell us that they’re man and wife, or boss and secretary, or hit man and victim. Let the facts leak out gradually, through natural dialogue. The audience’s desire to figure out the relationship between characters can hold their attention. This approach often works best for stage plays (Harold Pinter is a master of the technique), where there are few clues other than dialogue.

3. The big-bang opening. There’s nothing wrong with an explosion or two. If you’re writing an action-adventure script, it’s wise to start off with a tightly paced set piece. In addition to grabbing the audience, it can help establish your character. In Speed (1994), an elevator sequence teaches us that Keanu Reeves’ Jack Traven is a quick-thinking cop on the bomb squad. In the Peruvian-temple scenes from Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981), we see Indiana Jones’ bullwhip-cracking prowess, as well as his respect for ancient artifacts. After the set piece, you should step back and slow down—showing your character in a less frenzied environment (Indiana Jones teaching college kids, for instance). Remember that your climax will have to be even more exciting than your opener, so don’t pump up the action to the max. Where will you go from there?

4. The waking-up opening. This beginning is fraught with cliché dangers, so be careful. How many movies have you seen where an alarm clock goes off and a weary hero flails around in an effort to shut it off? It’s a shopworn scene. However, there’s something to be said for showing your protagonist starting out a typical day. It helps your audience identify with the character and also establishes who this person is—before the events of your script irrevocably change his life. To see a twist on this idea, check out Half Nelson (2006). Ryan Gosling’s character is in his living room, strung-out and wide-awake, when his alarm clock goes off in his bedroom. Like all good beginnings, this reveals something about the character: You know immediately that this guy is messed up.

5. The origin opening. If you want to add a little heft to a character trait, consider this opener. Say your protagonist is deathly afraid of bees, you may want to show her as a kid, when she bumps her head on a buzzing hive. Or maybe you’re giving the origin of a superhero’s powers, as in Superman (1978). When you cut to adulthood, the audience has a deeper understanding of the character than they’d get through dialogue alone. The risk: Starting off with your main character in childhood can easily be hackneyed and cheesy. And when you show that character as an adult, the audience may not recognize that it’s supposed to be the same person. (You also may want to withhold the origin story until later in the script, to give more mystery.) For an example of this approach done well, see The Orphanage (2007). It shows the protagonist Laura as a kid, enjoying games at the orphanage. You then can understand why she would return to the same rundown place later in life, eager to restore the idyll she remembers. Again, the best openings spotlight the hero’s character.

Nicholas Turner's stage plays have been performed in Berkeley, Chicago, San Diego and San Francisco, and he has sold three film scripts. His first produced screenplay, "Fissure," debuted in March at the AFI Dallas International Film Festival. His latest stage play will be performed in the Washington DC area this summer.