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How to Hook Your Audience from Page One

I personally think there are a plethora of amazing movies and TV shows out there. Yes, I said plethora and yes, I know what it means to have a plethora. *That’s a ¡Three Amigos! reference, and if you haven’t seen ¡Three Amigos!, question your entire existence… and then go watch it! 

My DVR queue is always maxed out, and it would be a full-time job for me to watch every single movie and TV show. Wouldn’t that be a nice occupation!? When I turn on a movie or start a new series, I don’t always have an hour or more to dedicate to it, so I better be hooked within the first few minutes or I’m out. You can go ahead and judge me, but I put on my judgment-free-zone robe years ago when I became a writer. And just like I don’t have a lot of time to get hooked, neither does the reader, or the audience, or the producer, or the network executive. Therefore, you have to engage the reader or viewer immediately, and it starts with page one. So, let’s define the teaser/cold open.  

The teaser and/or cold opener is the very first scene of a movie or TV episode. The terms are basically interchangeable and mean the same thing. This is the starting point of the hero, pre-arc, and it’s one of the most important pieces of writing you will do. You have to grab and hook your reader immediately or you will lose them forever. Or as Carole so eloquently said in Top Gun, “Hey Goose, you big stud! Take me to bed or lose me forever!”

So, how do we take Carole to bed and write a dynamite teaser?

Here are ten tips:

  1. Grab and hook the reader with your first sentence! If you have to explain the hook to the reader, it’s not on the page. 
  2. Drop us right into the action and make the scene a highlight reel. Every word counts, so less is more. 
  3. Deliver a compelling scene and get in and get out as quickly as possible. Quentin Tarantino says when he finishes a script, he goes back and cuts the first two and last two lines of dialogue in every scene. Excessive. Maybe, but it keeps the story moving forward. You want to avoid the set-up and instead hit the ground running. Don’t show the guy walking to the bathroom. Start with him in the bathroom. 
  4. Try not to exceed three pages. Most teasers are between one to three pages. One to three pages of script is roughly one to three minutes of screen time.
  5. Make sure you include your hero in the teaser. That way the audience knows whose story it is and who to root for.  
  6. Give us a sense of the tone, mood, and style of your concept. 
  7. Define what’s at stake in a captivating way, and remember – every scene must have conflict and an emotional shift.
  8. Give us something to sink our teeth into and leave us with a cliffhanger. If we’re asking, ‘what happens next?’ we’re more apt to turn the page and continue reading. 
  9. Once you think you have a bulletproof teaser, share it with anyone who will read it. If they’re bored: back to the drawing board. If they love it, chances are you’ve written something special. 
  10. Check out the FREE service WeScreenplay offers called “First Impression.” They’ll read the first page of your script and give you a few sentences of their thoughts within five days!

BONUS tip 11: Go read and watch a bunch of movies and TV teasers for inspiration. Here are a few of my favorites:

A guy in a lab coat runs down a hallway as alarms blare… an alien eats him. Stranger Things

A guy and a girl break into a high school to make-out. The girl is nervous they’ll get caught until she realizes they’re truly alone… and turns into a vampire and chomps the guy. Buffy the Vampire Slayer

An old drunk guy with puke all over himself kidnaps a kid and flies around in a spaceship threatening to drop a bomb on the city. Rick & Morty.

A guy in his underwear and a gas mask crashes an RV, records a suicide tape, and pulls a gun on approaching police cars. Breaking Bad

A montage of a privileged blonde girl who bathes in several decadent showers until she reaches her final shower… in prison. Orange is the New Black

A couple of medieval-looking guys come upon a gruesome murder scene in the middle of a snowy forest… and then they get their heads cut off by some dead guy with blue eyes. Game of Thrones

A sheriff-looking guy walks down a freeway of carnage and comes upon a helpless little girl… turns out she’s a zombie, so he shoots her in the head. The Walking Dead

A dog gets hit by a car and lies suffering in the street… a guy in a nice suit puts the dog out of its misery by strangling it to death. House of Cards

A plane crashes on a deserted island and several bloodied survivors run around on the beach amongst the carnage. Lost

A crazy guy in overalls holds a gun to a hostage’s head as an FBI agent tries to diffuse the situation… the guy kills himself. Mindhunter 

As always, good luck and happy writing!

Justin Trevor Winters has nearly two decades of experience as a screenwriter, lecturer, producer, and development executive. He began his career working in the Literary Department at Innovative Artists Talent and Literary Agency where he worked in collaboration with established directors, screenwriters, and authors. He later joined Creative Artists Agency, and after assisting in launching numerous projects, began focusing on his own screenwriting career. His feature film debut, Killing Winston Jones, a dark-comedy, starred Richard Dreyfuss, Danny Glover, Danny Masterson, and Jon Heder. His TV debut, Sports, starred Jessimae Peluso, and was produced by Comedy Central. He is currently a screenwriting lecturer at the School of Film & Television at Loyola Marymount University. He’s also taught at Arizona State University, where he was nominated for an Outstanding Teacher Award, and at the UCLA Extension Writers’ Program. He has lectured at universities and conferences both nationally and internationally, and regularly contributes to, and, websites dedicated to encouraging young writers and filmmakers to study and pursue their goals and aspirations. He’s also the founder of Sixty Second Script School, an educational website that teaches the craft and business of screenwriting through sixty second daily lectures. 

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