Your opening scene is the first thing the reader experiences from your script, and be the most important factor in determining if the reader continues to read your script. Although a lot of movies tend to open with either a landscape or a title sequence that only remotely sets up the protagonist, the character and the world, those tend to be directorial choices. If you are taking the time to write a scene into your script, make sure it’s adding something to your story.
You might be tempted to write something like: establishing shots of landscape over credits, or establishing shots of the city or countryside over credits. Those things could absolutely be the choice the director makes when filming that story, but I can guarantee the reader will skip ahead until there’s something happening with your protagonist.
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So, instead of just showing where the protagonist lives, use your opening scene to make sure we immediately get a sense of who your protagonist is. Again, location and even morning routine like teeth brushing, alarm clocks, making coffee is less compelling and can also be commonplace. Instead, the reader should be experiencing your protagonist in action, and getting right to the emotional core of who your protagonist is.
- Who is this person?
- What do they want out of life?
- How can I show this conscious or unconscious desire in the quickest, most dynamic way?
If you were writing a novel you could say: Mary is a control freak. How can an audience experience that through a visual beat? That’s where the old “show don’t tell” adage comes in. Don’t waste your opening scene on your protagonist’s mundane routine unless you are setting up something important about who they are in the beginning and who they will become at the end.
In the opening scene you should establish in the most effective way possible the following things:
- the emotional and visual tone of the story
- the world the protagonist lives in
- WHO the protagonist is (most important of all!)
Not just their job, or marital status, or social class, but who they are at their core.
Take a look at this example from the movie LITTLE WOMEN (2019). The first time we see Jo March, she’s very uneasy about selling one of her stories to a publisher and doesn’t want her name on the story. She agrees to all changes and takes the low amount she’s offered as payment.
If you have done well in the opening scene, the final scene should be simple to figure out. It should contrast with that opening scene somehow. Either visually or emotionally, or both. A lot of effective and compelling movies will start and end with the same set up of a scene, but will show how the protagonist has changed and deals with the same situation in a different way.
The final scene should hold the emotional journey your protagonist just went on. If seen side by side with the opening scene, without the rest of the screenplay, the reader could almost fill in the blank and understand the entire story. So, if Mary is a control freak in the opening scene, perhaps in the final scene we see she’s learned to let loose, or she’s learned to live with chaos, or perhaps she has learned how to have all the control she possibly can.
Back to the LITTLE WOMEN (2019) example, one of the last times we see Jo, she’s negotiating selling her book to the same publisher. This time she’s in control, she doesn’t take whatever she’s offered and she fights for the copyright of her book. Those two moments together tell a complete story.
Whatever journey you are sending your protagonist on, make sure they land somewhere different at the end. The opening scene and final scene should contain your protagonist’s entire character arc. The rest of the screenplay is about HOW that character arc actually happens.
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Julia Camara is an award-winning Brazilian screenwriter/filmmaker. Julia won a Telly Award for the sci-fi found footage feature Occupants. Julia’s feature directorial debut In Transit, won Best Experimental Film at four different festivals. Julia’s other writing credits include Area Q and Open Road.