There is a saying in screenwriting to “open with a bang.” I just wanted to write a bit about what this means to me as a writer and someone who has just had to read a bunch of scripts for a screenplay competition.
The first thing to note is that “open with a bang” should really be thought of as “open with a hook.” Make the audience curious. Draw them in. This can be done in a myriad of ways, so it’s great to see a writer be creative with it.
Opening with a bang does not necessarily mean that you should open with an action scene or something shocking. That’s fine, but there needs to be something interesting about it. Some of the scripts that I would read would start with an action scene that was not interesting because it read like an action set piece without context. Some character might die, but I wouldn’t care, because I don’t know any of the characters and I don’t know why they’re engaged in this piece of action. Opening with a bang does not necessarily mean to open loud.
Opening with a bang also does not have to mean opening fast. A deliberately paced opening is a great way to create a sense of mystery. It can be unusual, and that quality might be enough to suck an audience into the film’s spell. There are a few movies with long wordless openings, like 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY, THERE WILL BE BLOOD, and WALL-E, for example. These films don’t open with an in-your-face kind of bang, but employ different ways of sucking you in.
Each of those films also immediately state that the audience is in for an unusual experience, and is in the hands of a writer and/or director who is not afraid to make bold choices. Speaking for myself, that alone is enough to get me excited for what’s about to come, whereas a film that opens like any other film has me sitting there waiting for it to get interesting—and of course, sometimes, it never does.
Whatever “interesting” means to the writer, he or she needs to get to that immediately, because it needs to be interesting to the reader on page one. It may even be a gripping writing style that makes a reader become interested. Turn the reader on by the first page.
Another tip for screenwriters is that they need to learn how to write in a way that looks attractive on the page. It needs to be immediately clear that the screenplay will flow well. If it’s clunky, with big chunks of scene descriptions between the dialogue, it’s going to strike the reader as a challenge to wade through even before he or she starts reading. Big chunks of scene descriptions also signifies immediately to the reader that the screenwriter does not know how to edit; there is always a lot that can be cut from a chunky description. If a reader comes across a page with a lot of white space, and scene descriptions that are one or two lines long, then there is the immediate sense that this is a tight script that will read fast. That’s a good thing.
The clichéd opening of the main character waking up is a perfect example of how not to open the script. It’s very common for these scenes to be filled with dense descriptions of the character hitting “snooze” on the alarm clock, brushing their teeth, taking a shower, getting dressed, eating breakfast… It’s thoroughly un-mysterious, boring, and uninformative.
It’s worth imagining who is going to read this script. It’s probably going to be somebody who loves movies, but has had to suffer through reading many sub-par scripts, which is unavoidable for a script reader. With the opening, the writer should remind the reader why he or she loves movies.
In my opinion, the first two pages of a script are the most important part of the whole thing. Writers should show off their abilities here, in style and content. Win a reader over in the first two pages, and chances are that they will be prepared to love that script. If the opening does not wow or intrigue the reader, then the rest of the script has a lot to overcome. If the opening is terrible—bad writing, bland content—then the reader will most likely not give the rest of the script a chance.
So, writers, GRAB the attention of the reader. Open with a grab!