After months of research, outlining and character profiles, you’re finally ready to bust out that first blank piece of paper and begin writing your screenplay. FADE IN.
Screenplays, like so many novels, novellas, short stories, poems and songs can start out in any myriad of ways. Universally they should always start off strong, as this is the point when a reader / viewer / listener will decide to make their investment of time. Of course what constitutes a “strong” opening is highly subjective.
Screenplays, being that they are a visual medium first and foremost, typically benefit from a strong first image. I was taught this by my professors in school, who always told me that the two most important frames of a film are the first and the last. Both frames should encapsulate the spine and theme of the entire story you are going to tell, which seems like one hell of a difficult task. What image could you possibly write that covers the thematic elements of the entire 120 pages you are bound to write?
It takes a lot of thought, but more times than not this process happens organically if you’ve done the work, research and plotting in advance. This is where the study of symbols, semiotics, literature and art will benefit you tremendously, as metaphors will dominate the composition of the first scene.
Think of a film like Star Wars. A small space cruiser enters the frame and it is followed by a massive destroyer that is raining down laser strikes upon the cruiser’s hull. On the surface it is pretty self explanatory - a war, a battle is being waged. It is a hunt. It also is a metaphor of being outmatched, outgunned, out muscled, and yet still finding a way to survive. This opening shot is the theme of the film, which is to overcome insurmountable odds by sheer will - a force. It is David versus Goliath, a story of ingenuity and survival.
As it is written in the original Star Wars screenplay:
The awesome yellow planet of Tatooine emerges from a total eclipse, her two moons glowing against the darkness. A tiny silver spacecraft, a Rebel Blockade Runner firing lasers from the back of the ship, races through space. It is pursed by a giant Imperial Stardestroyer. Hundreds of deadly laserbolts streak from the Imperial Stardestroyer, causing the main solar fin of the Rebel craft to disintegrate.
It may seem like it would be easier to write such metaphors for science fiction or films that have outlandish imagery, but this also applies to more “human” stories or conventional relationship dramas. Take the opening of When Harry Met Sally, which opens with ‘documentary’ footage of an older couple. They’re sitting on a loveseat, holding hands. This is their monologue:
I was sitting with my friend Arthur Cornrom in a restaurant. It was an cafeteria and this beautiful girl walked in and I turned to Arthur and I said, “Arthur, you see that girl? I’m going to marry her, and two weeks later we were married and it’s over fifty years later and we are still married.
The image is telling - a portrait of everlasting love, one that was robust enough to withstand the test of time. The choice of an older couple visually shows the battle of age but they are defiant of that crumbling physical existence. The monologue reaffirms the idea of an epic, singular love, one that is given to us by a spark.
This is not an opening filled with visual pyrotechnics or kinetic energy - so many films today feel the urge to “drop us in” a sequence that gets our hearts racing immediately, but that needn’t be the case. Think of the first shot of There Will Be Blood, which is a simple fade in to a shot of hills. As it is written:
OVER EXTERIOR SHOT OF HUGE MOUNTAINS IN THE B.G., PURE DESERT IN THE F.G. MUSIC BUILDS FROM SMALL TO LOUD, VIOLENT CRESCENDO, THEN OUT. TITLE CARD: There Will Be Blood.
What seems like something quite static and tepid - a lone fade in of a mountain range, is given a metaphorical meaning by its juxtaposition with the harrowing music. The mountains are a barrier, the singular roadblock of Westward expansion and Manifest Destiny. The music makes the geography lethal and dangerous, and the cut to the title lets us know that a battle to the death awaits us. Whose death is uncertain, but we know it cannot be good. There is evil in them hills, and as we learn, it is Daniel Plainview.
In these three examples we see screenwriters using all the tools of filmmaking - sound, dialogue, image - to deliver an opening frame that gives us the intent and spine of the stories to follow. One can argue that they are so brief and part of greater whole that it doesn’t make that much of a difference, but it should always be reminded that in film, every shot must count, every shot must dedicate itself to telling the story and moving it forward. There are no throwaway shots in film - if it does not add to the story, plot or character, then it must and will be excised in the edit. With that in mind, save yourself the trouble and don’t write throwaway scenes. Make all of them count, especially the first one because that’s the first thing we’ll be engaging with. It makes both a conscious and subconscious statement of who you are as a writer and demonstrates the level of thoughtfulness and lucidity that you are capable of.
If you’re writing a story about a couple of high school kids in love, and say the boy is mentally handicapped and the girl he loves is coming to terms with his condition, then write a scene that encapsulates the meaning of that struggle. If the whole point of the story is to see the true inner self of someone and get past the broken bodies, then create a stirring sequence that conveys that in as truthful way as possible. I don’t know why but I think of a young girl playing with her barbie doll. The doll is scuffed and the hair has been cut. The girl’s room shows the clear signs of a family without much means, it’s a small, crowded apartment living room. She’s wearing a heavy sweater indoors. The girl places her barbie doll inside a makeshift home made out of pieces of cardboard and tape, and the doll looks warm and happy, a sharp contrast to the apartment. What I’m trying to show is the happiness to be found in a harsh world, true beauty in a scarred shell. It’s off the top of my head and needs work, but hopefully you see where I’m going with it.
It’s important to note that every scene in your film should not be approached this way, if so then your film will be heavy-handed and stuffed with metaphors to the point of becoming arthouse absurd. This approach to scenes will be of most use in scenes of introduction, transition and ending, where a deeper thematic message is meant to be conveyed. Use it wisely and you will find it a powerful and effective tool.
The key to doing this effectively is to understand the story you want to tell long before you formally begin writing. If you start your screenplay with a half-baked idea then you will not have a solid reference to draw upon for the formulation of your images. The myth of “writing from the hip” is a detriment, as few to none writers can write straight from nothing. It’s likely an idea that’s been in the works for a long time, sometimes in the head and most of the time in journals, notes and preparation. Those stories of screenplays written in one week tactfully omit the preparation and long-term thought that went into it, and we’re led to believe in the possibility of writing as an act of spontaneous combustion. I wish.
Screenplays are that strange beast in that they must be spare in their literary density (executives don’t like to read thick pieces of text), but they must deliver images in a few short sentences what a novel might take an entire chapter to achieve. The compression comes in the form of visual language, music, sound and careful dialogue. These are the elements that compress an entire prose paragraph in a novel down to a single frame on film. Think of the introduction of the Balrog in The Fellowship of the Ring. Tolkien wrote of it as such:
It came to the edge of the fire and the light faded as if a cloud had bent over it. Then with a rush it leaped across the fissure. The flames roared up to greet it, and wreathed about it; and a black smoke swirled in the air. Its streaming mane kindled, and blazed behind it.
And in the screenplay by Phillipa Boyens, it reads as such:
A HUGE SHADOW, surrounded by flame, falls across the hall..the ground shakes…an unearthly sound rumbles…