Thoughts from the Non-Pro Screenwriter – Opening Lines

6 years, 1 month ago 1
Posted in: blog

I’m not a professional writer. If I were, I’d probably have something better to do instead of writing this – like sipping a cocktail while paddling around a pool on my lilo.

Lucky for you, then, that I’m not a professional writer.

I’m on draft seven (or eight) of my first feature script. Starting another one soon. Another two being fleshed out. Everyone (no-one) is always asking me – Once you’ve plotted it and so on, how do you even get started? So I tells them…


Hell, I don’t know – I’m learning this as I go.  I can tell you that my first script – ‘The One I Can’t Have’ – starts arty:

 

BLACK

Over the darkness – A BIRD SINGING, bright and beautiful.

And then – building gradually – a HISS, the DRONE OF AN ENGINE, a CAR HORN – continuous and piercing – and FAST FOOTSTEPS.

 

FADE IN:

EXT. THE STREET – DAY

A YOUNG WOMAN running along the street…

Running towards us, away from people, wide-eyed and open-mouthed…

Running and stumbling over her own feet, as fast as she can towards us, coming closer and closer…

Looking past us, into the distance…

…With a face that was beautiful but is now twisted by tears, and a mouth that opens into a scream…

And as her face fills the screen, the world freezes.

Tears, frozen in time.  A scream never heard but never-ending.

CUT TO BLACK.

 

It won’t make full sense until we’re about half-way through the story. That’s fine – it’s got enough impact in the first few paragraphs to keep you reading for a bit longer. And If I give you something interesting in the next few pages, then I’ve got you for the next twenty… It’s all well and good keeping your cards close to your chest, but if you don’t give the audience a peek of something early on, they’ll lose interest and fold.

Next script – I’m doing this from line one, and I’m doing it with dialogue. It’s not a dirty word. Sometimes spelling things out is no bad thing. These examples are from 5 of the best screenwriters ever to have tapped key:

COSTELLO (V.O.)

I don’t want to be a product of my environment. I want my environment to be a product… of me.

—–

MARK (V.O.)

Did you know there are more people with genius IQ’s living in China than there are people of any kind living in the United States?

—–

MISS KENTON (V.O.)

It is seven years since I last wrote to you. I have left my husband. I am staying with a friend in Little Compton.

—–

NARRATOR (V.O.)

It’s hard to believe it was just last Christmas that me and Harmony changed the world. We didn’t mean to; and it didn’t last long – a thing like that can’t.
(beat)
Thanks for coming. I guess you’d call this a detective story; there are dull parts, but there’s a murder in it. Also a broken heart so I guess it’s a love story.

—–

CHRIS (V.O.)

The man who said ‘I’d rather be lucky than good’ saw deeply into life. People are afraid to face how great a part of life is dependent on luck.

 

There – interesting setups achieved with just a few words of dialogue: a man who wants to stand out and be recognised; a forbidden relationship; a moral fable.  I’m reading all of these for at least the next ten pages – just based on those lines. We’ve got tone, story, character… and we’re only a minute into the film.

As it develops, a writer might play with that setup.  Take Costello – he’s a powerful man who dominates and controls.  He knows who he is… but the two leads?  They’re men in conflict with their past, trying to take control of their own identities.  The potential for that conflict is there, right from the very first lines.

So that’s me, next script – whether it’s voice-over or a character on the screen, I’m going to use a smidgen of dialogue to get the wheels rolling in the right direction.

(What do you think? And do you know what films the quotes are from? These are the writers – in my own particular order: Shane Black. Woody Allen. Aaron Sorkin. Harold Pinter. William Monahan.)

One Response

  1. Dan Gale says:

    I’ve seen so many films where they’ve fumbled the ball in the first five minutes. If they aren’t hooked by the opening scene – even the opening shot – you’re already losing the audience. Watch Spielberg’s Always for a perfect opener. Or almost any episode of The Avengers; unexplained weirdness forces you to keep watching for an answer. Or You Only Live Twice. “Your indestructible Hero dies in opening scene. Discuss. Meanwhile, here are the titles…”
    Or Iain Banks’ book The Crow Road with its opening line “It was the day my Grandma exploded.” who could give up after reading that?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *