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Monday, December 19, 2011

5 Openers That Make Readers GROAN

We hear loads about the judgements made on our first ten pages, but spend even a short while as a script reader and you'll see in real terms many scripts don't even make it past the first PAGE.

Le shock! How can this be??? It's very simple. The writers whose scripts don't even make it past the first page are those who have made some cardinal sin: the wrong format is obvious, as is a plethora of black on the page. But perhaps more importantly, there are scripts with cliched, bad or just plain DULL openers.

First off, what do I mean by "opener"? Well, in this case I don't even mean the entire first page, but the FIRST IMAGE we see. Every script should open WELL, giving the reader some sense of the tone of the story and what's to come. Yet shockingly, a huuuuuuuge amount of writers open on random things, events and objects and confess to readers like me they "hadn't really thought" of that first image.

Yet the first image you choose to show us in your story is VITAL in gauging the reader's interest. On this basis then, here are my top 5 groan-worthy first images I see again and again which make me want to PLUCK MY EYES OUT:

5. The mirror. So... we have a FACE in a MIRROR. It's your main character, considering their own REFLECTION! Nice! It gives us the impression they have some kind of problem and aren't shallow Hollywood-type characters. Right?? Um, no. It's just boring. Particularly seen with female characters and dramas.

4. The windscreen wipers. The windscreen wipers, going full pelt as rain comes down might be atmospheric, but it's huuuuugely overdone in supernatural thrillers and horror. And weirdly, these wipers/rain are rarely connected to the problem that comes next - ie. an accident that propels the characters into the conflict, so the reader is left wondering: "Why start here with THIS image?"

3. Walking. This one - walking feet, usually on a pavement - can turn up in ANY genre. So your character's walking down the street. Yeah man: this is one cool dude. He's waaaaaaallking! Note to self writers: walking down the street gives the reader very little clue *about* your character. REALLY. Yes, that includes if he's meandering, striding, ambling, WHATEVER. Please stop it! Introduce us to your character doing something INTERESTING. If that *includes* walking, then great, but don't make walking the FOCUS 'cos it's DULL.

2. Alarm clocks. So here we go... Tick, tick, BOOM: alarm goes and character's hand appears, slamming the alarm. We then proceed to see said character get ready for the day. OMG REALLY?? This has been around for yeeeeeeeeears and though it *is* receding at last, it still pops up with enough annoying regularity to make me want to stab myself in the leg with a fork. The biggest offender here is comedy, but the alarm clock *could* turn up as a first image in just about ANY genre, particularly spec TV pilots.

1. Blackness. This has popped up in earnest in the last two to three years that I've noticed. Basically we start with a BLACK SCREEN. That's right! No first image AT ALL. Usually there is a voice-over the top, sometimes a sound effect, sometimes both. And what's wrong with that? Nothing really - it *could* be okay, but its main issue is its ubiquity. It is EVERYWHERE: spec TV pilots, features, shorts, you name it.

We all know first impressions count for a lot in this biz - sometimes rightly, sometimes wrongly. Whatevs. We have ONE CHANCE to impress. But what's the likelihood of impressing if the first thing a reader does when they see your very first image is groan, "Seen it before, a million times?"

Always think of that FIRST image, let the reader know the tone of your story and give them an idea of what's coming next. And most of all, be original.


Hettie Ashwin said...

The opener is where you grab your audience by the scruff and let them know you mean business. I would add to your list the longing look...
ugghghg. Mary looked into the distance at the wind/rolling hills/cows/etc. It was going to be a long night..OMG save me.

terraling said...

In his Raindance book Elliot Grove describes how nearly every front page looks the same, like a T, where there are a few lines of decription and then straight into a page of dialogue, or sometimes an I (wrong font, an 'I' with bars at top and bottom) where you have a few lines of description, mostly dialogue, and a bit more description at the bottom. What made him get excited about a script was someone who could write an opening page or more of description with No dialogue.

But in my experience, most readers hate that shit, it goes directly against the rule of not much black stuff, gives an oh-boy not gonna be an easy read impression.

PenEnvy said...

Ha - love this post. It's the alarm clock that's a killer for me. Just so common in scripts. The one time this is ok is the first scene of Four Weddings, when we see Hugh Grant waking up and swearing. You have to be bloody good to play with a cliche like that.

Matt Cruse said...

In all the years I've been writing, working in the industry and developing scripts, I have never EVER accepted this rule that you need to grab your audience in the first 10 pages. You need to grab them at page 1.

Matt Cruse said...


Unfortunately, I think you're right about readers not wanting a load of the black stuff. In my early years I used to champion this too, but gradually came to realise that this is not actually a good philosophy to have, especially when dealing with screenplays for feature films. It's a reader's job to read a script. If they're not keen on a load of the black stuff they should get over it or get another job.

Gruesome Twosome said...

I think Lucy's point is more what is happening when you open your script ... check out Le Samourai, Driver and Drive for pages of no dialogue but no worse a read ... it's what's happening that's going to get the reader not the shape of the page ;) (I imagine)

Gruesome Twosome said... ... opening page of Alien is neither full of dialogue nor black stuff ... reads great too ;)

Henry Sheppard said...

Thanks, Lucy. I reposted most of this on Adelaide Screenwriter. Wonderful work. We appreciate you down under...

Robert Yates said...

This is brilliant. Thanks!

*Walking* - oh the shame! I'm guilty. Never on a spec though.

Have previously retweeted this @ScriptSense.

Cheers for everything you do for us!