As a new thing, I will be answering screenwriting questions from my blog members. If you want your questions answered by an industry professional, sign up for your free subscription to the blog.
BLOG MEMBERS QUESTION:
A lot of people say even the first line of the first page of a great script is apparent. So what is it about an opening line that impresses you the most?
What a great question. Thanks !!!
There is definitely something to be said about that very first sentence in a screenplay. It gives an impression that is hard to shake off - especially if it's a bad impression. It reveals something about the screenwriter and the screenplay, especially to a seasoned reader. And that first impression will inevitably shape and inform my reading of the entire screenplay.
Don't think that your entire screenplay will ever be evaluated by that first sentence. That's an exaggeration.
If I ever rejected a screenplay based on the first sentence, I would be out of a job before I could utter my own name.
So don´t get too hung up about it. At the end of the day, a screenplay is about a whole lot more than the first sentence.
But as a reader, you cannot help but seeing the script you are currently reading in the context of all the other scripts you have ever read. And when you, as I do, work with professional screenwriters all the time, - you get a sense of what a professional screenplay should look like, and perhaps even, on that first sentence.
The best way I can describe it is by referencing something that John Douglas once said. Douglas was the founder of F.B.I´s serial crime profiling unit.
He explained how he and his agents would react when they saw a staged crime scene. Staged crime scenes happen when murders are trying to cover their tracks and making the crime scene look as though the killer was a burglar who committed his crime during a burglary.
According to Douglas, His team of investigators would only need to look at crime-scene for less than a minute before they knew that it was a phony, staged crime.
Douglas explained that people who stage a burglary to conceal a murder, probably have never seen an actual burglary in real life. So, how would they know how to re-create one? The police, on the other hand, see burglaries every day of their life. They know exactly what a burglar looks like and when they see something that obviously does not look like a burglary, the jig is up.
The same thing is true with screenplays, in a sense. When you have read many professional screenplays, you sort of know what a professional screenplay should look like. And when you then read a line that is obviously not consistent with a professional standard, well, forgive the analogy; But then the jig is up.
So, what does a professional screenplay look like, when it comes to the very first sentences?
There are of course no hard and fast rules about it. The following is merely my own personal experience gained from reading for studios and being a script doctor for some years.
1. EYE CATCHERS
Amateurs think only about the story they want to tell. Their focus is all on themselves and their need to tell their stories. And because they figure you are paid to read it, they don't need to make their writing engaging. Professional writers, on the other hand, think about how you, the reader, feel. Every word, every sentence is molded to create an effect on the reader. The words are not just there to describe what happens. The words are crafted to arouse an effect in the reader.
A professional writer works hard to get my attention. She (or he) does not simply assume that they already have my attention. You have to work hard to get, maintain and nurture that attention. That process begins with the first sentence.
This, for instance, is the first sentences of a spec script:
Notice how there's nothing here to grab my attention. It's as though the writer does not care about the viewer. He only cares to tell his story and expects me to become automatically excited about anything he writes.
He is missing the whole point of what writing is.
A writer's job is not to tell a story. It is to tell a story in a way that is exciting.
A writer's job is not to tell a story. It is to tell a story in a way that is exciting.
Here, then, is a professional screenplay - The opening sentence to Final Destination. Written by James Wong, Glen Morgan, and Jeffrey Roddick. The very first sentence reads;
Now, ask yourself, which one of those screenplays you'd rather finish? I am sure you will say the second one and there´s a reason for that. The sentence works hard to draw my attention to it. The writers considered me, the reader, the audience. Their writing shows a willingness to affect the reader.
The very first word; "Awaiting" is an interesting choice. It's as though it's taken out of context. It keeps me mystified, intrigued.
2. SENSUOUS WRITING.
Sensuousness means that your writing evokes the senses. - All the senses. Great screenwriting not only establishes the scene of the story but it puts you in it.
And to do so, you often have to evoke all the senses, not only sight and sound but also the mind. Look at the first sentence of the screenplay to "Source Code" it does not open with a full sentence but only with one single word. - A word that stands alone on its own line surrounded by blank space, all around it. The word reads:
- what a stunning eye-catcher. The next line is empty but then beneath it, the script goes on:
Here, the screenwriter, Ben Ripley invokes sound and sight. But he does more than that. Look at the next sentence:
What happened here? See how Ripley, as a screenwriter, not only invokes the senses but he invokes the mind, too? Notice how his sentence structure emulate how the main character feels.
He is shaken by a rude awakening and so the sentence structure emulates that exact emotion with short, laconic sentences; He blinks. Period. A stunned beat. Period. He's disoriented. Period; Boom, Boom, Boom,
There is a rhythmic sense to it and I will get to that point later, But for now, notice something striking;
The way he structures sentences communicates not only what happens in the story but also how it feels. Ripley puts us in the mind of the main character and that is the hallmark of a professional writer.
3. CINEMATIC STORYTELLING
A movie is not just a story told on film. A movie is a story told through images edited together. It's neither the images, not the cuts. It's the way these two things conspire to form a language of its own. It's sort of like the written language. A single word does not do much, It's the combination of all the words, that gives meaning to a sentence. The same is true for the cinematic language. Each sentence is not a scene, its an image. And one by one, images forms scenes.
Take, for instance, a look at how Edith Wharton, describes the opening scene in her novel, 'Age of innocence';
"On a January evening of the early seventies, Christine Nilsson was singing in Faust at the Academy of Music in New York"
This is very typical of a novel and very a-typical of a screenplay. It's not cinematic at all.
Then take a look at how screenwriters Jay Cocks and Martin Scorsese describes the exact same scene in Scorsese's movie adaption of that novel.
Take notice of how cinematic this is. Every sentence is almost like a scene, edited together to form an impression. It's a language of images.
Great screenwriting puts us in the scene. We are experiencing the scene rather than being told about it.
But the cinematic language is much more than just juxtaposed images. The cinematic language has a sense of rhythm to it
In a way, Screenwriting is closer to music than it is to literature or theater. It is a story put in motion. It must ebb and flow with a constant sense of rhythm, - a beat.
Look at this opening from Tony Gilroy, Scott Z. Burns, and George Nolfi's screenplay to "The Bourne ultimatum":
Again, the same principle of sensuousness applies here. But this time there is an added dimension of cinematic storytelling. We can almost see every single who, every single edit.
Its more than just a story - its a movie.
4. YOUR CHOICE OF WORDS
You should care more about words than anything else. As a writer, words are your only tools. You should care as much about them than a paratrooper cares about his parachute, or a chef about his ingredients. Words are your tools of the trade,- plain and simple, and if you don't care about them, go do something else with your life because you are not a writer.
I can´t say it better than Billy Crystal's character says it in "Throw Momma from the Train" In a monologue written by the brilliant screenwriter, Stu Silver, he lets Crystals character, Larry Donner say it like this:
This is what I'm talking about. It's writing. Finding the perfect word. The perfect start. "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times". "Now is the winter of our discontent". See what I'm saying? Perfect beginnings. Perfect words. It's like us. We're on a train to Mexico. We're on the lam. It's exciting, it's kinda mysterious. Do you say "The night was humid" or "The night was moist"? That's writing! MRS. LIFT
The night was sultry.
When I read a great screenplays a writers choice of words make it apparent, who I am dealing with from, yes, - the first sentence. When I see a lot of effort is put in to make sure that the words on the page are the right words, the best possible words, the only words that are right for the scene, then I know,it's a professional script.
Look at this opening scene of Mark Neveldine & Brian Taylor's screenplay to "Jonah Hex":
Notice how all the principles that we have discussed are incorporated in these lines; the principle of sensuousness, of cinematic storytelling.
And then look at the choice of words.
The raindrops do not fall, or drip, or pour. They; slam.
it's a perfect word because it evokes the exact feeling that they want to achieve. It's a dramatic word, almost violent and then it also speaks to our senses because it also works as a sound word, SLAM.
And the fingers are not bent, not angled or curved, they are curled. - So much character in that choice of word.
5. ECONOMY OF WORDS
Along the same line, we can talk about economy of words. Your choice of words and economy of words are two sides of the same coin. You've got to make sure, your descriptions are not too wordy, and you do that by making sure you chose the right words.
Look at this scene description from a spec script:
"As Roger is drinking coffee he pauses, thinking hard. He bites his lip in abject desperation, then puts the eraser of the pencil in his mouth. He begins to chew on the end, like a hungry rodent nibbling absentmindedly on something, he knows not what. "
So many errors here, that i get dizzy thinking about it. First let's talk about the economy of words. There are too many details here. Fewer and better words should have been chosen. The process of writing begins with a little bit of thought: What is the writer trying to convey here? That the man is desperate and therefore chews his pen? If that´s the case, it could have been a lot shorter:
Let's try to go through a series of editorial re-writes with this piece. First re-write:
Roger pauses , then begins to chew nervously on his pencil.
End of first attempt.
Now let's look at it again.
I don't like the word "pause" because its an inactive word. Its more like a direction to the actor than a description. "To pause", is not an activity and screenwriting is all about getting characters to act.
What can he do before he chews the pen ?- an action that make him appear nervous.
Roger blinks repeatedly,? Roger blinks nervously? Roger taps his fingers frantically on the desk?
None of these are good choices.
Let's make it more cinematic by combining the beats as though they are fast cuts.
Roger almost drops his coffee cup losing his breath... trembling hands, saying nothing... listening, waiting... then he frantically gnaws on his pen.
Its far from perfect but better. More concise, more cinematic. If Had time to go over it again, I would change all the verbs. Don´t like "drops his coffee" "loosing his breath" Those words are too generic. Perhaps "Tumble" is as better word than Drop. Perhaps "Wheeze" is a better verb than Loosing. The sentence should be changed to allow for that.
In the end,with lot of re-writes, I would have gotten something that works. But that is how you do it, you re write every word, all the time. Question all your word choices, over and over again until its cinematic, concise and right on the money.
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