All About Openers
Openers are a very, very important part of the spec screenplay. Screenwriting is a visual medium, so this makes sense. But as noted in this previous post on openers, too often writers end up using repetitive opening images … Worse still, they may not even use them at all. Eeek!
But it can be difficult to source screenplays with good examples of visuals in. If they are produced, the filmmaker might have put their own stamp on it. Or we may be reading a much earlier draft or transcript. It can be really hard to tell.
But here’s the good news … As screenwriters, we can learn about openers FROM THE ACTUAL VISUALS we see on the TV or in movies! How??
By paying attention.
In this post, I be sharing the openers of three TV series I’ve watched recently. From there, I will share 2 images that follow and what we can learn from them. Ready? Then let’s go!
1) Bosch (2014 – ongoing)
Here’s what Amazon Prime lists the series as:
Based on Michael Connelly’s best-selling book series, Bosch, an LAPD homicide detective works to solve the murder of a 13-year-old boy while standing trial in federal court for the murder of a serial killer.
Bosch has been an epic success for Amazon Prime and it’s currently on its fourth season. The opener below is from its very first episode in series 1, which is titled ‘Tis The Season’:
i) Car In A Dark City
We start with a car. It’s dark. We’re clearly in Hollywood. A gravelly voice says ‘It’s going to rain like a bastard tonight’. It could be a voiceover. He has the type of voice straight out of a glitzy, film noir or Chandler detective novel. Hell, maybe we are even in the 1940s …
… Nope, it is modern day. It is not a voiceover. Two guys, dressed in modern gear. But we were right about one thing, it IS a stakeout. Bosch is your ‘classic’ detective. His partner, Jerry, is not – but only because film noir never had black detectives. They argue a bit, showing they have been there a long time, they’ve started nitpicking at each other. BUT WAIT …
iii) The Suspect Is On The Move
… There’s movement at the house they have been staking out! AT LAST. The guy walks off into the darkness … the detectives in the car follow.
What We Can Learn from these openers:
There’s a rich history of detective stories, which means standing out at spec level can be hard. That said, we don’t want to reinvent the wheel, either. Bosch shows how openers can introduce a storyworld and the characters in an economical way, whilst playing homage to what has gone before.
2) Hand of God (2015-17)
Again, the logline for the series first:
A psychological drama about a morally-corrupt judge who suffers a breakdown and believes God is compelling him onto a path of vigilante justice.
So let’s take a look at how this series opens for viewers. Again, the below is the first episode, series 1, which was simply called ‘Pilot’. This one is a little more flamboyant in comparison to Bosch:
So, we begin with water. This is not an unusual opener in produced content, though weirdly I don’t see it that much in the spec pile. But we can also hear a man’s voice. To a non-religious person like me, it sounds like a sermon mixed with gobbledy-gook, aka ‘speaking in tongues’.
Since it’s just a screenshot, you can’t see or hear tmore water is falling down, but it is. Could it be a waterfall, maybe? Whatever the case, this looks like it could be The Sea of Galilee or something, in keeping with the religious motif … This series is called Hand of God after all!
ii) Man In … Waterfall?
But wait! Here’s our protagonist, Pernell Harris (played by Ron Perlman). He seems to be in a trance. Water is pouring all over him as he speaks in tongues. This brings to mind baptisms, Christianity, etc. He is having some kind of spiritual experience. Again: unsurprising, this series is called Hand of God. It is obviously going to set up the religious element of this series from the very first minute.
iii) Naked Man In Fountain, Having A Breakdown
Except, NOPE. This guy Pernell might be having some kind of religious experience, but he’s also having a breakdown. And he’s naked. In a public fountain. People are taking video of him. Police are on hand, like in this screenshot, to take him to the psychiatric hospital.
What We Can Learn from these openers:
As openers go, Hand of God is a doozy. It is intriguing and memorable, but it also encapsulates and introduces the story really well. After all, Hand of God is a series that deals with heavy-duty themes of religion, mental health and an ‘out there’ premise. (Of course, they couldn’t really keep it up, which is maybe the series got cancelled. Got 2 series though!).
Regardless, if YOU’RE writing a spec TV series with an ‘out there’ premise (and a lot of you are)? Then you REALLY need to find a way to introduce your protagonist with a bang via your opener.
3) The Purge (2018)
Here’s the logline for the first season of The Purge TV series, episode 1, ‘What Is America?’:
Once a year, any and all crime – including murder – is legal in America for a period of 12 hours. As Purge Commencement looms, several people find themselves venturing into the chaos of the night.
The Purge is not a thriller, but horror. Showers have a long history of being associated with horror, thanks to Hitchcock’s infamous Psycho scene. Consciously or subconsciously, we might assume someone is about to die, but then we see a bunch of young women AND men showering together. It’s quite arty, but not particularly sexy (I couldn’t get a decent screenshot of any naked bods, more’s the pity. What??).
In contrast to Bosch and Hand of God, The Purge is a traditional ensemble piece. The characters are all connected by Purge Night, but their story strands are different. Only two – Penelope and Miguel – are not together, but connected as brother and sister.
ii) Young people in strange uniforms
So guess who we start with? Oh that’s right, here’s Penelope (she’s the one plaiting the girl’s hair). She seems very happy, as do the other young people. They’re smiling. They’re clearly preparing for something, with gladness in their hearts. Which makes it all the more strange that there is a dad voiceover … Despite Penelope’s smiling face, she is reciting a letter in the VO to Miguel. It sounds suspiciously like a suicide note. Hmmmmm.
So guess who we see next?
iii) Miguel’s Car
If you guessed Miguel, you are right! He’s travelling back home, specifically to try and find Penelope (I wish he’d got himself discharged from the army to do this the day before, but hey ho). It’s clear he has got the letter and is hot-tailing it back to save his sister from … something. What it is, we are not exactly sure. But it’s connected to Purge Night and it is VERY BAD.
What We Can Learn from these openers:
Like Bosch before it, The Purge riffs off what has gone before in its genre … but introduces a new set of questions with it. Sometimes, showing happy visuals with a sad voiceover (or vice versa) can really grab the reader (and thus the audience). Penelope and Miguel’s solo journeys in Purge night will help anchor us. It will also introduce tension: will they find each other?? EEEK!
Now Try It Your Own Openers!
Never just start a scene with a random image. Screenwriting is a visual medium. We all know this, so make sure you pay attention to what you see on TV and in movies. How do these stories begin? Brainstorm as many different openers for your own story as you can. Make sure your visuals tell the story from the get-go, introducing us to the characters and the story from the very first second. MORE: 5 Opening Images That Make Readers GROAN