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5 Openers That Make Readers GROAN

Updated for 2020

It’s all about PAGE ONE

First impressions count, so you don’t want the reader to GROAN the moment they open your screenplay. This might sound obvious advice … because it is! But how do we stop them from groaning?

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 WAIT! It’s not just these problems …

How is your OPENING IMAGE?

But perhaps more importantly, there are scripts with cliched, bad or just plain DULL openers. If you don’t want the script reader to groan when they open your screenplay, you need to ensure you have a good opener!

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 samey things, events and objects and confess to readers like me they “hadn’t really thought” of that first image. But the first image you choose to show us in your story is VITAL in gauging the reader’s interest and making us WANT to read your script.

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 … Ready? Let’s go!

5) The face in 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.

2020 Update: 

It’s hard to believe, but this one seems to be getting worse, not better … Especially for female characters. Extra points if your female character is

  • in a car
  • checking her make up
  • crying and/or
  • in a bathroom!

4) The spooky 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 instead, the reader is left wondering: “Why start here with THIS image? What’s the point??”

2020 Update

This one seems to have disappeared AT LAST. Pats on the back all round.

3) Walking / Running 

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 main focus, cuz it’s dull.

Examples of the above here would include Danny in Saturday Night Fever … Yes, he’s strutting in his finery, but he also has a paint can … what’s that all about? Contrast that with Ace Ventura … He’s walking too, but he has a package AND he’s doing a variety of mad things with it, setting the tone this is a screwball comedy.

2020 Update

By the way, in recent years female protagonists are frequently introduced RUNNING. (Extra points if she’s running late for work or an appointment, seems like women are always late in spec scripts atm!) Doesn’t seem to matter what the genre or type of story is, either.

I would hazard a guess this is because of Clarice Starling’s into in Silence of The Lambs … We meet her running an obstacle course. But this is the thing: it’s the obstacle course, NOT the running, that makes it a great intro. The way she won’t give up despite the harsh terrain shows us she has what it takes to deal with the events of the story. MORE: How To Introduce A Character In A Screenplay

2) Alarm clocks / Getting Ready 

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.

2020 Update

So alarm clocks seem to have gone altogether, but the ‘getting ready for the day’ bit hasn’t. If I read one more coffee being made or toast being buttered, I will take you all down. You have been warned my friends!

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 (especially car crash noises, heavy breathing, or running footsteps), sometimes both.

And what’s wrong with this, you say? Its main issue is its ubiquity. It is EVERYWHERE: spec TV pilots, features, shorts, you name it. For every 10 scripts I read, at least 6 will start on black. Do you really want to do the same as most writers?

2020 Update

So this one disappeared for a while, but seems to be back, Arnie-style. Get rid is my advice.

Last Points

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.

Good Luck!

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50 thoughts on “5 Openers That Make Readers GROAN”

  1. 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.

  2. 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.

  3. 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.

  4. 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.

  5. @terraling

    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.

  6. @terraling
    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)

    1. Ahhhh — the “Walter Hill” style of “writing down the page”. Hill was masterful but it was very much his own style. Often imitated, but does anyone else do it successfully? And what would happen if an unproduced writer attempted this for an entire script?

  7. 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!

    1. Hah! Haven’t seen that one in a while, to be fair. The fast-forwarding cityscape is another that never seems to go away.

      1. Ah, yes. Streaking car lights, etc.

        Worked well in ‘Blade’ last I remember – the sun setting as the creatures of the night began their fornication.

        However, that was 15 years ago and had connectivity with the story. Elsewhere – done to exhaustion. Yes.

  8. So far so good. Never tried to sell a movie script, but an idea popped in the other day that would be perfect for a Damian Lewis lead… But who’s my good girl and who’s my bad girl? Back burner, ’til I’m through a-ponderin’.


  9. Pingback: Pitch Me … Full Reads | Bang2Write

    1. TBH I don’t see that very often in screenplays, leading me to believe (rightly or wrongly) that shot is frequently an add-on by a director.

  10. Just started writing a script which opens with an alarm clock blaring over black. Then the protagonist looks at himself in the mirror. I’m really happy with this scene! I’ll try incorporating walking and windscreen wipers somehow. Thanks for the great advice!

    1. Hi Nicole! I like your attitude and I love your screenplay already ! Go girl ! Add whatever you feel it’s necessary to YOUR STORY ! I’m feed up with all these “readers” who are not doing their job, which is TO READ THE ENTIRE SCRIPT, before judging it ! WTF? Who hires these kind of readers? No offence to you, Lucy V. Hay, ( I read and pasted so many of your articles), but I don’t agree much with your “list” in this case.

      1. LOL and no offence to YOU V.Gosav – but I’m willing to bet real money you’d feel the same as me if you read as many of the above list as me! 😉

        1. Hi Lucy (you have the same name as my wife, so I like you right away, although you drive me nuts sometimes, same as my wife – no offence! ).
          I do believe that you’ve read a lot of scrips, however I hope you did not dismiss some of those scripts right from the first page, just because they started with something that was – in your opinion – so “cliche”.
          If I was a producer, or director, or an executive, or just a writer, and I asked (and maybe paid) a reader to read a script for me and found out later that the reader just skimmed through that script and dismissed it, because he/she didn’t like the opening, or the first 10-15 pages, or whatever, I’ll be pretty mad.
          Seeing how many bad movies get made, you wonder how many good movies did not get through because of some “in bad mood and feed up with his job” reader.
          I also hope that you, or other “paid readers” did not dismiss those scripts not even by the 10 or 15 pages either, especially not after we’ve seen so many produced and commercially successful movies who do exactly as you and other “gurus” said not to do.
          Who and what are we supposed to believe? The more articles and books I read, the more confuse I become, about how to do this or that.
          In the end, I think that every writer should follow his/her instincts, and do what he/she thinks serve best his/her story, regardless of what the market or the “gurus” say.
          Yet, I still like you, and read and paste, most of your articles (99%), Lucy 🙂

          1. If you think there is *a* way to do this stuff Mr V (ie. “good” and “bad”), or indeed “gurus” or people you SHOULD believe, you ain’t ready for all this … 😉

            1. Hi Lucy.
              Today is my birthday, and I decided a while ago that on this day, I would call, write or email the people that I care about in my life, and thank them for being in my life, and apologize to them, if I ever upset or offended them in any way.
              So, thank you Lucy for your articles, your wisdom and your patience in dealing with passionate writers (like me) and I apologize for my forceful way of expressing my opinions sometimes.
              You are right, I am not ready for all this yet, but I am working on it, with the same passion, and I am still one of your biggest fans.
              Have a great day, keep up the good work, and God bless you 🙂

              1. Hey forceful opinions are great Mr V and I am not offended in the slightest! Do what you love my friend and go for it, what else is there? 🙂 Have a brilliant brithday x

            2. Did anyone not get I was kidding around? Hahah Jesus! I fully agree with this article and all the 5 points mentioned. I’ve been a reader myself for over two years and the beginning of a screenplay tells me a lot about the writer and usually it takes the end of Act 1 to determine the quality of the screenplay. I’ve always had to read the entire script since my coverage included a detailed synopsis but a lot of readers don’t. Don’t blame them… blame the millions of incredibly awful screenplays floating around.

              Back to the article… Lucy’s not telling anyone what to do or what not to do… all she’s saying is–be original.

        2. I had written my screenplay in chronological order of events [it’s a tragic love story, closely based on a true murder case where one of the unconventional lovers was executed].

          Then, mindful of your advice that it is the first page, rather than the first 10 pages, which will grab the reader, I thought of adding a better opening ‘hook’, which would tell the reader/viewer immediately what sort of story this would be. So, I inserted a new, brief opening scene, a ‘flash forward’ to the accused arriving at the courthouse and being subjected to the hostility of the crowd – could this be because of their crime or their unconventionality, we may wonder. Then we go back to where, when and how it all began and follow the story through without further timeslip.

          I realise now that this means the bulk of my script is a ‘flashback’. ‘Not sure if this is an odd approach or indeed a no-no? I’m also now looking at a variety of films in case my courthouse arrival ‘flash forward’ is in fact rather old hat. It does seem to make a better balanced script, though, and I still have the ‘set up’; the first inciting incident, and all the main characters making an appearance within the first 10 pages.

          I’m an avid film watcher but have never before analysed them for pace, etc., as you do so well yourself, Lucy.

        3. My script starts kind of from black but its space black – is that better? Start off in the solar system, but its not like the 3 pager you wrote of the most cliche opener ever. To me, its integral because its what’s we’re about to discover i.e. how we came to know that the solar system is indeed the SOLAR system and that the Earth isn’t the centre of the Universe.

          1. Like I always say, it’s hard to know without reading the actual scene but do be aware there’s a LOT of “space black” in the spec pile, for the reasons you describe.

        4. Opening scenes / images are hard. I must have been through at least 10 in the current script I’m writing. It’s a thriller dealing with hitmen / revenge. I’ve never used any from this list, but of the ones I have used, it’s destroyed me every time, to get rid of them for another. The last one was the hero waking up in a graveyard, sprawled over his mother’s grave with his name spray painted over her’s. He wakes up, bloody, beaten, and looks around, sees a large chunk of the cemetery destroyed (from whatever incident put him there), then he races off to something, and next scene, which is back a few days. I loved this opening because it’s him waking up in a place where people are dead. It’s perfect because he gets shot and dies at the end, but I had to get rid of it because I decided I’m sick of movies beginning with a flash forward, AND there’s a good chance that scene isn’t even going to be in the script anymore, due to major changes. It sucks because it was an intense opening. Now, it begins with him practicing in a shooting range, then we flashback a few days to a scene where a couple of cops kill some other cops, then a guy in a mask shows up and kills another cop, while one gets away, later to be killed in a shower of acid. So, while my current opening is technically still a flash forward, it’s really only a few seconds long, just to expose the hero first, rather than an entire scene. Then, after the first full scene, we cut to him receiving a file from the guy who killed the cop, and THEN back to the shooting range, where he’s practicing because he’s been out of the business for a while, and just received a file from his friend, containing the whereabouts of some men who used him in a child sex ring when he was a teen. This entire incident causes the friend to be killed, and sets off the revenge plot, etc. Ok, I’m rambling. Anyway, I think I do alright with staying away from cliches, however, I need to learn how to let good scenes go, as I never want to get rid of anything, and could really do with getting rid of some scenes, now.

        5. I know very little about Screen Writing but I couldn’t agree more about making an impression in the first page. After all if you write a book you need to grab the attention of the reader in the first page otherwise they will put it back on the shelf and buy another book.

        6. Another great piece! I especially like your note at the top (especially because I’d never thought of it this way): that in a screenplay, your ability to choose and convey a strong opening image is like a security blanket for readers. Do it well, and then get your story rolling in some unique and compelling manner, and your readers will get comfy in their chair and immediately begin to trust your abilities as a storyteller . . . .

          As a reader myself I can attest to that. I’ve read a lot of scripts that begin with six lines of wordy, artful description but still leave me wondering, “Where am I? What am I looking at?” Or to put it another way: SIX LINES IN and I’m already losing faith that I’m reading a professionally written screenplay. Even your first SLUGLINE should be sharp, succinct and clear. Because a reader needs answers to those first two questions before they can ask the more important one: “What am I supposed to care about?”

          To be honest, I’d rather read a conventional but clear “establishing shot”—then move on to clear, engaging action—than an elaborate but confusing stream-of-consciousness that refuses to orient me in time and space. Even if you’re being dramatic (focusing our eye on a slab of cold, gray steel . . . right before a pair of med techs heave the naked body of a murder victim onto it), do it in just that many words. And above all, be clear about what we’re seeing.

          I had a great writing teacher who pounded that into our heads: Mystery and Ambiguity are great. Their close friend Confusion is not.

          I just binge-watched (for the first time, I know, I’m a terrible human being) BREAKING BAD. If you want a primer on great opening images, get thee to Netflix and watch how those writers start each and every episode . . . .

        7. What’s your opinion on the disaster opening that then stops and says “I bet you’re wondering how I got here…” and we flashback to “24 hours earlier” or somesuch? It’s not as ubiquitous as some of the other openings you’ve mentioned, but I’ve seen it done both well and badly in the cinema, which means there’s probably a lot of it about. Is it to be avoided?

        8. Honestly, I have to disagree with just about all of it. This is most likely because you write thrillers, and I write YA Novels, Action, School Drama, etc. But some of these have actually given me ideas for beginnings. I’m sorry, it might also be because I’m a beginner, but some of these are pretty good. Do you think I’m wrong on this? There might be absolutely no difference between the type of stories you write and mine, but I think these would actually be helpful for future books. I definitely won’t use the exact examples, because you are right, they aren’t the best, but if they were to be edited slightly, they just might work out pretty well.

          1. You’ve missed the point of the post. The headline is ‘that makes readers GROAN’ because we see them so often. Standing out is half the battle in the pile. You can’t do that when you’re writing the same thing as everyone else.

            “I definitely won’t use the exact examples, because you are right, they aren’t the best, but if they were to be edited slightly, they just might work out pretty well.” <<< that's the point.

          2. I think the point of the post is not that these ideas are bad, bad, but we’ve seen them all before that they are cliche. It has nothing to do with genre or novel vs the screen, but everyone comes up with these ideas that they aren’t new or novel or interesting besides they tell us nothing about the story or the protagonist so aren’t even needed.
            Besides if I can I think of a dozen or two of episodes of TV that start this way or what not, then those people who have to sit and read spec’s by everyone good and bad, will see these style of openings in every other screenplay or novel that they open.
            So if you want to stand out from the crowd, then it might be good not to go with these ideas.

        9. Jean-Marie MAZALEYRAT


          However there always is a smart way using any cliché to make your opening stand out: make it meaningful. A few examples:

          – Walking: North By Northwest
          Would it not be strange, in a city
          of seven million people, if one
          man were never mistaken for another…
          if, with seven million pair of feet
          wandering through the canyons and
          corridors of the city, one pair
          of feet never by chance strayed
          into the wrong footsteps?
          (a pause)
          Strange indeed.”

          – Blackness: Duel
          – Alarm Clock: Reveille (1996)
          – Black space + blue planet + aerial over skyscrapers: Wall-E
          – Aerial over skyscrapers then over the city: West Side Story

          But with no meaning, yes, these are just clichés …

          Thinking of Groundhog Day, I wonder if the alarm-clock and the haunted face in the mirror things wouldn’t be much better than the 10+ pages of dull exposition that precede and are the worst part of that script.

        10. Okay, I agree, but PLEASE let me write the alarm clock ringing and the heroine’s hand picking it up and smashing it on the floor, stomping ON it with her bare foot, then hopping in pain screaming swear words and cursing her own stupidity.

          1. No one can stop you writing anything. If you want to write an alarm clock, go for it. Just don’t be surprised if readers don’t like it, we read that opener A LOT … yes even women stamping on them!

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