Are you using these movie clichés at the beginning of your script?
When reading hundreds of script submissions, there are often elements our readers come across plenty of times, especially with script openings. Writers at home don’t realize how common some of these elements are, to the point where they have become movie clichés and common issues to readers for screenwriting contests and coverage services.
We’ve rounded up some of the most common movie clichés used in script openings according to our readers so that you can ensure your script uses the most powerful devices to start your story. However, remember that just because something is often used doesn’t mean you shouldn’t use it as well. The most important thing is to tell your story in your voice.
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Flashbacks or Flashforwards
Opening in media res, or “in the moment” and then flashing back to an earlier time can be a great way to kickstart a story with energy and give your audience something to look forward to. Others open with a childhood moment to set up a bond or traumatic moment. Both of these options can be great, but they’re commonly used by writers looking to be discovered and in produced projects.
When the goal is to get into the story as quickly as possible, and understand the world and characters, make sure you’re not actually slowing down your story. Every page should be moving things forward. Ask yourself how much important information about the protagonist and the story we’re learning and if this is the best way to reveal it actively.
You’d be surprised how many scripts use a quote or song lyrics flashing across a black screen or sometimes on the page with no direction that it’s on screen. Similar to timeline jumps, opening with a quote or voiceover also takes up space on the page that you could use for the immediate story.
Now, much like any of these other movie clichés, many successful projects use quotes. True stories often use quotes to set the theme or central statement for a story that the audience may or may not already know. But even popular contemporary films could use them. Such as Jordan Peele’s box office smash hit NOPE, which opens with this quote from the Old Testament:
“I will cast abominable filth upon you, make you vile, and make you a spectacle.”
— Nahum 3:6
When watching movies and shows you enjoy open, always pay close attention to whether the director and the writer are the same. Often, as is the case with NOPE, they are. For competition and coverage readers, they aren’t assuming you’re also directing. So, from their perspective, they’re always thinking about the story and protagonist’s journey first. This means it’s sometimes better to write towards that reader and forgo a fun flourish, like quotes.
Sometimes there really is information that your audience needs to follow the events that open your script. Many scripts use super-imposed text, while others utilize voiceover. Science fiction and fantasy projects often use voiceover to update the audience on what’s happening in the world. This can be helpful for information, but many readers find that voiceover in an opening isn’t being used to provide the necessary information but instead is filled with poetic words.
Voiceover might sound pretty, but when your script has just begun, many readers don’t know how to connect what’s said to the story. They might not even remember what the voiceover said by the time they get to the end of the script. And the last thing you want is to include elements in your script that don’t stick in your reader’s mind.
Using Specific Songs
Up-and-coming writers need to pen the story they want to see on screen. This can sometimes mean it’s better to ignore the cost of producing your script when you’re writing. However, using specific songs in the script can be seen as an overstep by script readers, and they’re most often seen in script openings.
If you’re choosing to put in scripts, consider if there’s a more active way to show the emotional elements or tone you wanted the song to convey. Not only are you unlikely to get the songs you want if produced, but if the reader doesn’t know the song, then they’re not going to understand why it was so important to include it. It’s another element that can take up space on the page you can use more effectively with something else.
Many produced movies open with fast-moving camera shots and close-ups that set a specific tone and play while the credits roll over them. But often, they’re not in the shooting script. However, script submissions frequently include these kinds of shots to open the script. It’s something that our readers see again and again from writers who aren’t necessarily looking to direct but do want to sell their script. There’s nothing wrong with using camera shots in your script, but in this situation, the writers are only using them at the beginning to create a visual sequence that doesn’t add to the story.
A good example of a produced script that does do this in a way that moves the story forward is SOMETHING’S GOTTA GIVE. In the opening of that film, we see a series of beautiful women in New York, living their lives, having fun, and being confident. It’s something that seems completely superfluous… until the voiceover kicks in.
And yes, a voiceover is another movie cliché often used to open a script. In this instance, we learn that these shots are how the protagonist, Harry Sanborn, looks at the world and the women around him. It tells us exactly what we need to know about him as quickly as possible before jumping into the story. If your close-ups and quick cuts opening the script aren’t giving the reader this level of information, then it’s very likely there’s a stronger way to open your script.
There are no hard “rules” in screenwriting. So if you feel you need to include something that shows your voice and is the best way for you to tell the story, then do it.