Now we’re going to go over what would seem to be one of the more intuitively obvious tips in screenwriting, but which is essential, and good to get a refresher on. You may know about the needs of the first act of a screenplay. About setting up your protagonist, their needs and wants, their circumstances and their antagonist. About setting the pace, tone and letting the audience know what they’re in for as far as this world goes, but screenplays that really shine make sure to let the audience know what they’re in for in an entirely different way.
Of course it makes perfect sense to start at the beginning, the fundamentals of your story that need getting on with right off the bat, never underestimate the importance of a first impression. Audiences crave a good cinematic smack to the face to wake them up before you can expect them to bend to your narrative needs and become invested in your exposition. If you want an audience to have the patience to really care about the story well before its emotional highs and lows, its intricate drama or explosive action, the good stuff, you’ve got to give them a taste right away. This is all the more important in the age of streaming where if a viewer isn’t grabbed soon enough, they’ll just switch over to something with a better cold open.
Take Star Wars. The story proper begins with Luke on Tatooine, where we become acquainted with the drudgery of moisture farming and his desire for adventure, when he gets his chance in the form of a hologram of the distressed princess Leia, and sets out to deliver it to the wise hermit Ben Kenobi.
Now, as you’ll have recalled, this is not how Star Wars begins. Logically, it may as well have, we are meant to identify with Luke, and he learns everything about Leia and the recording as his quest goes on. Really, it could have been quite the mystery, and there’s absolutely no reason that we need to know how the droids got to Luke, just like we don’t know how the plans got to Leia (or didn’t until Rogue One, spoilers: someone got them and gave them to her). Yet we begin on that iconic shot as the puny resistance ship is stalked by the attacking Star Destroyer.
A battle ensues, the bad guys win and deliver the first of their encroachments on our heroes’ turf, taking the spirited, charming and sharp princess prisoner, as the droids carrying the plans and hologram narrowly escape. This sequence would seem, on paper, to be a hat on a hat, but oh what a show! We are not only ready to get to know Luke and the stakes at hand, but happy to do so, because if this was the warm up, can you imagine what they’ve got in store?
It’s a tried and true method, noticeably present in dozens of the biggest blockbusters and crowd-pleasers of all time (a handful including The Matrix with Trinity’s kung fu before the introduction in the banal daily life Neo leads, Jurassic Park showing off a raptor attack well before our main characters approach the island, Goodfellas with the murder in the trunk of the car before we flash back to Henry’s slightly less eventful childhood, every Bond film, etc.). Once you see it, its tough to miss. So consider ways to preface your story proper with a blood pumping, or otherwise unignorable opening.