I have read a lot of amateur scripts. For that matter, I have written a bunch of them! I wrote bad scripts for years and years.
This took me forever to learn. Would you like to save time?
The key to a good script opening is this:
First, use a relatable human situation to connect with your reader. This can be pretty much anything—so long as it works!
It can be a kid at high school scared of a bully. A cop who has a traffic stop turn into a shootout. A woman who is so looking forward to a first date, and she gets stood up.
It can be anything! Because we, as human beings, can empathize with those situations. Even if we haven’t lived them ourselves, we know what it’s like to have a feeling—to be scared, to have a crush, to be blamed for something that’s not our fault.
Translate that situation into a “want.” The character in that situation wants the specific thing—the date, the collar, the gig, whatever—out of a general emotional need: to be strong, to be loved, to be safe.
This becomes the introduction of your protagonist. She’s a rookie cop who wants to make the world a better place. She’s a powerful executive who is pissed off by sexist treatment. He’s a lonely kid with zits who wants his crush to like him. Like I said…anything!
What we’ve done is create an emotional investment so the reader/audience cares about the protagonist and wants to see if and how he or she will get what she wants.
I used a screen cap from Raiders of the Lost Ark, which is none of the above things, except that it’s awesome. First of all, anybody seeing that movie knows it’s by Spielberg (who made E.T. and Close Encounters) and stars Harrison Ford (Han Solo from Star Wars) as an adventurer. That means, they have the license to experiment.
What they do is introduce the adventurer: the shadowy, super cool guy with the map and all the skills—he wants something on his quest—and these fearful underlings watching him for clues. I mean, it’s pitch-perfect.
This isn’t revolutionary. But you’d be shocked (or maybe not) how many amateur scripts are so utterly confusing in their opening pages. More often than not, as the reader, you don’t even know who the protagonist is, let alone what he or she wants!
The opening is a mini-movie. It doesn’t have to be something as exciting as the opening of Raiders, but it just has to have something to make clear who the story is about and what that person wants.
Why don’t people do this? Usually, it’s because they’re laboriously conveying exposition. And there’s usually too much exposition because the movie’s concept is too vague and overly complicated.
Mystery is good. But it needs to be specific mystery: Who shot the witness? Why does the new neighbor drag all those trash bags into and out of the house at weird hours?
Vague mystery is bad. “What the hell is even going on, and who is this about?” That’s bad mystery.
That’s all today. Carry on!