Tuesday, August 16, 2005

Top 10 Clichéd Opening Scripts

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As requested by James.


And in no particular order:

1. Dream Sequence: Commonly found in horrors or thrillers. Usually followed by the protagonist snapping out of sleep and then going about his/her business. Best avoided. It’s meant to establish style and intrigue but more often than not generates confusion and irritation.

2. Drifting through clouds: A lot of coming of age/rites of passage flicks use this gimmick where the camera glides through the clouds to find the protagonist’s humble abode while he introduces us, via voice-over, to the fascinating minutiae of his life: “It was a summer I’d never forget.” If it’s not a voice-over, it’s usually singing or music from the story’s era.

3. The Prologue: A tried and tested way to begin any movie but a cliché nonetheless. The Exorcist has a good one - the best ones are where they establish something interesting but we cut to separate events entirely to begin the real story. Not easy to achieve. Recommended for skilled scribes only.

4. The Embarrassing Moment: Hero undergoes a humiliating experience, usually with the opposite sex (especially if it’s a rom com) or as a child which defines his present-day character as a psycho/nerd/stalker/chief executive/script reader.

5. The Chase: A person being chased through the woods by an unseen and ghastly assailant. Probably a monster of some kind. Bo-ring (see ‘Dream Sequence’). Also any car chase or foot chase through the city streets to establish our ‘never-say-die’ and gutsy hero.

6. The Quick Murder: A really stupid person gets quickly slaughtered as he/she goes around an empty house saying ‘hello?’. However, when the hero comes into play, the murderer takes the full 120 mins running time to make a committed attack only to be thwarted at the last minute. Ok, that’s the end of the script but it only makes the beginning more annoying…

7. Talk to Camera: The protagonist, heck sometimes a whole bunch of characters, ‘break the fourth wall’ and talk directly to the audience. A more polished version of this is when the narrative includes vox-pop style cuts of the characters being interviewed. It was clever once. Now it’s annoying.

8. The Chummy Writer: The writer wants to ingratiate himself on the reader so will try to chat him up while he reads, as in: “FADE IN: It’s dark but not too dark that we can’t find our seats in the cinema and as the credits roll...” Some of this chummy style can be okay if the script is a comedy but stuff like: “I’d write the sex scene but my mother reads my scripts” is best left avoided.

9. The Break In: A cool heist or burglary is done. The thief retires but is called back into duty to do ‘one last job’. Another similarity to this is the ‘false beginning’ where we might see a heist or something criminal taking place which is then revealed to be a training exercise or summink like that. Monsters Inc and James Bond did this well. Spec scripts do not but they do it often.

10. Fall From Grace: The lead character is sacked, demoted or chucked especially if it’s a personal drama, cop thriller or rom com, causing him to start from scratch and reinvent his life, go against orders or find the love of his life.

PS: When’s a cliché not a cliché? When it works.

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22 comments:

james henry said...

Marvellous - and very useful, thanks.

Anonymous said...

Hardly any of these 10 are cliches.
It's all writing and storytelling.

Don't you get it?

Danny Stack said...

Just a playful list of the ten most commonly used openings to the scripts I read on the spec market. You're right of course, it's all writing and storytelling, and when it works - great - but I was asked for a list and a list I gave.

James Moran said...

Come on, Anonymous, come clean - you've used some of them yourself, haven't you? We're all friends here, don't be shy, we won't judge you.

I freely admit to having used 4 of them. One was last week, in an outline. I have no shame.

Grubber said...

Just found this post Danny, I am happy to say, in all of my beginnings so far, I have not used one of these.

Mind you, that could just mean you have more to add to your list of poor openings. ;-)

Scott the Reader said...

The addendum to #10, of course, is that he always goes home after being fired to find his wife in bed with another guy.

Stephen Gallagher said...

One I see a lot on TV -- a bunch of anonymous building workers discover a body.

I recently got pressured into using a variant of this one by an executive producer who was convinced it was his own original thought. When he moved on, it drew a sarcastic note from his successor. OK, I said, out it goes. But by then the director had come on board, and he'd already had his vision. So it had to stay.

Danny Stack said...

It just goes to show that people shouldn't automatically blame the writer when they see something they don't like on TV.

Exec producers, producers, directors and script editors are sometimes the guilty parties...

Kimberley said...

Haha. Wow, I've been guilty of some of this (especially the dream sequence one)... that was definitely humbling to read.

Thanks!

Darren Goldsmith said...

Eventually, everything will be a cliché...

Chuck said...

The glove has been thrown down, I must come up with an opening first page that uses all ten at once.

Jeff said...

Ah Chuck! You beat me to it, I love a challenge.

Excellent info throughout the website. Thank you.

louisebah said...

The chummy writer bit is great. I am guilty of that I'm afraid, but I have conciously been moving away from that style in my newer works. Thanks again for sharing this gem!

Anonymous said...

“I’d write the sex scene but my mother reads my scripts”

Writer Shane Black does a ludicrous version of this in "The Last Boy Scout." He concludes with something like, "but I probably lost her at the jacuzzi blow job scene."

MORPHEUS said...

Damn, just finished my script, which I'm quite proud of, that starts with a dream sequence...But kind of integral to the story

Ryan said...

Morpheus, Like Danny said at the end it's not a cliche if it works, if the dream sequence is integral to your storyline, and not just a page filler, leave it in. I have seen many good films that start with all 10 cliches but they all work.

JAIMIE said...

Thanks for the wise words Ryan, I will keep my dream sequence. I'm a big fan of prologues and dream sequences but as you said they must work and they must mean something.

Gilliam's 'Brazil' starts with flying through fluffy clouds but then again he is a god among directors.

Dim said...

Ooh, I was doing so well until I got to number eight! Of course, my writing isn't chummy, oh no, it's witty and knowing and hilariously...who am I kidding? I'm DOOMED! But I had fun writing it. My writing partnership's entry is currently with Lucy Vee for assessment, so we'll see what she flags as erroneous, but at least I know we haven't included nine of the top ten cliches!

manfromthezoo said...

I'd like to talk about a cliché. Not an opening cliché per se - but one that is arse-puckeringly annoying ANYWHERE in your screenplay nonetheless. It is also one of the laziest devices of the last ten years of cinema (IMHO of course).

Yes, I'm talking about the impossibly grainy photo / CCTV footage that suddenly yields a lame plot point when someone presses an 'ENHANCE' button on a generic computer system (duh).

I'm going to get a stomach ulcer borne of pure rage the next time I read it / see it.

Batman said...

For #8 I'd simply write, "They make love," and let the director choose his rating...

Anonymous said...

I appreciate the intent of a list like this, but I agree with Anonymous above who says it's all storytelling.

It feels like a list of "Fashion Don't" that include sneakers, jeans, khakis, black socks, short sleeve shirts... eventually you have to ask, "What things CAN I wear?"

What you have here are common openings. In music, C is a very common chord, but you wouldn't tell songwriters to systematically avoid using C in their work because it's been done too often.

No need to feel guilty about using any of these - they are storytelling techniques. Many used poorly, or in the wrong places, but if you start steering your story away from what may work for you, it's just as dangerous a path to take as to write something just because it's been done before.

Anonymous said...

Sorry Anonymous no. 1, I really couldn't resist...

http://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/2012/05/10/you-just-dont-get-it-do-you-supercut_n_1505852.html