||How to Write Dynamite Opening Narratives
||Wed 01 Sep 2004
||Excerpt: Chapter 16: Opening Narratives, "Tools of the ScreenWriting Trade" by Esther Luttrell
Under the Slug Line you'll write your Opening Narrative. It's called Opening Narrative under every Slug Line throughout your script. Accepting the premise that a screenplay is nothing but a set of production notes to your crew, this Opening Narrative is crucial to just about everybody on your production team. It's the meat-and-potatoes of the work they're assigned to do to bring this scene to life, from your script pages. Commit this about Open Narratives to memory: An Opening Narrative tells cast and crew WHO is in the scene, HOW the scene is to look, and WHAT'S going on in the scene. WHO, HOW, WHAT.
Here's an Opening Narrative that's pretty well written:
EXT. COUNTRYSIDE - DAY
Two children, LUTHER 6, and BILL 10, are in one devil of a slug-out. Fists fly, legs tangle, dirt goes up in grey-brown puffs and settles in eyes and ears, and still the youngsters pound on one another.
This Opening Narrative has answered vital questions for film personnal: WHO is in the scene (who needs to report to work that day): Luther and Bill. HOW does the scene look: It looks like there are two kids fighting in a rural setting. WHAT is going on: The fist fight. Such a simple little Opening Narrative, but look who all you've instructed: You've told the lst A.D. (First Assistant Director) to schedule the two kids to work on this day. You've told Casting to hire them (the next section will tell you more about that). You've told Hair & Make-up who they'll be working on for this scene. You've spoken to Wardrobe. You've given production notes to the Director. And, because there are children involved, you've also told the Front Office to arrange for a Children's Welfare Worker/Teacher to be on hand (it's required by law that children must not only have a Welfare Worker/Teacher on the set at all times, but that there be a school room provided on the premises!). That Opening Narrative is so very important.
Few things are more maddening to your reader than to read an Opening Narrative and be led to believe that one character is in a room then, boom!, out of nowhere, there appears dialogue for a second person not even established as being on planet earth, let alone in the room with character #1. Establish in your Opening Narrative WHO is on the screen when this scene opens.
And, by the way, if we're "seeing" a character's living room, or kitchen, or bedroom or whatever, for the first time, now is the time--in your Opening Narrative--to describe what the place looks like so that the Set Decorator can dress it in a way that reflects the personality of the person living there. Here's an Opening Narrative out of one of my scripts, "Bite of the Berry." It's the first time we've been inside the home of our main character, Craig Townsend, an environmental scientist.
INT. CRAIG'S APARTMENT - LIVING ROOM - NIGHT
Environmental magazines are everywhere, medical journals, David Bodanis' book, "The Secret House" sits beside Wheeler McMillen's "Bugs or People?" on the cluttered coffee table. The only light in the room comes from a low-wattage floor lamp. Odd shadows hover in the corners. Craig's perched on one end of the sofa with the telephone pressed against his ear, listening to Kitty's answering machine.
WHO is in the scene: Only Craig. HOW does the scene look: Like an environmental scientist lives there. WHAT is going on in the scene: Craig's trying to reach his girlfriend by phone.
I also set up some creepiness that should be felt throughout the entire script, by suggesting shadows and odd lighting. What about telling too much? Oh boy ... where to begin? Okay, I'll tell you what. Let's begin with the writer who tells us that his leading man is 24, has a square jaw, a mole on his left cheek, is 6' tall with broad shoulders and slender hips, limps slightly, and has piercing black eyes. Enough already! What if casting finds an actor who can interpret your character better than anybody else who's read for the part, and he's only 5'8"? What if he's got narrow shoulders and blue eyes? What if the six-footer with the limp can't act his way out of a speeding ticket? Why limit casting? Tell me the guy swaggers, that he takes charge of a room when he enters, that his smile is easy, that he casts a suspicious glance at the crowd because that's his nature ... Those kinds of images tell me all kinds of things about your character - and I see him a thousand times more brightly in my mind's eye than if I try to digest a long, involved description of hair color and eyes and moles. Don't give us graphic details about your main character's anatomy. Tell us what the person is all about. We'll visualize the rest. A writer with the ability to make us 'see' his characters, maybe better than any other writer I can think of off-hand, is John D. MacDonald. Pick up one of his paperbacks and you'll see what I mean. You might not like the genre, but you can't fault his character descriptions. A line from an actual script: "KATLIN DAVIS, the company's soft-spoken copywriter. With her long hair and soft doe eyes, she looks like someone you'd expect to meet at a poet's conference, not an advertising firm." What more do you need? I see Katlin, don't you? Isn't that better than KATLIN DAVIS, 23-year old woman, tall, angular, blue eyes, brown hair, attractive. I see a lot of similar descriptions in new writer's work. Think about it. Read that descriptive line again. Katlin is a woman's name so we don't need to be told she's a woman. 23 years old is unnecessarily long. If the age is important, the numbers say enough without adding "years old". Do I care if she's tall? Is that a story point? Will I remember it? What's it matter if she's 5'4" or 5'8"? Angular? So? Unless someone is going to use her to pry open a door, do I care if her bones stick out? Blue eyes, brown hair ... Wow! Who would have thought of that combination! That'll stick in my mind! Sure! "Attractive". It's like the description I see so often in scripts: "beautiful". From whose perspective? That's your opinion, not a cinematic fact. One waterbug finds another waterbug attractive or there would have only been two waterbugs on planet earth. Attractive and beautiful, subjective. Tell me what's real about Katlin. Tell me what's indisputably true. Tell me that she looks more like a poet than a copyriter. I'll fill in the blanks with my imagination. Opening Narratives: WHO is in the scene. HOW does the scene look. WHAT is going on in the scene. Now you've got a dynamite Opening Narrative, professionally written.