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The Screenwriter's Toolbox: Two Techniques Novelists Can Borrow from Film When Writing Opening Scenes

Learn about two writing techniques inspired by screenwriters that you can employ when writing opening scenes for novels.
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image from Getty | CSA Images/Printstock Collection

By Kes Trester

When I made the switch from feature film development executive to novelist, I discovered how much the two mediums have in common. For instance, when people ask about my former job, I describe it in publishing terms: I was an editor for screenwriters.

It also got me thinking: What other similarities are there between screenplays and books, and more importantly, what could I borrow from film that I could use in my writing? I realized there were a number of screenwriting tricks I could employ, including writing cinematically inspired opening scenes. Here are two of my favorite techniques.

ACTION OPENINGS

There is no faster way to pull an audience into a film than via an action opening, which is exactly what it sounds like. With a few quick shots to develop empathy for the character we’ll be following (we see him saying goodnight to coworkers, calling his wife to say he’ll pick up dinner up the way home—hey, he’s just like us!), we plunge him into physical jeopardy. Maybe he realizes he’s being followed, which accelerates into a life-or-death struggle when his pursuers attempt to drive him off a bridge.

If his name is James Bond (the most famous and consistent example of all action openings), we already understand the stakes; whatever he’s doing is in service to Queen and country, and he must succeed/survive. If he’s a stranger to us, his worthiness or duplicity may be revealed in how he responds. Maybe Mr. Average suddenly reveals hidden skills—driving abilities that turn the tables on his aggressors, or sliding a high-grade weapon out from under the dashboard—that makes us realize he’s not simply an unwitting pawn in a high-stakes game.

The same technique can be used in the opening pages of a novel of almost any genre. Maybe it opens on a young man dangerously weaving his bike through Manhattan traffic, doors thrown open in his path, a near miss with a horn-blaring truck, a pursuit by a dog who’s snapped his leash, only to have it end at the steps to his school/job/band practice. No, he’s not the hero of a spy novel, but you’ve kept your reading turning pages at breakneck speed while we also discover your character is bold, maybe reckless, perhaps chronically late to everything (which might be a set up for the inciting incident), etc.

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I used an action opening in the young adult, espionage romance thriller, A Dangeroue Year. As in a James Bond film, the five-page scene is the inciting event that triggers the rest of the story. In this case, the first few paragraphs also establishes setting and the building of stakes:

“Please, don’t let them take me!”

I knew enough Urdu to understand the girl’s desperate plea. The scrawny little thing clutching my arm was like any other twelve-year-old in the crowded Karachi marketplace, her hair covered with the traditional hijab headscarf, and her soft brown eyes wide with fear.

“It’s okay,” I said, betting she’d understand the tone if not the actual English words. My eyes darted about, attempting to pinpoint who or what was about to destroy the peace of a sweltering September afternoon. I’d heard enough horror stories to know if a young girl turned to an ambassador’s daughter for help, it had to be a matter of life or death.

INTRIGUE OPENINGS

When the first few minutes of a film result in the viewer wondering, “How did we get here?” it is known as an intrigue opening. Two of the most popular techniques used to achieve this are by opening with the conclusion or in medias res.

Saving Private Ryan is a famous example of a film opening with the ending. We all know how world events played out during World War II, but the moments we stumble through a veterans’ cemetery in the company of an elderly man are powerful. His emotion causes him to falter as he threads his way past headstones, the names engraved in marble not anonymous to him. Obviously he survived the war, so that isn’t the mystery we want resolved, but how did he survive when so many others died, and at what cost? Is he shedding tears of grief, guilt, or regret? These questions will cause a viewer (or the reader of your book) to sign up for the ride.

The Latin translation of in medias res is, literally, “into the middle things.” Forrest Gump successfully used this device by introducing the main character on a bus bench recounting how the shoes he’d worn over the years had brought him to this point in his life. It can also be combined with an action opening, as Amy Giles did in the upcoming novel Now Is Everything:

Emergency first responders scramble up and down the hill around me like ants, trying to see what can be salvaged. We’re on different frequencies. Theirs is manic and frenzied, searching for life, while I watch without seeing. What I escaped below eclipses everything. Blank eyes. A blood-soaked Cornell sweatshirt. Necks bent unnaturally. Angry fists of heat pounding at my back as I crawled away from the wreckage.

But the sky is a perfect crisp blue, like someone forgot to tell it to wipe that smug smile off its face.

No one survives a plane crash. I shouldn’t be here.

Whatever method you choose to open your book, remember to always leave your reader asking, “…and then what happened??”

A native of Los Angeles, Kes Trester has worked in Hollywood as a feature film development executive, then later a producer and head of production. In an attempt to raise kids who could actually pick their mom out of a line up, Kes now writes fulltime. Her contemporary novels for young adults are cinematic, fast-paced, and above all, fun. Her debut novel, A Dangerous Year, follows 17-year-old Riley Collins, daughter of a U.S. Ambassador, as she takes on her toughest mission yet: high school. Connect with her at kestrester.com.

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