As I’ve said before, your first ten pages are critical. Agents, managers, readers and producers will often use the first ten pages to gauge how strong you are as a writer. If the first ten pages suck, you probably suck. Ten pages is more than enough space to convey tone, genre, themes and give the characters a good introduction.
I read a lot of bad horror scripts that start off the same – a disposable kill of a barely related supporting character. This makes a little bit of sense. In a horror film, you should establish the threat that’s out there. We need to know there’s a “shark in the water,” as it were.
But there’s more to a good horror opening than just killing a big-breasted babe in her underwear. Bad scripts start off with a throwaway kill, then introduce a new cast of characters and spend the next 25 pages just killing time until the act break. Worse, most of the time, the lead characters are so annoying I start rooting for the killer.
A good horror script doesn’t just kill a character in the first five or ten pages, it teases why this horror/thriller is different from all the others out there. Scream is brilliant because the opening establishes a unique M.O. for the killer – he calls up his victims on the phone and taunts them with movie trivia. Even before the Drew Barrymore character is killed, you know you’re reading something different.
The trick is that since the character introduced in the first scene is also usually dead by the end of that sequence, the audience needs a reason to stick around. That’s why you have to make your antagonist and his methods distinctive. In the case of a sequel, it helps to have a really inventive kill. Scream 2 doesn’t get lazy there either. While an audience watches a “Stab” movie, based on the events of the first Scream, Jada Pinkett Smith is killed in the audience and then bleeds to death standing in front of the screen. That’s a powerful image.
Tone. Genre. Craft. You don’t even need your lead characters to display those three elements. (But it doesn’t hurt.)
So if your story is about Bigfoots killing people out in the woods, make sure your opening is memorable. Don’t just have a generic kill, and don’t think that hyper-violence is the only way to get an audience’s attention. Show me the monster, and then show me why I should care what it does.
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