Here is the opening scene of a thriller screenplay called “24 Hours.” My main criticism of it is that while it follows the rule that it’s good to get into action quickly, in this case it may be a bit too quickly. Read the scene and the Q & A that follows, then listen to the audio (right).
INT. CAFE – DAY
FRANK GETTY, handsome in a world-weary way, sits at the counter of this traditional small-town diner, having a coffee, staring out the window at the not-very-much that’s going on. The waitress, DEE-DEE, 40ish, blonde highlights, dark roots, plumped lips and generally trying a little too hard, comes up to him, gives him a big smile, and holds up her coffeepot.
More coffee, hun?
As Frank leans back to give her room to refill his cup, she catches a glimpse of his shoulder holster and gun. Her eyes widen, but she tries not to show her fear as she pours his refill—but her hand is shaking a little.
There you go, sweetheart.
Dee Dee calls to TONY, the pudgy older man working behind the counter.
Just going to the little girls’ room, Tony!
Thanks for sharing.
Dee Dee goes off. Tony swaps the nearly-empte sugar dispenser in front of Frank for a full one.
I’m guessing you’re a tourist.
You win the prize.
Tony sees that Frank isn’t in the mood for a chat and moves on.
EXCERPT FROM THE COACHING SESSION
The waitress spots the gun (and in the next scene calls the police) before we have any time to get to know anything about any of these characters or the situation. Here is part of the question and answer coaching session we went through:
Q: I think the waitress spotting the man’s gun is a good moment for an opening scene because it makes us curious about who he is and what he intends, and it could work even better if it is delayed a bit.
A: OK, but I didn’t want it to be a boring standard coffee shop scene so I got into it right away. What else could happen?
Q: Let’s use the ‘why’ question to explore that. First, let’s consider the characters. Why is the man there?
A: He’s a New York City detective who has shot someone and is waiting out a routine investigation, so he went to this little town in upstate New York.
A: He wanted to get away from his usual surroundings, to think about his life. This is the first time he’s actually killed anybody and it has shaken him up. He’s even thinking about quitting his job and getting out of the madness of the big city.
Q: OK, so what kinds of things might he be doing or talking about in the coffee shop?
A: Well, initially I thought he’d just want to be left alone, but actually since he might be thinking about relocating to a quiet town like this, so he might ask the counter guy what it’s like.
Q: Good. And the waitress, why is she there?
A: She works there because there are not a lot of jobs in town. She’s saving up her money.
A: She’s going to enter an “American Idol” type singing competition and needs the money to finance her stay in New York for the audition.
Q: Why does she want to be on that kind of a show?
A: She’s convinced that she’s really a star, like a lot of people. Actually, she’s not that talented, but if she gives up that dream, there’s not a lot left for her to live for.
Q: Good. So what might she be doing in this scene?
A: Well, she’s going to be singing at a local hotel lounge soon, so she might be learning her lyrics while on the job, or something like that.
Q: Excellent. What about the guy behind the counter, Tony?
A: This place is his whole world. And he kind of has a thing for the waitress, but he’s married and has never put the moves on her.
Q: So that tells us something about how he might relate to her when she’s maybe not focused on her job as much as she should be. Do you see how these whys point us in certain directions in terms of the scene? To little things that can enrich it without making it much longer?
A: Yes, that’s good.
Q: I have one more question: I think normally when a police officer is suspended pending an investigation, they take his or her service revolver. Why does he still have a gun?
A: It’s an extra gun he has. Strictly speaking, he shouldn’t be carrying it, but he feels uncomfortable without it.
Q: Good. That won’t come out in this opening scene, but it’s probably going to be important somewhere along the line. Do you think you have enough more information now to get back to work?
A: Yes, I’m ready to start rewriting!
Note: Check the news section on this site for information about upcoming writing workshops in which we cover these kinds of strategies in depth. Also, New tips on screenwriting will appear on regular basis on the Top Tips: Screenwriting page.
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