Whether you write for film or TV, a cold open can provide a vital and dynamic way into your screenplay.
They say that in the business, nobody will read past the first ten pages if they aren’t interested in what they see. Much in the same way, the first five to ten minutes of runtime can mean the difference between a viewer sticking through to the end or going back to the Netflix homepage.
Those five to ten pages or minutes strategically coincide with the cold open. This part of the script has to be irresistibly intriguing, either through the mystery it teases, the quality of its jokes, or the characters it introduces.
The cold open is the key to grabbing your audience’s attention. A lot of pressure rests on those first few minutes. It’s important to know how to make the most of them.
But it’s also important not to rest on cliches in your cold open. If used lazily, it can seem like a cheap way of suggesting what is to come without doing work in the rest of the first ten pages. So don’t rest on your laurels. Make your cold open mean something.
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What Is a Cold Open, Anyway?
A cold open is an introductory scene that precedes a film or show’s opening credits. Often, it’s used to set up the general story arc, or the theme of a particular episode.
Every cold open has the same goal: to hook the audience so they keep watching and to suggest the nature and tone of the story.
Let’s talk about the notion of hooking an audience. The term “hook” describes the quality of a story that captures the viewer’s attention. It’s the selling point, the big draw, the money piece of your story – and you should know what it is before you take to the page.
The hook is directly related to the “why” of your story. The two main questions this “why” leads into are: Why is this story compelling? and Why is this story worth anybody’s time?
The art of persuasion is very much alive in screenwriting, and the cold open can be your opening argument.
In your pitch, you are trying to convince agents, producers, executives, etc. to invest in your script. In your cold open, you are trying to convince viewers to stay in their seats.
For the latter, you need to give the audience a taste of what is going to unfold before them. What are they about to get themselves in for?
Why a Cold Open?
Furthermore, why a cold open? Why not just a regular linear opening scene?
The cold open has become an increasingly used trope in TV and film in recent years. This leaves it in danger of feeling a turn off rather than a hook. To counteract this, you need to make sure your cold open means something to your story.
What is it about your story that makes a cold open relevant?
- A TV sitcom, for example, will return to the same characters each episode. Therefore, the cold open provides a way of highlighting what these characters might be dealing with in this particular episode. Where are they at and what does this episode hold for them?
- A drama or thriller, however, might want to throw the audience into the action in the cold open. This will leave the audience wondering how they will end up where they began. What are the dots that join the cold open and the rest of the story together?
Similarly, in a film, a cold open can introduce story elements in a compelling way. Think of The Matrix, for example.
- The opening sequence isn’t directly related to the scenes that will follow straight after it.
- But the cold open introduces key elements of this unique world and story (the Agents, Trinity, the Phone-booths).
- Not only this, but The Matrix‘s cold open introduces key elements of the film’s style and tone. We see snippets of the film’s unique visuals here and get a sense of the action to come.
The Matrix‘s cold open works so well in part because there are many idiosyncratic elements to introduce. In this, the cold open has a distinct and valuable purpose.
Cold Open Types In Action
Cold opens are not one size fits all. There are a few different types that, depending on the desired effect, will play out differently and draw the audience in for different reasons.
Note that some of these cold open types can be grouped under the same umbrella.
Throwing a Wrench
These cold opens tease the story by introducing a subject that will be a continuous point of conflict. Sometimes this subject will be the thematic center point; other times, it will only be a wrench thrown into the characters’ lives as they go about their usual ways.
The subject is therefore a catalyst or inciting incident for the storyline. It is an overt way to set up the conflict, one that works particularly nicely for the episodic format, though it can be applied to others just as well.
Comedies commonly lean on teasers like these. They provide an opportunity to dish out the best jokes. Such is an extension of the “hook.” Comedies are valued by their ability to make their viewers laugh. If they succeed in doing so during the teaser, the audience trusts them to continue delivering on their inherent promise.
Schitt’s Creek uses this cold open type in an episode entitled “Stop Saying Lice!“ which opens with John approaching Alexis about a lice outbreak at her school and the scene descending into hysterics. The remainder of the episode leans on the lice thread for cohesion, though it interlaces it with existing serial plot lines.
Oftentimes, we find that the disruptive subject is not the centerpiece of the story. It often serves as the gateway for some other, deeper meaning in the story that unravels a new drama or tells us more about the situations and characters already laid out before us.
This is a cold open that teases the later events of a film or episode, typically by showing the climactic moment itself or the direct lead-up to it. It shows you the moment you’ll spend the rest of the episode waiting for, then all the details along the way that gives it significance.
We would be remiss to talk about cold opens without mentioning the pilot episode of Breaking Bad, which falls under this classification of cold open.
Here, we see a nearly-naked Walter White driving, then crashing an RV in the middle of the desert, distant sirens in the background. After this scene, we jump back in time to see the events preceding this moment.
This cold open contains several varying types of hooks.
- There are the unusual visuals of a pair of khakis flying through the air and a man in underwear and a gas mask.
- Then, there’s the urgency of the scene, though we don’t quite understand what’s so urgent.
- Finally, there’s the looming threat, heard but not yet seen.
This “you’re probably wondering how I got here” format often ends up showing the same scene, but the second time the audience sees it with a new perspective. The effect can be that the audience watches more attentively, anticipating the significance of the little details and appreciating the payoff. Much like how rewatching a movie or show will reveal to you details that you hadn’t thought much of the first time around.
Cold opens are used throughout Breaking Bad and come to serve as an important part of what makes the show feel so continually dynamic and exciting.
Introduction to Character
Seeing as how character is one of the most important components of a story (if not THE single most important), it’s not difficult to understand how a main character’s intro can make for an effective cold open. This is typically done when the protagonist is of particular, grandiose intrigue, or when the story is especially character- or persona-driven.
James Bond is a great example.
- Each film in the franchise approaches its own cold open a bit differently. But they’re all practically cut from the same cloth.
- They involve an action sequence (featuring Bond himself, of course) and provide context about the world of the story.
- They show Bond as larger-than-life and display his impressive capabilities. Yet they also note where his flaws lie.
In stories that use this type of cold open, what sticks with us is not the dazzlement of the scenes themselves. It is what we learn about the character that makes the rest of the story interesting. We are given an idea of who they are, how they respond to certain situations, and ideally what they will need to overcome internally, if not also externally.
Components of a Cold Open
There are a few general things your cold open should have.
This is not to say that you can’t work around these suggestions. Rules are made to be broken, but you can only break them if you understand why they’re there to begin with. You’ll have to understand why these pieces are considered essential before you can opt to change them around.
The cold open throws the audience into the story without giving them a full explanation ahead of time. So, inevitably, your audience will have many questions. Your cold open should answer some (not all) of these questions but also plant new ones.
Questions To Answer
Who is this story about?
- The cold open should, ideally, include the main character the audience will be following throughout the story.
- This is important not just for clarity’s sake, but also to build the crucial viewer-protagonist connection that will keep the former invested in the story.
There are exceptions to this. But cold opens that don’t tell us who the story is about should at least tell us what the story will be about. Often, this means introducing the conflict that will plague the protagonist.
Sometimes, the cold open will answer the question: What does the protagonist want?
- It may not always be clear what their specific want is, but if your protagonist is present the audience should immediately get some kind of idea of what side they will take in the story, even if they don’t know it yet.
- We only see the protagonist, Will Denbrough, for a moment before we spend the rest of the cold open following his little brother Georgie fall victim to Pennywise.
- We still meet Will and therefore understand what he is going through when we see him next.
- It’s not obvious at first that he is the main character, but when we see him next we are not surprised.
- When it is he we follow, we are not put off by it, because that opening scene made him familiar.
Questions To Ask
Will they get what they want? This is the big question of any script, the very thing the protagonist is fighting for throughout the whole story. Before even that question is answered, another will be asked: How will they go about going after their goal?
- Both of these questions lean toward the body of the story, where the journey the audience is curious about takes place.
- These questions will continue to pull the audience deeper into the story. Therefore, it is important that the cold open speaks to them, even the slightest bit.
The pilot episode of Breaking Bad proves a relevant example here. Note how the cold open answers the appropriate questions.
- Who is the story about? Walter White, the first person we see.
- What is the story about? Whatever mess it is we see him in the midst of.
- We even get an idea of his want: to not get caught.
But this scene begs for more answers…
- We don’t know yet if the authorities will catch up to him, or even what kind of trouble he is in.
- We certainly don’t know how he’s going to get out of this predicament, if at all.
- Even though we know he doesn’t want to get caught, we don’t have access yet to the larger scope of that want: that he wants to provide for his family before he dies of cancer.
The proportion of questions answered and unanswered is well-balanced here, as it should be in any cold open. Understanding the function of these questions will help you walk the line of not revealing too much, but revealing just enough to make your story irresistible to anyone on the outside.
What Are the Cliches?
As Blake Snyder stated in his renowned screenwriting text Save the Cat, you need to know what the traditions are in order to avoid the pitfall of cliche.
As in any field, screenwriting has its conventions. There is a certain function for cold opens and certain expected components. But if you make them carbon copies of what everyone else has done, they lose the intrigue that is essential to hooking an audience in.
So what are the cliches?
Well, to state the cliches would be to also state the conventions that actually work really well. Often what makes cliches live up to the term’s negative connotation is the execution and the intent. A mysterious character, a burst of unexplained action, a chaotic intruder – these are cold open cliches that probably have as many effective usages as worn, ineffective ones.
The best way to avoid being cliche is to make your choices as true to your story as possible. As starry-eyed – and yes, cliche – as that sounds, it’s some of the best screenwriting advice anyone can give you regarding any aspect of your script.
- Don’t use a cold open if you only want a striking opening scene and nothing else.
- Don’t use a cold open if you’re worried the audience will drift off unless they have a teaser of excitement to come.
- Your cold open needs to be key in setting up your story and its key elements and NOT an easy fix.
Worry less about making an immediate impact and more about gripping your audience with the key elements of the story. If you do the latter effectively, you are on track to a powerful cold open.
A cold open is an introductory scene that precedes a film or show’s opening credits. Often, it’s used to set up the general story arc, or theme of a particular episode.
A cold open can be an effective way of establishing story, character or theme and is a surefire way to keep an audience hooked. It can bring the audience directly into a story world, whilst ensuring they want to keep exploring this story world.
Avoid using a cold open if its only function is to add excitement to the first ten pages of your screenplay. The best cold opens are essential to the telling of the overall story, both in terms of form and content.
This article was written by Ariana Skeeland and edited by IS Staff.
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