5 Clichés to Avoid in the Opening of Your Script
August 25, 2022
Sometimes in life — when talking and expressing ourselves to the people around us — clichés are unavoidable. There are only so many ways to convey the most common feelings and situations that we all go through. When writing a screenplay, however, it’s best to be on guard against clichés.
Managers, agents and producers are constantly reading scripts and if they read something that’s overly familiar or unimaginative, they’re likely to pass on your script sooner than you might think. Most industry professionals decide whether they’re going to continue reading a script or not in the first couple of pages because these are busy people and they're constantly bombarded with scripts to read. If you don’t grab them early on, it doesn’t matter how great you think your climax or end twist is; they’re never going to get to your second act, let alone your third act. So you better have a great opening, right?
Over the years, I’ve read a lot of scripts, from both professional and amateur screenwriters. More often than not, you can instantly tell the difference. Professionals understand the importance of the first pages and usually put a lot of effort into making the opening as engaging as possible. Many amateur screenwriters don’t and, as a result, don’t become professionals.
Of course, anything can be learned, and just because your current spec script might not have the strongest or most original opening, doesn’t mean you can’t revise it and get it to where it needs to be. Originality is key. Clichés lack power and can be irritating to people, especially to people who read scripts for a living. In general, it’s important to avoid clichés in your script, but it’s essential in the first couple of pages.
Below are my top five opening clichés to avoid:
1. The protagonist's morning routine
Without a doubt, this is the most frequent opening cliché I’ve read in amateur scripts. I call them “alarm clock openings” because more often than not, they begin with an alarm clock going off and the protagonist groggily waking up. Believe it or not, a lot of these scripts don’t even update it to be an alarm on a smartphone; it’s just an old-fashioned alarm clock on a nightstand going off like we’re in the mid-20th Century. We then follow the protagonist as they do their morning routine: Brush their teeth, drink coffee, drive to their job, etc.
Usually, it’s to establish that the protagonist lives a perhaps mundane life. Mundanity is the last thing you should emphasize at the start of a screenplay. Even if it’s necessary to establish this at some point in the script, you should never do it in the first couple of pages. You have to ask yourself: What’s the most interesting and engaging way to introduce the protagonist? Even if this character initially lives a mundane existence they need to break away from, there still are innumerable ways to introduce them that would be more effective than an alarm clock opening.
2. The protagonist wakes from a dream or nightmare
This is typically the way amateur screenwriters attempt to improve on the above: Begin with a dream or nightmare and then do the alarm clock opening. Decades ago, opening a film with a dream that either conveyed the protagonist’s primary fear or their deepest desire was still fresh and provocative. These days, however, it’s been done so many times, that it’s very likely to come across as hackneyed. Also, if you create a compelling enough scenario in the dream or nightmare — and then reveal it was just a dream! — you’re likely to annoy the person reading it.
Oftentimes, this reveal feels like a cheat and no one likes to get cheated, especially a busy industry professional. Next time you have a compelling dream scenario that you think would make for a great opening, maybe consider making it actually happen to the protagonist. This could potentially lead to a more exciting first act.
3. Narration and Voiceover
In the same way you have to find a way to best introduce your protagonist, another screenwriting challenge is coming up with a device that imparts essential information early in the script. Typically, people are drawn more to questions and mystery than to answers and info dumps. Some exposition is unavoidable, but it’s the screenwriter’s job to convey it in the most compelling or entertaining fashion possible.
Voice-over narration is a trope that’s been so overused in films throughout the decades, it borders on parody when used today. Perhaps less parodic, but just as unimaginative is opening with a news reporter outside a courthouse, or a celebrity being interviewed, or a neurotic character talking about their life to a therapist. These are all things we’ve seen countless times in films or television shows.
Information shouldn’t be viewed as something to dump and as quickly as possible; rather, it should be viewed as another opportunity for creativity and self-expression. Think about who is best to convey the information, how they should convey it, and what it says about the character. In doing so, you might arrive at a more original and engaging opening.
4. The Funeral
This is an opening I’ve read in a lot of amateur dramas and dark comedies. Sometimes it’s earnest; other times it’s darkly comedic. Either way, it’s a cliché and a funeral has little impact without a context given beforehand.
We don’t know these characters yet. We didn’t know their loved ones. Yes, it’s relatable; many of us have lost someone close to us. But we’ve also seen enough funerals in films to know the difference between real loss and a dramatic device. If this death is essential to the protagonist and their story, perhaps you should begin a few weeks or even months after the funeral.
Generally, most screenwriters enter their stories too early. They confuse what should be a backstory with a first act. Grief is a familiar enough part of life that we’ll recognize it in more imaginative and subtler ways than a funeral.
5. Chase scenes in the woods or forest
This is an opening cliché I’ve seen emerge in horror and thriller scripts in recent years. Usually it’s a young woman being chased by a mystery killer or supernatural entity. Not too long ago, I actually read a script that started with a young woman being chased and killed in the woods, but then she wakes up — whew! it was just a dream! — and then proceeds to do her morning routine. Three opening clichés in a row!
Seriously though, this is the least egregious opening on my list because, at the very least, it shows the writer is thinking the right way: Create a compelling scenario and hit the ground running. The problem is we’ve just seen it too many times in indie horrors and thrillers over the years. Like the other overused tropes, the idea of a character being chased by someone or something dangerous through the woods borders on parody. No matter what adjectives you use or the atmosphere you try to create, it’s difficult to make the woods or a dark forest scary anymore. You might as well be writing about a “spooky old house on a hill.”
That being said, the woods will still be a popular setting in low-budget horrors and thrillers due to economics. Once again, it’s the job of the screenwriter to think of an inventive or subversive way into this familiar location. Familiarity in and of itself is not a cliché. Oftentimes a different approach is enough to turn something old into something new.
Written by: Edwin CannistraciEdwin Cannistraci is a professional screenwriter. His comedy specs PIERRE PIERRE and O’GUNN both sold with more than one A-list actor and director attached. In addition, he’s successfully pitched feature scripts, TV pilots and has landed various assignment jobs for Universal, Warner Bros, Paramount and Disney.