Without a compelling introduction to your screenplay, you're dead in the water. If you don't captivate a reader and make them want more, how can you expect them to keep reading your script? You've got to get the reader's attention and keep it, so today, I'm going to step you through how to write a screenplay opening hook with examples.
A hook is exactly what it sounds like; it's the idea that "hooks" a reader into caring about the rest of your story. A hook is written into the first five to ten pages. In an age of short attention spans, you need to give the reader a reason to stick around and invest in the rest of your story.
Examples of Hooks in a Screenplay
The Shape of Water
In "The Shape of Water," written by Guillermo del Toro and Vanessa Taylor, we start off floating at the bottom of the river and then gradually push into what we realize is a flooded apartment. Kitchen chairs and end tables float among fish. A narrator speaks about a princess without a voice and of love and loss. A sleeping woman floats above her bed before she gently sinks down. An alarm clock goes off, the water vanishes, and we find ourselves in a non-sunken apartment. We then follow along with the woman as she goes about her day.
This is an excellent point to remind you that as a screenwriter, you're not just writing. You're creating visuals. Of course, you know that, but sometimes you can get so caught up in trying to have your story make sense or having certain things happen you put concerns about the visuals on the back burner.
This opening is so unexpected and visually interesting that it makes us think, "Of course I'll follow this woman about her day. I want to know more!" It's very mysterious. At first, you might question if the water is really there, but then you realize it's more of a dream sequence, and you wonder what the water represents. The mysterious, whimsical nature of the visuals combined with the narrator's intriguing talk of princes, princesses, and monsters makes the reader (and eventually, the viewer) want to know more.
You can check out the screenplay for "The Shape of Water" here.
The Usual Suspects
The neo-noir mystery "The Usual Suspects," written by Christopher McQuarrie, begins with an injured-looking man on a boat lighting a cigarette. We see a stream of liquid near him. He lights the book of matches and uses that to ignite the liquid in a trail of fire. The fire is extinguished by a man whose face we don't see. The faceless man casually approaches the injured one, who seems torn between surprise and resignation. They have a brief conversation before the faceless man shoots him. The faceless man proceeds to set a fire igniting the boat in explosive flames. We're then told via flashback how the men ended up on the ship.
This opening immediately piques our curiosity about the mystery of it all. In terms of action, we're starting at a very high point: There's murder and arson! The technique of showing something and working your way back to explain how it happened is very effective in the film. This technique works particularly well when the story you're telling is such an intriguing mystery as in "The Usual Suspects."
Read the screenplay for "The Usual Suspects" here.
The sports comedy film "Caddyshack" was written by Brian Doyle-Murray, Douglas Kennedy, and Harold Ramis. It begins with a glorious day on the golf course! The sun is rising, the sprinklers are going off, and the neighborhood gopher is prowling around. A mother wakes up her dozen children. The elder son gets a talking to about saving up for college. He hurries off, biking his way to his job as a caddy on an upscale golf course, home to some oddball characters. "Caddyshack" introduces us to this family, and we get an impression of where our main character comes from. Most importantly, we're introduced to the setting of the movie, a country club golf course, and we get a peek inside the workings of it.
A strong comedy hook should demonstrate and alert to the type of comedy that will be seen throughout the film and where it can be expected to come from. "Caddyshack" does just that quickly, drawing humor from its golf course location.
You can read the script for "Caddyshack" here.
The hook is not the be-all, end-all to your script. A screenplay with a good hook can still fall apart in the middle or have an unsatisfying end. You shouldn't overlook the rest of a script and merely be satisfied with a good hook. Hooking readers and viewers into your story is essential, but you must keep them engaged with a captivating story to the end. Hopefully, the films I mentioned inspire you and give you some ideas about your own hooks. Happy writing!