The Flashback Opening Scene

One way to open a movie is to start with an intriguing scene where the hero is in desperate trouble. Then the rest of the movie becomes a flashback that explains how the hero wound up in that initial desperate scene.

In “War Dogs,” the hero is dragged out of the trunk of a car somewhere in Albania and gets beaten up by two guys. Suddenly a third guy points a gun at the hero’s face and right before we can find out what’s going to happen, we go to a flashback that explains how the hero wound up getting beat up in Albania.

In “Deadpool,” Deadpool is busy gunning down bad guys on a freeway. Then the story flashes back to the beginning so we can understand why Deadpool is killing these men in the first place.

In “Don’t Breathe,” a strange man is dragging an unconscious girl (the hero) down the street early in the morning down an abandoned street. This scene immediately makes us wonder what’s going on.

Such an initial intriguing scene serves two purposes. One, it shows who the villain is. Two, this intriguing scene grabs our attention and makes us want to know what happened and why.

Even if your screenplay won’t use this technique, imagine how it could work. Pluck a scene close to the end of your story where your hero is battling or appears to have lost to the villain. Now ask yourself if your screenplay from the beginning adequately explains how and why your hero is in that desperate situation. If your screenplay appears to contain irrelevant information that has nothing to do with your intriguing, desperate scene, then you’ll know that you need to cut that irrelevant information out.

For example, imagine a movie that does not use this opening scene/flashback technique such as “Star Wars.” If “Star Wars” did use this opening scene technique, it might start by showing Darth Vader just about to shoot Luke down. Then the movie would start with a flashback to explain how Luke got in an X-Wing fighter that Darth Vader is about to shoot down.

This would immediately show that the cut scenes from the original “Star Wars” didn’t belong. For example, the original “Star Wars” screenplay included a robot with Hans Solo that keeps breaking down. What does a breaking down robot have to do with Luke being trapped in an X-Wing fighter? Nothing, which means that broken robot was unnecessary.

In “Aliens,” imagine if the opening scene showed the hero (Ripley) fighting the alien queen. Then the beginning of the movie would have to be geared towards explaining how she got in that situation, and that means scenes that James Cameron wrote and cut from the final film would have been easily spotted long before James Cameron even wrote those scenes.

In “Aliens,” James Cameron wrote one scene explaining how the little girl learned how to crawl through the ventilation ducts to play hide and seek with her brother, and also explained how her father was the first colonist to get the alien trapped on his face. None of this information is necessary or relevant to help us understand how Ripley wound up fighting the alien queen, so you can see why these scenes were cut.

So imagine opening your screenplay with an intriguing scene and then flashback to explaining how that intriguing scene came to be. Even if you don’t open with that intriguing scene, it will help you stay focused on writing information that actually matters.

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