Screenwriters always need to think about grabbing the reader’s attention and keeping it at all costs. A riveting plot, intriguing characters, and an engrossing setting all help draw attention, but there’s perhaps no better technique than the narrative cold open to grab the audience by the collar and not let go.
What is a Cold Open?
A cold open is a pretty broad term. On the face level it refers to opening the story without “warming” the audience up. Instead you drop the audience straight in and let them figure things out for themselves. The technique is popular due to its ability to cast an audience as an active participant to the story. Sometimes cold opens are deliberately evasive, not letting their relevance to the main plot of the story known until much later. They can be as short as a minute, or stretch close to 15 minutes.
Bond movies are particularly famous for them. Here’s the cold open that introduced Daniel Craig’s Bond in 2006’s Casino Royale:
However, the cold open has developed to hold drastically different purposes across genre lines with comedy on one side and every other type of story on the other. There is some degree of crossover, but we’ll talk about that a little later. First, let’s explore the use of the cold open in a dramatic setting.
The Dramatic Cold Open
While TV is better known for using cold opens, movies have some great cold opens too so for the most part I won’t differentiate between them. In a dramatic story the cold open serves two functions: To draw the audience in and to contextualize the story to come.
Grabbing the Audience
Every emerging screenwriter has heard the old adage that the first ten pages are key to grabbing a reader. While cold opens are far from obligatory, they’re an interesting narrative technique that the reader will instantly understand. Even if the reader doesn’t fully understand the events of the cold open, they know its narrative function and are willing to suspend their critical faculties for a moment knowing that any questions will likely be answered in the coming story.
Each genre has its role to play. In a horror story the cold open is often used to introduce the antagonistic threat, setting up and executing a killer scare that becomes a template for the scares to come. A horror cold open seeks to shock the audience into a state of terror that will linger under the rest of the first act. This means that even if the first act is light on scares the tension of the cold open still keeps the audience tense. Think of Pennywise’s horrific murder of Georgie in It. That scene is spine-chillingly shocking and tells the audience two key rules of this world: Kids are not safe, and Pennywise is terrifying.
It Cold Open:
Or think of detective shows, whether they be about a literal detective, or about medical diagnosticians like that of House fame. Here the cold open usually follows characters outside of the main recurring cast resulting in their untimely demise, or in the case of House, when they fall sick for no apparent reason. The audience gets to see the conception of the narrative mystery and the cold open invites them to figure it out alongside the recurring cast. This trope is cleverly subverted in Knives Out, but I won’t spoil that here.
Contextualizing the Story
Think about the cold open like someone fishing. The audience is the fish, gladly taking the hook and being dramatically flung out of the comfortable waters. This is the flashy side of the cold open, but the fisher (you) has to use careful and precise technique to reel the fish in cleanly and quickly.
One way to do this is to immediately establish the theme of your story. The cold open should function like the rest of the story in miniature. If the cold open depicts an unwitting character being horrifically killed by a monster, then you are implicitly telling the audience that the rest of your story is going to use the similar techniques throughout. However, cold opens can introduce the main thematic ideas behind your story in a relatively subtle manner.
Think about the cold open to Scream. This scene is specifically set up to evoke an audience’s expectations of the slasher opening, only to make reference to the very horror tropes it’s playing into. Scream is a slasher movie about slasher movies and this opening scene asks the audience to be keenly aware of what their own expectations of slasher tropes are. Thematically, Scream’s opening scene asks to what extent the media we consume can affect our behavior in reality.
Scream Cold Open:
The cold open can also be used to conduct necessary worldbuilding so that the rest of the story is comprehensible to the audience. Star Trek is very well known for using this technique. As a show that can introduce a new sci-fi concept every episode, the cold open (or as Gene Roddenberry referred to it, the “teaser”) introduces the key rules of whatever world, alien, or social structure that episode will examine. In a world of complexities, these firm rules ground the audience and allows a greater understanding of events to come.
The Comedic Cold Open
To immediately preface the following explanation, the comedic cold open is not totally divorced from the dramatic cold open. The cold open within comedy seeks to draw the audience in and contextualize the events to come. However, the cold open has taken on a slightly different meaning within comedy.
The Opening Joke
There is perhaps no better show that uses the comedic cold open than The Office. Unlike the dramatic cold open, the comedic cold open is not beholden to being related to the rest of the story. It will use the same recurring characters in plausible situations, but the events of the comedic cold open can exist in a kind of vacuum. It’s quite likely that the events of a cold open, no matter how outlandish or dramatic they are, are never referenced again.
Perhaps the most important rule in the comedic cold open is this: Put your best jokes up front. That’s where most people will hear them. Saving them for later yields little benefit.
Take Dwight’s infamous fire drill. This episode of The Office was airing directly after the superbowl so the writers knew they had to nail the cold open. This cold open plays directly into Dwight’s comedic character, shining a spotlight on how little fire drill knowledge we actually retain in the face of an emergency, all while ramping the slapstick comedy up to eleven. An entire episode made out of this dramatic premise might have been exhausting, but condensed into an action packed five minutes the laughs come thick and fast with sharp dialogue and physical comedy.
Dwight’s Fire Drill:
The rest of the episode’s plot follows Michael’s attempts to reduce stress in the workplace following Stanley’s heart attack during the fire drill however, the rest of the episode’s events would be just as believable if the cold open hadn’t happened at all. In the reality of TV, the cold open can be divorced from the events of the actual episode with little consequences, so don’t be afraid to get creative and a little wacky.
Remember, the cold open’s ultimate purpose is to rein the audience in and keep them enthralled throughout the rest of your story by “hooking them”. Whether it be through a taste of the horror to come, a compelling mystery, or a healthy dose of laughs, the cold open is the amuse bouche of the story world, whetting the appetite for the meal to come.
There are about as many ways to write a cold open as there is to write a story itself. The limits that must spark your creativity are that it must launch your story, and that it must reel the audience in. Remember to grab the audience as soon as you can with something interesting, original, or arresting, while contextualizing the rest of the story. Don’t save your best jokes if you’re writing a comedic cold open. Put them front and center and prove to the audience that you can keep them laughing throughout.
As always, I recommend investigating some of the cold opens that you have found particularly memorable. How does it hook the audience? Does it contextualize the story to come in a significant way? Do the best jokes come in the opening minutes? See what works for others and figure out how to apply it in your own work.