The Power of the First Image
This week, we’re going to be looking at two very different scripts: the pilot for Living With Yourself and an older film called Michael Clayton.
Both of these scripts illustrate one of the most important concepts in screenwriting, which is the power and importance of the very first image in your script.
Once we understand how to use the first image, build the first image, why that first image is so important, and how to know if your first image is working, since this podcast is kicking off our 2020 season, I also want to talk about how you can kick off your own 2020 writing season. We’ll discuss how you can prime your own first image, and yourself as a writer, in order to succeed and hit your goals in this next year.
It’s going to be an awesome podcast, and I’m so excited to be back with you all. So, let’s get started.
Why is the first image so darn important?
The first image is the only image you can guarantee will actually be read by anyone who decides to read your script.
Readers, coverage readers, producers, managers, agents, and stars, they all have more scripts to read than is humanly possible, and most of these scripts are abysmally bad.
When I say bad, I mean no redeeming qualities whatsoever. Completely wrong for the person reading them, not well-executed, not exciting, paint-by-numbers, and been done a million times. This is what people are used to reading.
This means when a reader goes to pick up your script, they’re not thinking, “Oh, I’m so excited. A wonderful script by a talented, new writer!” They’re thinking, “Oh God, I’ve got to read another script. I hope it doesn’t suck.”
The first reason your first image is so important is because it’s your opportunity to say to that reader, “Guess what? This one doesn’t suck. This one is going to be awesome. And not only is it going to be awesome, but this is what it’s going to feel like for you. This is what your experience of the TV show is going to be.” From that first image, the reader can immediately say, “Oh, I think this is for me,” or, “You know, maybe this is for somebody else.”
The same is true when your script is finally produced. It may seem jaded to say that producers are picky and give up on a script if they don’t like the first image. You might think, “Wow, they should really wait and see all the awesome stuff I have in the future.” But the truth is, your audience is doing the same thing, especially now that we have Netflix.
We’re not sitting around waiting for ABC to start their new show at 7pm. We have Netflix now, which means we can sample the first minute of a bunch of different shows or movies and decide, “Is this for me or is it not for me?” The audience is also making that decision from the very first moment they see your very first image.
There’s a great story from the movie Little Miss Sunshine. The writer, Michael Arndt, had written a wonderful script. In that script, the first image was of Miss America waving on a TV screen.
The director famously said, “I’m not going to shoot that. Instead, I’m going to shoot little Olive waving at the screen.” When asked why he made that choice, he said it was because the first image is too important, and you don’t want to throw that image away. For that first image, he wanted it to be about the character, not about Miss America.
That’s the level of detail and thought you want to bring to your first image.
Your first image is not something you can throw away. It also can’t be just a piece of candy you throw at the audience.
You can’t just blow something up and expect that your first image is going to work.
For a first image to really work, it has to capture the spirit of the show or movie. It has to capture the genre experience, the feeling the audience is going to experience. This means if you’ve done your first image right, some people are going to watch it and say, “Oh, this is not for me,” while other people are going say, “Yes, this is what I’ve been waiting for.”
There is no limit on how much time you can put into your first image. The truth is, that first image is going to help you in so many ways. If you’ve taken my Write Your Screenplay class, you know how we build seven act structure out of first and last images.
When you create that first image of your film, it’s not just a way of seducing a producer or even an audience member into your script; it’s also the beginning of your character’s journey.
It’s also a structural building block for you to come back to and play with, experiment with, and discover.
In fact, when you look at the first image and last image of your movie, your pilot, or even of your whole series, they should together, if you saw just those two images, tell you the entire structure of your character’s journey. You should be able to feel what your character’s journey is, just by looking at that first and last image.
That’s how important that first image is. It’s important for commercial reasons, and this is one of those nice confluences of art and commerce, and it’s also really important for creative reasons. You’ve got the creative side and the business side of it, and those two things are converging beautifully. You’ve just got to nail a first image that feels like your movie or series.
Remember, your first image is the first moment of your audition.
If you’re an actor, you know that a great actor, when auditioning, doesn’t come up and say, “Hi, I’m Joe Smith. I’m an actor, and now I’m going to perform Hamlet.” A great actor shows up at the audition and they are already Hamlet. They don’t step into character; they come in as character.
If you’re in the business world, you know that the way you show up for your job interview, by showing up a little bit early and by the way you’re dressed, defines who you are and helps that person remember you. It can lock you in and give you a name.
Sometimes this can go very well and sometimes this can go very badly, but understanding that first impression, once it’s locked in, is actually very challenging to change. Unless you have a long-term relationship where you really get to know people, that first image doesn’t go away.
In fact, they’re likely to later tell the story as, “Oh my God, when I met her, it was the craziest thing. She spilled coffee all over herself. I didn’t realize she was so put together, as I later discovered.”
That first image never goes away; it stays forever. Similarly, that first image of your script becomes a window through which every other thing that happens is experienced.
Let’s talk about how this works because there are a million ways to develop a great image. You can use art, craft, meditative writing, inspiration from pieces of art, or irony; you can use a million different things.
But here is what you need to know about your first image. First, you want to make sure your first image is something the audience has never seen in exactly this way before. If your first image is something the audience has already seen this way, what are they likely to think about your script? They’ll think, “Oh, it’s going to be cliché.”
This doesn’t mean no one has ever seen anything like it before, because there’s nothing new under the sun, but you want to make sure there is something just a little bit special about it. It’s got a bit of a hook to it.
Second, you want to make sure your first image is setting the right tone for your movie, that the tone it establishes for the film or television show is the actual tone the show is going to have.
This brings us to our conversation about the show and film I want to speak about. Let’s first talk about Living With Yourself.
Living With Yourself is such a great example of the power of the first image because Timothy Greenberg, the writer/creator, has a real problem with this show.
He has an incredible premise, which I’m not going to ruin for you yet, but it’s super fun, silly and mind-bending, and it creates a wonderful, little romantic comedy. And that’s the feeling he wants you to have; it’s something a little twisted, funny and silly, and maybe a little dark.
His problem is that the first 13 or 14 minutes of the 26-minute pilot is pretty much standard fare; it’s sad sack, romantic comedy stuff. It’s stuff we’ve seen in a million romantic comedies. It’s a character we’ve seen before.
Paul Rudd is the guy who is going nowhere in his life. His work is not going well. He messes up the big pitch at his advertising agency because he’s unprepared, and the conniving dude next to him, of course, nails it with a super cheesy pitch. He’s unhappy in his marriage. His wife isn’t connected to him anymore. She wants to have a baby, and he’s afraid to do it.
If this sounds familiar, it’s basically the start of pretty much every romantic comedy: some dude going nowhere whose life is changed by going through this romantic comedy.
We have the traditional sad sack setup. It’s even a job we’ve seen before. We’ve seen the failed pitch scene before, the sad bar scene before, and the fight with his wife scene before. All of these scenes are well-executed, but none of them actually tell us how special this piece is going to be.
The reason this is a problem is because if Timothy Greenberg just shows you what his premise is, it’s not going to work. It’s not going to be as much fun as it is.
A lot of writers think of the first 10 to 12 pages of their script as set within the concept of the normal world. They think the first 10 pages is where you set things up. The truth is, if you spend the first 10 pages just setting things up, no one is reading page 11.
The first 10 pages of your script need to grab your reader and shake them. They need to say, “Pay attention.”
In an ideal world, Timothy Greenberg would be able to jump right into that with the pilot of Living With Yourself. But in this case, he can’t. In order to deliver the wonderful trick surprise he’s getting to, which, again, I’m not going to ruin for you yet, he needs to have these sad sack scenes. He’s executed those scenes as specifically and as well as he can. He’s got great actors in the roles, but he has that problem.
So, what does he do? What he does is create an awesome first image. And that first image is the opposite of anything you would ever expect in a romantic comedy.
The first image pans down into a forest. You’re looking at the ground of the forest when, suddenly, the dirt begins to move. Out of the dirt comes a man’s body wrapped in a plastic bag, and you’re not sure if this is a zombie moment or a ‘being born’ moment.
But it’s this really weird image that feels out of place for a romantic comedy or for a Paul Rudd movie. It’s shot with just enough humor that you’re not genuinely scared, but with just enough darkness that you don’t know exactly what’s happening. You don’t know if it’s just a metaphor for what it’s like to be reborn, or if this is something that’s actually physically happening in the script.
From there, he goes into this traditional sad sack comedy. It’s so wonderful because while you’re watching this sad sack comedy that you’ve seen a million times before, you’re not just thinking, “Oh, it’s a sad sack comedy.” You’re thinking, “How does this relate to what I already saw?”
By about 14 minutes in, Miles (Paul Rudd), the main character, has gone to the spa and we’ve gotten the first big joke, which I’m not going to spoil for you, and suddenly we’re launched into the premise. By the time we get to the end of that 26-minute episode, we know exactly what we’re going to watch.
But all of that was created from that first image, which set the tone, the feeling, and the experience of the show for the audience.
What Timothy Greenberg then does, knowing we’ll find out later that this is a flash-forward we started with, is use that and an improv tool we call “Yes, And” to build the premise that we’re going to jump around in time and in point of view in this piece. It’s all part of how he’s going to land this premise.
This is what’s so great about the first image. It’s not just setting the tone, it’s not just a captivating image that’s alarming for a romantic comedy, and it doesn’t just help us get through that normal, sad sack stuff with our curiosity sparked.
The first image creates a blueprint for the structure of every episode we’re going to watch from this point forward.
That’s the level of thought you want to bring to your first image.
I’m going to give you one more first image. Michael Clayton is a movie most of you have probably seen, so I’m not too worried about spoilers. But, it’s a great movie to study. In fact, I often teach it in my Write Your Screenplay class because the seven act structure of Michael Clayton is so brilliant.
What the writer, Tony Gilroy, does is fascinating because he’s got the same problem. Basically, the concept for Michael Clayton comes from Tony Gilroy getting really frustrated with lawyer movies.
What he’s said is that all the really interesting stuff at law firms doesn’t happen in the courtroom; that’s just a tiny piece of it. The really interesting stuff happens in the kitchen. It happens when the lawyers are working out deals and figuring out how business is going to work. But in every movie, law is depicted as if it happens primarily in the courtroom.
This bothered Tony Gilroy, so he decided he wanted to write a thriller set in the kitchens of law offices. Now, that’s probably the worst idea for a pitch ever, right? “I’m going to take the most boring aspects of a profession most people already think is boring and I’m going to dramatize them.” You can see he’s got a problem there.
His other problem is that Michael Clayton becomes a thriller, but it has a very, very slow burn. It’s not Jason Bourne; we’re not thrown immediately into action sequences or life and death stuff. We start off with George Clooney’s character who considers himself a janitor, a lawyer whose job it is to clean up rich people’s messes.
He goes on a journey that starts with, “I’m a janitor,” and ends with, “I am Shiva, the God of Death,” which you can see is a pretty huge journey for a character. It does end up happening in thriller terms, but it takes a long time to get to that thriller angle.
With Living With Yourself, we talked about a first image as one isolated moment. With Michael Clayton, we can talk about the whole first sequence as the first image.
The first sequence of this piece creates a way for us to understand the tone, genre, and theme, and gets us sucked into this movie.
If you remember the first sequence of Michael Clayton, George Clooney’s character is called to clean up a hit-and-run by one of the most despicable people his firm represents. This very wealthy man has killed somebody, fled the scene of the accident, and now it’s George Clooney’s job to clean it up.
There’s a brilliant scene where we watch George Clooney have to do that work, and we see the effect it takes on his character’s self-esteem. He leaves that place, driving off in his sports car. At one point he gets out, and we don’t know exactly why.
He approaches a bunch of horses, and we don’t yet know the meaning of those horses or why he is approaching them, but we see the horse’s breath in the cold. We see George Clooney pat the horse’s nose when, behind him, his car explodes.
This is another use of first image, in this case first sequence, to set the tone of the movie. In a seven act structure, that moment we’ve just watched doesn’t actually happen in Act One; it happens in Act Five. It’s about two-thirds of the way through the movie before this sequence actually happens.
But what Tony Gilroy has done is grabbed that sequence from later and pulled it up to the front. In doing so, in the same way that Living With Yourself did, he’s solved that problem for himself.
Now, these are outliers. The easiest way to build your first image is to start with a great image and launch yourself linearly into your story. That’s how most great movies do it; they just start with the first thing that happens and launch linearly into the story. That’s the easy way to do it.
But these are two scripts with a challenge, which is that the show or film does have a very strong genre, but that genre develops slowly over time.
By using that very first image, the writer is able to buy himself some time to allow the story to develop and keep your interest, even as he moves you through the slower stuff.
So, we’ve now talked about a couple of examples of how to use the power of the first image or first sequence to power your writing. Now, I want to talk about how to use it to power your writing career.
We’ve just gotten through the holidays. If you’re like most writers, you’re probably deeply off schedule and found the holidays to be the hardest possible time to keep your writing moving forward at the pace you feel is necessary.
The good news is you’ve probably picked up a lot of wonderful fodder because you’ve spent some time with your family. But you’re likely aching to write, and maybe you’ve even set a New Year’s resolution that this is going to be your year.
I want to talk about the power of the first image in your life and how you can use your January to change the story you tell yourself about your writing career and your life as a writer.
To do this, I’m going to talk a bit about a guy named Dan Ariely. Dan Ariely is not a screenwriter; he’s a brilliant behavioral economist. His basic premise is that people don’t actually behave in a rational way. Instead, almost every decision we make happens in an emotional way and is influenced by the way we look at ourselves.
One of his experiments was able to prove how quickly one moment could completely shape someone’s view of themselves and even their future behavior. He came up with a test and found that essentially everybody cheats, but most people cheat just a little bit.
He developed a test that was very easy to cheat on, and he gave that test to a lot of people. By doing this, he was able to say, “I know people will cheat this much on the test on average.” For example, if I give this test to 10 people, they will cheat on–I’m going to just make up a number–10% of the problems.
He had a baseline. He knew if he didn’t do anything to these people and just brought them in to take the test, they would always cheat across the board by a certain amount.
This is probably feeling familiar to you, right? Most of us do the things we say we’re going to do, but maybe we cheat a little bit on ourselves.
What Dan Ariely did next was break people into two groups. In one group, he gave each person a pair of Gucci sunglasses and said, “This is a pair of genuine Gucci sunglasses worth about $400. I want you to put these wonderful sunglasses on, go out into the world for 30 minutes, and experience what it’s like to see the world through the genuine article. Go find out what it’s like to be the kind of person who wears a $400 pair of sunglasses.”
In the second group, he gave out the same authentic Gucci sunglasses. But instead of telling the group they were authentic, he said, “These are a pair of knockoff Gucci sunglasses. They’re worth about $5, but they look exactly like the real thing. No one will be able to tell the difference. Put these on, go out into the world for 30 minutes and see what it’s like to experience the world through these cheap knockoffs, knowing no one will ever know the difference. Everyone will think you’re wearing $400 Gucci sunglasses.”
The amazing thing he discovered when they came back was that 30 minutes had completely changed the behavior of the people to whom he had given both kinds of sunglasses. Those who had been given the authentic Gucci sunglasses cheated a lot less on the test. Those who had been given what they were told were knockoffs cheated a much higher amount on the test than average.
What Dan Ariely was able to prove is that in 30 minutes you can totally change your view of yourself, from being a relatively authentic person to being either a very authentic person or a very inauthentic person.
He found that change in your point of view of yourself would actually change your behavior.
I think you can see where I’m going with this. The way you structure your January as a screenwriter is your opportunity to show yourself that you are a genuine writer. It’s your opportunity to show yourself how things are going to work this year and how you’re going to build your writing schedule. This is your first image, the place you’re starting from, and the way you want to build your life.
As you’re building your writing career, I want to remind you that this giant experiment didn’t require a lot of work. It required 30 minutes of doing something and it shifted a person’s point of view of themselves.
In screenwriting, the way we translate this is by setting small goals we know we can achieve, achieving them frequently, and celebrating those successes.
What I’d encourage you to do this January is to set strong goals you absolutely know you can achieve and notice what it’s like to be an authentic screenwriter.
Notice what it’s like to show up, even if you’re only showing up for seven minutes three times a week. Notice what it’s like to show up at the exact time you say you’re going to write and not stop until you’ve achieved your goal.
It doesn’t matter if your goal is a page or seven minutes of nonstop writing, make your goal so small that there’s no way you can talk yourself out of achieving it. What you’ll find, if you start to hit that goal, is that the way you look at yourself changes.
This sequence you create for yourself in January can become the basis for your entire screenwriting career. Simply by setting these goals and achieving them, you’re teaching your subconscious mind that you are, in fact, a writer. You are, in fact, the kind of person who shows up. You are, in fact, the kind of person who moves toward their dreams, who doesn’t just talk about it, but actually does it.
What you’ll notice is that seven minutes starts to become 15 minutes. You’ll find the hour you never thought you’d have and start to have it often. You’ll see that the paragraph you’d get done in seven minutes soon becomes two pages, three pages, four pages, and that your productivity grows and grows.
As you start to see yourself as a writer, you find more and more opportunities to write, which starts to carve out writing time in your life.
I hope this podcast was helpful to you. We also have a lot of wonderful classes starting up in the New
We have the next installment of my Write Your Screenplay class, if you want to learn the foundations of screenwriting and 7 Act Structure, which is an amazing place to start.
We have a brand new format for our TV Comedy Wrting – Level 1, a wonderful 4-week workshop with Emmy Award winner Jerry Perzigian.
We’ve got a new TV Drama Weekend Intensive coming up, plus we have a new kind of class I’m really excited to share with you, which is our workshop class.
Most of you already know about ProTrack, which is our one-on-one mentorship program where we pair you with a professional writer.
Now, for students who prefer to work in a group, we also have intermediate and advanced workshop classes where you can be paired with a group of writers who are at a similar level of experience and who will inspire and challenge you. You can develop your work with them in a group meeting, twice a month, for as long as you want to stay involved. It’s a really exciting, new class.
We hope to see you here at the Studio, live online or, if you’re just a podcast listener, drop us a line, give us a comment, and let me know what you’d like to hear more about.
Have a fabulous new year as a writer!