All television writing can be summed up in one word: economy. TV pilots must communicate the world, characters, genre, stakes, and tone to the audience—all in the span of a single episode. One of the best ways to efficiently and effectively set the stage for a pilot episode is with a strong cold open. Keep reading to learn what a cold open is, examples of shows using the technique, and strategies to craft the best cold open for your TV pilot.
“Brooklyn Nine Nine” Courtesy Fox
A cold open is usually an isolated incident in the first few pages of a TV script that displays the tone and genre of the series. After that, the audience is immersed into the world of the series without much further exposition; instead, context clues are provided through characters and stakes.
Cold openers are sometimes called “teasers” or “TV teasers” because they entice the audience to want more without giving the series’ storyline away.
Why is it called a cold open?
The cold open got its name because the audience goes into the episode cold, without seeing opening credits or a title. Introducing the story to the audience this way makes them invest in the characters and stakes without feeling like they’re being spoon-fed the narrative.
“77 Sunset Strip” Courtesy of Warner Bros. Television
TV networks started competing for viewership in earnest in the 1960s, and writers knew they had to capture audience interest immediately.
The first known cold open took place in the late 1950s, when the detective drama “77 Sunset Strip” used scenes from the middle of an episode at the beginning of an episode. This modified nonlinear narrative generated audience interest and encouraged them to keep watching.
The cold open did not become standard practice for dramas and sitcoms until the mid-1960s. Even then, series would often include a title sequence that did a lot of heavy lifting explaining the world of the show. For example, sitcoms such as “The Jeffersons” and “The Brady Bunch” musically explained show concepts after the quick initial scene.
Today, cold opens are standard for both dramas and sitcoms. With the rise of streaming TV and more viewership options than ever before, turning onetime viewers into full-time fans is critical for TV series.
“Stranger Things” Courtesy of Netflix
The cold open is primarily used in television, although films sometimes employ cold opens before the title screen shot. It is used to:
- Introduce primary characters
- Set narrative tone
- Engage audiences
News programs have always used a cold open. A broadcaster comes on camera and reads a list of topics they’ll cover throughout the night, teasing the story by showing, at the top of the program, that they will eventually get there. The cold open ensures that no one changes the channel and that viewers stay through the commercial break—or even on the streaming channel, where it’s easy to pick something else.
These 10 cold opens from comedy series are considered some of the best due to the way they introduce characters and context without overwhelming the audience with too much detail.
The cold open in “How I Met Your Mother” flashes forward into the future before cutting back to the present day. This gives a hint of what happens in the episode and also introduces each episode’s theme or lesson.
HBO’s “Barry” uses a darkly comedic take on the cold open to portray each episode’s use of the show’s balance of humor and bleakness. This allows the audience to adjust to the tone of each episode—whether it’s the main character gazing at a body in a trunk, or a mother and a son plotting revenge on the man who killed their family member.
Drama shows also often use the cold open to hook viewers. Procedural shows like “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit” and “CSI” usually use cold opens to show the discovery of a crime and present a clue that may help solve it. This incentivizes viewers to keep watching by drawing them in as amateur detectives.
Alternatively, “Lost” uses the cold open to establish the ongoing stakes of the series. The pilot starts with a cold open of the main character, Jack, waking up on a beach after a plane crash. The chaos introduces characters and their archetypes, giving a sense of where their stories will go.
“Parks and Recreation” Courtesy of NBC
The following elements will help you create a strong cold open that kindles audience interest.
1. Craft the tease
Consider the genre of your screenplay and the essence of what you want it to convey when writing your cold open. Use thematic elements of the genre (a funny gag for comedy, a climactic event for drama) to tease the rest of the series.
2. Consider characters and setting
Next, figure out the characters and the setting that should be introduced in the cold open. Who are the important characters and what is the world they inhabit?
3. Create suspense
What’s the situation that in some way creates suspense and entices audiences? The best cold opens place a character into a situation in which they must rely on their singular attributes.
4. Leave ’em wanting more
An adage that applies to writing most scenes is, “Arrive late, leave early.” This applies especially to cold opens; you want audiences to come into the scene later. Things should already be happening—remember, let the audience catch up a bit. Once you hit the conflict or climax of the cold open, cut from there, always leaving the audience wanting more.
For example, consider the cold open from the pilot episode of “Breaking Bad.” A man clad only in his underwear and a gas mask drives an RV across the desert. Sirens roar behind him as the man apologizes to his wife, holding a gun in the air—and suddenly, the main title appears. This is “Breaking Bad,” and the episode will tell the story of how that character got here. This cold open introduces the primary characters, a location, a problem, and a tease for what viewers will get if they follow the story.
Watch the cold opens you love in order to see what lessons you can glean from them. You can even try writing a few for shows you’ve already seen to hone your skills. Remember, this is the first chance you have to introduce people to your series. Make sure you include any pertinent information, but remember to let the audience work for the rest.