Five Essential Elements of a Great Beginning

By Robin Swicord

Categories: Alum Experiences,

When I watch a movie, the story hooks me within minutes – roughly the first 10 to 15 pages of the screenplay – or not at all. When I’m not hooked, I may not always walk out (or turn off the TV), but as I continue to watch I remain aware of myself residing outside the movie in a disengaged way, waiting for the movie to end.

Believe me, that’s not the experience a filmmaker wants the viewer to have.

In those first critical minutes of a good movie, the storyteller seduces the viewer with an irresistible invitation: Come inside and play. I think there are five essential elements that contribute to a great start:

Pace:
From the moment the movie opens, I feel I’m going somewhere. The narrative begins right away, without a lot of preamble or exposition to prepare me. Anything crucial that I need to know, I’m confident the storyteller will give me when the need arises.

Tone:
Within minutes I know what kind of story I’m being told, and I feel a sense of anticipation, because I already detect the presence of an original idea or surprising voice.

Character:
Within the first 5 – 15 pages, I’ve already chosen my representative in the story – almost always the protagonist – and I’ve locked in for the adventure that’s already unfolding.

Exception #1: In an ensemble story, I most likely feel represented by the group as a whole, and by the various  members of the group in alternating turns (Little Miss Sunshine).

Exception #2: That sense of “locking in” with the protagonist may be delayed when the main character is someone who over the course of the film will have to change or “awaken” before I find myself fully agreeing to “become” the protagonist. (Groundhog Day, Animal Kingdom) Meanwhile, rather than remain stranded outside the story, in the early part of the story I’ll agree to being represented by a “stand-in”, a character who believes in the protagonist.

Desire:
Within those early pages, I know what the protagonist wants – and even if the protagonist is nothing like me in real life, the storyteller makes me want that same thing too.

Impediment:
I know what stands in the way of the protagonist getting what she or he wants, and I’m already becoming convinced that this impediment can’t be easily surmounted.

Want to have some fun testing this list of elements? For the hell of it, select 5 DVDs of movies you love. Watch the first 10 – 15 minutes of each – and I think it’s useful if you have time to watch all five in sequence, jotting down notes. In each movie, pay attention to each of the elements I’ve given above, asking yourself:

-How did the writer create a sense of pace, of sending you heading willingly into the unknown?
-How did the writer clue me in to the tone of the movie, to the kind of story about to unfold?
-How did the writer introduce the protagonist? At what point did I feel myself “enter” the movie, giving myself over to the agreement to “be” this character?
-If it’s an ensemble movie: Who among the group opened the first door for me to join this group as one of them – or – —Who first engaged my sympathy or interest? How did the writer make that transference happen?
-How does the main character’s desire or motive – the thing that will drive the narrative throughoutthe story – connect to what you perceive to be the connective theme of the movie?
[Example: In the Bourne Identity, Jason Bourne has a desire to know himself. As a man who wakes up with amnesia and a bullet in his back, his motive is to learn who he is so that he can free himself from danger. But his desire to know himself is also connected to the desire to free himself from those who would control him. Themes of control over one’s life and the dangers of intimacy and the need to make one’s own identity weave together throughout the movie.]

-How quickly does the writer set up the impediment that the protagonist must overcome? And why do we care?
-How soon after the opening of the story did you feel yourself hooked into both the main character’s desire, and realize that there was an obstacle that would not be easily overcome?

Extra credit: For each movie you’ve selected, create a narrative question that in simple form encapsulates the through-line of the story.

Example: Little Miss Sunshine. “Will this family of so-called losers win the ultimate prize, which is managing to stay together?”

As an exercise, try creating a narrative question for the script you’re writing now. It can help clarify your intentions toward your story, and help you make decisions that will let you craft a strong beginning.

 

About Robin Swicord:

Robin SwicordRobin Swicord is a screenwriter and film director. She wrote the screenplay for the film Memoirs of a Geisha, based on the novel of the same name by Arthur Golden. Her other screenplay credits include Little Women, Practical Magic, Matilda, The Perez Family, and Shag. Her directorial debut was with the 1993 short film The Red Coat, for which she also wrote the screenplay. Swicord wrote the screenplay for Karen Joy Fowler’s 2004 novel The Jane Austen Book Club and directed the film, which was released in the United States on September 21, 2007. She also collaborated with Eric Roth on the screen adaptation of The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, based on the short story of the same name by F. Scott Fitzgerald.

 

 

Robin taught Story-making for Screenwriters as a Master Class in 2012. Find out more about our Spring Master Class offerings HERE.

 

 

Hedgebrook supports visionary women writers whose stories and ideas shape our culture now and for generations to come. The opinions expressed here are not necessarily representative of the opinions of Hedgebrook, its staff or board members.

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