In the beginning of your story, your hero is in a dead end life. The more awful you make this early introduction to your hero’s life, the more the audience will understand the motivation of the hero to change. Within the first segment of your story (the first 15 minutes), you need to introduce the following:
- The villain and a hint of the villain’s goal
- The hero and the hero’s dead end life
- The world that the hero lives in
- The Symbol of Hope that offers the hero a way out of his/her dead end life
Most importantly, put your hero in a dead end life early. The darker and worse the hero’s life can be in the beginning, the more motivation the hero will have to get out. In “Mad Max: Fury Road,” the hero tries escaping from a gang but gets caught. Not only is he caught, but he’s branded and held in a cage to be used as a blood donor for one of the gang members. Not only has he lost his freedom, but he’s been tortured and faces a life of having his blood slowly drained out of him. Definitely a life he’ll do anything to get out of.
In most movies, the hero’s early dead end life isn’t as bad, but still pretty awful. In “Legally Blonde,” the hero thinks she’s going to get engaged, only to find out that her boyfriend is dumping her. To her, that’s a horrible situation.
The hero always starts off in a dead end life with no hope. In “Die Hard,” the hero is trying to get back with his wife but his own stubbornness keeps them apart. The Symbol of Hope is actually the terrorist take over that will ultimately provide him with a way to get back with his wife.
In “Legally Blonde,” this Symbol of Hope is the idea of going to law school. In “Mad Max: Fury Road,” this Symbol of Hope is the woman truck driver. The villain’s goal drives the whole story but the Symbol of Hope provides the hero a path out of his/her dead end life to a better world.
What happens if the beginning of your story shows the hero in a good life? Then there’s no motivation for the hero to do anything, which creates a lack of empathy towards the hero. If we don’t care about the hero, we won’t care about the rest of the story no matter how many special effects or naked people we see. Sylvester Stallone made a bad movie called “Cobra” where he plays an elite police commando. In the opening scene, a nut case has killed several people in a supermarket and taken others hostage. Then Sylvester Stallone strolls in and kills him.
This opening scene fails because there’s nothing wrong in Sylvester Stallone’s character’s life. He’s a well-trained, competent, and deadly police commando and he solves the problem of the nutcase by gunning him down. Boring.
Now consider another Sylvester Stallone movie called “Cliffhanger,” where he plays an expert mountain climber. Here a woman’s harness breaks and he tries to save her but fails. Now he blames himself for the woman’s death even though he couldn’t have done anything to save her, but this puts him in a dead end life. Where he once thought of himself as an expert mountain climber, now he has to live with the idea that he failed to save a woman and saw her fall to her death.
Put your hero in a dead end life as early as possible. The worse the hero’s life in the beginning, the better. Make it truly a dead end life and then we’ll be rooting for your hero to escape it all the way to the end.