Mystery and conflict form the heart of every scene in a story, but it’s especially important in the beginning to grab our attention and foreshadow the main conflict of the story. More importantly, the beginning of the story should summarize the entire story and drop us in the middle of a story that has already started.
In “Die Hard,” the beginning works like this:
- John McClane arrives in Los Angeles to get back with his wife (story summary)
- John McClane’s marriage is already on shaky ground so showing up at his wife’s corporate Christmas party is an attempt to get back together again (the story has already started)
In “A Quiet Place,” the beginning works like this:
- A family must stay quiet to survive in a world where monsters hunt by sound (story summary)
- Monsters have already killed most people and devastated the world (the story has already started)
In “Harold and Maude,” the beginning works like this:
- Harold fakes suicide because he doesn’t like his life (story summary)
- Harold has been faking suicides to taunt his mother ever since he discovered he felt better being dead than being alive (the story has already started)
Stories can’t afford to waste time introducing the characters, setting, and story because that would take too long. It’s far more efficient and interesting to start the story, not at the exact beginning, but after the beginning. By starting the story after it’s already begun, now it’s far easier to create mystery that will hold an audience’s attention because the audience will want to know what’s going on.
“Raiders of the Lost Ark” doesn’t waste time introducing us to Indiana Jones packing for a trip to search for an artifact. Instead, it thrusts us right in the middle of Indiana Jones risking his life to to retrieve an ancient artifact while hidden traps and his own helpers try to steal it from him.
Start a story as late as possible. If a story needs additional information before it makes sense, consider an introductory scene that explains everything, but make that introductory scene full of conflict and mystery as well.
For example, “Wargames” is about a teenager hacker who breaks into NORAD and risks accidentally launching nuclear missiles that could start World War III. This story makes sense only when the introductory scene explains how this situation could come about.
In the beginning scene of “Wargames,” two missile silo officers show up at a mysterious location and head down in an underground missile silo. Then they’re ordered to launch their nuclear missiles and one officer refuses while the other officer points a gun at him and orders him to launch the missiles. Because humans are so unreliable when it comes to launching nuclear missiles on command, NORAD gives complete control of the nuclear missiles to a computer, setting up the rest of the story.
Think of starting a train. What’s more exciting to watch? The first few moments when a train slowly starts to move or when a train is already hurling down the tracks at top speed? That’s the difference between starting your story at the very beginning and starting your story right after it’s already begun.