The beginning of your movie is your first impression to the audience. You never get a second chance to make a first impression, so make this beginning work hard for your story.
The beginning of a movie roughly corresponds to the first 15 minutes of a 120-minute movie. This beginning segment of your story must set the tone of the story, introduce the hero, explain the hero’s problem, introduce the villain, explain the villain’s goal, and foreshadow something that will motivate the hero in the future. Sound like a lot to accomplish? It is, but if you fail to explain your story from the start, your audience won’t care or want to know what happens next. The beginning of your story must hook the audience and make them want to know more.
The Tone of your Story
Let’s start with the tone of the story. The tone simply identifies whether the story will be serious, comedic, scary, realistic, romantic, or any other feeling you want an audience to experience. There is no single “right” tone since every story is different. The point is that you introduce the tone of your story right away so the audience knows what to expect.
In “Ghostbusters,” the beginning scene shows a librarian alone in the library, witnessing books moving on their own, cards flying out of the card catalog, and an unseen ghost rushing straight at her. This scene alone could foreshadow a horror story, but then the next scene clearly identifies the story as a comedy when Bill Murray hits on a young, attractive co-ed while electrocuting a troublesome guy. Now we’re laughing and we expect to keep laughing, so the rest of the story better deliver more comedy.
In “Pulp Fiction,” a young couple in a coffee shop are discussing the best places to rob. This conversation hints at possible violence and crime, and we’re not disappointed later on when the couple stands up, pulls out their guns, and announces they’re robbing the coffee shop. At this point, we expect more violence and criminal activity for the rest of the movie.
In “Saving Private Ryan,” we first see an old man walking towards a cemetery filled with World War Two soldiers. This serious tone sets us up to expect a war movie that will show us violence and explain who this old man is and what happened to him way back in the war.
The tone of your story tells your audience what the rest of your story will be like. If you start off with a comedic scene, but the rest of your story is filled with horror, audiences will be confused and your story won’t work as well.
There’s a reason why people eat at familiar fast-food franchises. It’s not because the food is necessary tastier, but because they know what to expect. Likewise, your beginning segment needs to establish the tone of your story right away so your audience knows what to expect later on. Changing the tone of your story halfway will simply disappoint your audience’s expectations.
Sometimes a story may introduce the hero first and sometimes a story may introduce the villain first. In either case, the beginning of your story must eventually introduce the hero so we have someone to root for.
The first time we meet the hero, we have no idea who he or she might be or whether we should like that person or not. That’s why this first story segment must immediately gain our sympathy by showing the hero doing something noble that earns our respect and showing the hero beaten down and oppressed through no fault of his or her own.
In “Up,” we see the old man’s condensed life with his wife, showing him as a naive kid who grows up and honestly loves and cares for his wife, which we can respect. Then we’re heartbroken when we see him losing his wife before he can take her on her trip of a lifetime, so now we immediately feel sorry for him and wish for his life to get better.
In “The Sixth Sense,” we see Bruce Willis honestly trying to talk and reason with the intruder in his bathroom, which earns our respect. Then we get a shock when this intruder pulls a gun and shoots Bruce Willis in the stomach.
In “WALL-E,” we see the WALL-E robot all alone and pining for love as he watches an old movie. As an audience, we get to like WALL-E as he fiddles with strange pieces of garbage he finds, takes care of a pet cockroach, and stares longingly at a couple on a video holding hands. We sympathize with WALL-E’s loneliness on a planet by himself, especially as we learn that he’s trapped there due to circumstances beyond his control.
The keys to introducing the hero is to make the hero noble and respectable, and make the hero sympathetic by showing him or her trapped as a victim of circumstances. This dual combination of a noble hero as a victim gains our sympathy and makes us want to see the hero win in the end.
The actions of the villain often initiates the entire story. In “Star Wars,” Darth Vader intercepts Princess Leia’s ship, setting the story in motion. In “Die Hard,” the terrorists have already made their plans although neither Bruce Willis nor the audience are aware of these plans, but without these plans, the story could never begin. In “Jurassic Park,” the dinosaurs are already starting to get out of control as a dinosaur attacks and kills a handler.
Without Darth Vader, there is no story in “Star Wars.” Without the terrorists, there’s nothing for Bruce Willis to fight against in “Die Hard.” Without the dinosaurs, there’s no reason for the main characters to fight for their lives in “Jurassic Park.” The villain starts the story. The hero reacts to the villain, learns and changes, and finally confronts the villain.
Sometimes the villain appears in the beginning as Darth Vader does in “Star Wars.” Other times the villain is represented by another person or action that causes immediate conflict. In “Die Hard,” the head terrorist doesn’t appear right away. Instead, initial conflict appears when Bruce Willis accidentally shows his gun, causing a fellow passenger to react in shock, only to relax when Bruce Willis explains that he’s a cop. Seeing the gun foreshadows the need to use the gun.
Immediately after this scene, a pretty flight attendant hints that she’d like to get to know Bruce Willis, further causing conflict in him because he’s on his way to reconcile with his wife (although we don’t know that yet as the audience). Still, there’s enough tiny conflicts sprinkled throughout the beginning of “Die Hard” to substitute for the real villain and give a hint at the major conflict to come (get back with his wife and defeat the terrorists).
The beginning segment of a movie must show what obstacles the hero will be up against. Of course, just showing us the villain or the villain’s actions isn’t enough. This first segment of a movie must also tell us what the villain wants.
The trick here is not to reveal everything, but to tease the audience. In “Star Wars,” we know that Darth Vader wants to stop Princess Leia’s starship, but we don’t know exactly why. In “Die Hard,” we know something is happening, but we don’t fully understand what. In “Finding Nemo,” we learn that the villain is anything that makes the ocean a dangerous place. In all cases the villain sets the story in motion in pursuit of a goal, which will intersect with the hero’s life later.
Although the beginning segment of a movie may not fully explain the villain’s goal, you as the writer must know that goal in order to effectively introduce the villain into the story. This beginning of your story must intrigue the audience, pose a question, and avoid answering that question to provide suspense.
Every beginning poses the big, main question that the entire movie hinges around. Somewhere in the beginning, your audience must know what your hero wants.
In “Star Wars,” Luke wants to get off the boring planet he’s stuck on and explore the galaxy.
In “Fargo,” Jerry needs money to pay off his debts, so he needs the help of two criminals to kidnap his wife.
In “Inglorious Basterds,” Brad Pitt wants to kill as many Nazis as possible.
In “Die Hard,” Bruce Willis wants to get back with his wife.
The beginning of your story must always let the audience know this big question of what your hero wants. Once the audience knows this Big Question, they’ll want to know if the hero wins or loses.
Foreshadowing the Future
Finally, the beginning segment must introduce something that will change the hero’s life and help link the hero into the villain’s world.
In “WALL-E,” this link occurs when WALL-E discovers a plant. Although he doesn’t know it, this plant will ultimately link him with Eve and bring him into conflict with Auto, the evil auto-pilot computer.
In “Die Hard,” this link occurs when Bruce Willis goes to the Christmas party where his wife works.
In “Star Wars,” this link occurs when Luke R2D2 plays the hologram of Princess Leia.
In “The Shawshank Redemption,” this link occurs when Andy (Tim Robbins) is sent to prison where he’ll meet Red (who will help him) and the prison warden and other villains.
The basic blueprint for the beginning segment of a story is this, but not necessarily in this order:
- The villain sets the story in motion by pursuing a goal, which is unknown to the audience.
- The hero proves noble to earn our respect, yet a victim of circumstances, which earns our sympathy.
- The hero has a clear goal.
- Something enters the hero’s world that foreshadows a link to the villain.