Every movie starts off with a veiled promise of impending doom. You may not know exactly what’s going to happen, but you do know something inevitable is going to happen and this anticipation is what keeps you glued to the edge of your seats.
In the beginning of your story, plant a seed of impending doom. The beginning scene must hint of the coming conflict at the end. In “Inglorious Basterds,” this sense of impending doom occurs when the Nazi Jew Hunter directs his solders to machine gun a Jewish family to death, but the daughter miraculously survives. Just from this scene alone, we know somehow this Jewish survivor and the Nazi Jew Hunter are going to fight one another in the end.
In “WALL-E,” we see the WALL-E robot roaming around, surrounded by the wreckage of a world caused by the Buy N Large global corporation so we already have the hint that WALL-E will have to somehow battle the Buy N Large corporation, personified by Auto the evil computer auto-pilot.
In “How to Train Your Dragon,” we see Hiccup, the hero child Viking trying to prove he’s man enough to fight the dragons, thus hinting of the future conflict between Hiccup and the dragons.
By clearly defining the hero and the villain and setting up the conflict, your story now has a direction, even if your audience isn’t consciously aware of it. However, if you fail to set up the conflict immediately, your story will drift aimlessly and nobody may quite know why the story doesn’t grab them as much as it should.
“The Last Airbender” (my latest favorite bad movie) starts off with two young people discovering the Avatar (the last Airbender) encased in an ice bubble. They free him and that’s about it. We know who the heroes are, but do we know who the bad guys might be right from the start? No, and that leaves “The Last Airbender” feeling directionless. We have nothing to look forward to so there’s no suspense to draw us further into the story.
“The Clash of the Titans” (my other favorite bad movie) begins with dull narration explaining how the three gods (Zeus, Hades, and Poseidon) divided their kingdoms. We know who the villain is, but we don’t know who the hero is. We know the villain (Hades) wants revenge against Zeus, but we don’t have any sense of impending doom on what Hades might do to get back at Zeus. Then suddenly we see a baby (the hero) being born, but there’s no sense of impending conflict between the hero and the villain.
Every story needs this sense of impending doom. “Inglorious Basterds” sets up the conflict between the French girl and the Nazi Jew Hunter so we know something will happen, we just don’t know what. As the story progresses, we gradually learn how this French girl will take her revenge.
That’s what a story is all about. Identify your hero (most importantly) and your villain, and then hint of an impending conflict between the two of them. This will steer your story in the right direction and help guide your story to a satisfying conclusion.