You only have one chance to make a first impression so your opening scene better grab your audience right away. You can do that by creating a “What the heck?” moment in that initial scene. This “What the heck?” moment poses an intriguing question to the audience without answering it, leaving the audience hungry for more.
In “Birdman,” the hero is sitting cross-legged, levitating peacefully in the air. Right away that grabs our attention because we don’t know what’s going on and we want to find out. Not only is this “What the heck?” moment attention-grabbing, but it also summarizes the root conflict of the story, which is the hero fighting his alter-ego, the Birdman superhero movie character. Yet we never find out about the meaning of this levitation moment until near the end.
When a story begins with a “What the heck?” moment, it grabs us and never lets us go. In “Pulp Fiction,” that “What the heck? moment occurs when a happy young couple in a coffee shop start talking about robbing the place. Then the scene ends when they stand up and do it.
In “Star Wars,” this “What the heck?” moment occurs when we see one starship chasing and firing on another one. Then soldiers board the other starship. This opening scene gives us nothing but questions since we have no idea what’s going on. Who is Darth Vader and what does he want? Who is Princess Leia and what did she hide in R2D2? What’s Darth Vader going to do to Princess Leia? The more questions the opening scene can pose, the stronger it’s grip on the audience.
Watch any great movie and you’ll see that it starts off with a “What the heck?” moment right away. The less the audience knows in the beginning, the more they’ll want to know by following the rest of your story. If you can’t make the initial scene interesting, make the second scene interesting. In “The Sting,” the initial scene shows a man getting money to deliver somewhere in a city during the Depression. That scene is mildly interesting but it’s used to set up the next scene, which occurs when this money deliveryman witnesses an apparent robbery and helps stop it.
This seems straightforward until we realize that the money deliveryman gets conned out of his cash that he was supposed to deliver. That creates a massive “What the heck?” moment as we’re fooled by the con men just like the money deliveryman was tricked.
Your opening scene (or at least your second scene) must create a “What the heck?” moment as quickly as possible and make the audience scratch their heads as they try to figure out what’s going on. This keeps the audience engaged and holds their interest so you can keep posing questions and gradually start answering them as you draw the audience along the story.
Remember, the opening scene can’t be mild. It has to be attention-grabbing, an introduction to both the hero and the villain (or the forces of the villain), and a summary of the entire story. Take care to craft your opening scene carefully because it’s your best and only time to make a great first impression.