The beginning must hook the audience right from the start and the best way to do that is through conflict or mystery. Conflict is about fighting. Mystery is about an unusual situation that’s gradually revealed a little at a time.
“Star Wars” opens with conflict by showing one starship attacking a smaller starship. Even though we have no idea what’s going on, the conflict grabs our attention. To keep our attention, conflict must let us know which side to root for. That usually requires identifying an underdog that’s being unfairly treated. Such unfair treatment immediately causes us to sympathize with that underdog.
Seeing the bigger starship of Darth Vader overtake and eventually board the smaller starship of Princess Leia immediately lets us know who the underdog is.
“Rocky” opens with a boxing match so initially we have no idea who to root for. Rocky starts losing but to unfairly turn him into a victim, the other boxer head butts Rocky. That infuriates Rocky so he fights back and eventually wins. Such action not only makes Rocky the underdog and thus sympathetic, but also foreshadows his eventual change by overcoming adversity and triumphing in the end.
“Sonic the Hedgehog” opens with Sonic the Hedgehog being chased through a city by his nemesis, Dr. Robotnik, who’s flying a vehicle shooting missiles at Sonic as Sonic tries to dodge traffic and missiles at the same time.
Conflict immediately grabs our attention and opens the story with a bang, but it’s far more often for a story to start with a mystery that intrigues us to wonder what’s going on.
“Harold and Maude” opens with a man committing suicide. That makes us wonder who this man is and why he hung himself. The mystery simply deepens when a woman strolls into the room, spots the hanging man, and calmly proceeds to make a social phone call. Now we want to know why this woman isn’t concerned in any way at a dead man dangling from the ceiling.
“Die Hard” opens with a a terrified man in an airplane, sitting next to a fellow passenger. The mystery is simply why is this man so scared. Then the mystery deepens when we see that this man has a gun.
“A Quiet Place” opens with a family quietly moving through a deserted town. Right away, we want to know what this family is afraid of and why they have to move so silently.
Conflict typically foreshadows the battle at the end. Mystery grabs our attention but follows up with conflict and tension since we know she’s doing this against her parents’ wishes.
In “Harold and Maude,” the conflict begins when the hanged man starts pretending to choke to get the woman’s attention and the woman (who turns out to be his mother) ignores him, calmly informs him of dinner plans that night, and walks away. Now we’re really confused about their relationship. The fewer answers we have, the more we want to find out what happens next to get that answer.
In “Die Hard,” the conflict gradually grows as the hero catches a ride in a limousine that’s sent to pick him up, and the limousine driver is nosy and starts prying into John McClane’s motives for being in Los Angeles. Not only does this provide information we need to know about the story, but it provides minor conflict as John McClane tries to deal with the kookiness of the West Coast and the limousine driver tries to dig into John McClane’s life.
In “A Quiet Place,” the family remains quiet but a little boy wants to play with a toy that makes noise. The father is frightened, which deepens the mystery, as he yanks the toy away. Later, the sister gives the toy to the boy along with batteries without letting her parents know, which provides more conflict.
When a story begins with conflict, it must be something visual and big to grab our attention. When a story begins with mystery, that mystery can be anything that seems out of the ordinary that makes us want to know more. Even when conflict follows the mystery, that conflict can still be minor such as John McClane unsuccessfully trying to reveal his personal problems to his limousine driver in “Die Hard.”
Put a little conflict and mystery in every scene of your screenplay. That will keep audiences wanting to know more and pull them along in the story from start to finish.