Many writers make the huge mistake of trying to write a screenplay from start to finish in a linear fashion. This guarantees problems because in the beginning, you aren’t clear what details need to appear in the end. That means you’ll have to modify the beginning eventually so it matches up with the end.
Rather than write linearly from beginning to end, try writing scenes out of order by focusing on the major scenes first. The two most most important scenes to create are the opening scene that introduces the hero along with their unresolved dream, and the ending scene that shows if the hero achieved this unresolved dream or not.
The opening scene that introduces the hero foreshadows the ending scene so it’s important that everything introduced in the opening scene plays a role in the ending scene. Study mediocre movies and you’ll notice how the opening scene contains information that plays no part in the end. Then study great movies and notice how the opening scene packs in information necessary to create a satisfying conclusion.
This is how the opening and ending scenes of “Back to the Future” work by introducing the hero, Marty:
|Opening scene||Ending scene|
|Marty looks for Doc in his lab, which establishes his relationship with Doc||Marty tries to get back in time to save Doc from getting shot by the terrorists, but he’s too late|
|Marty plays guitar to audition for the school dance but gets rejected||Marty has to fill in as guitarist at the school dance so his parents can kiss|
|Marty sees a truck he wishes he could own||Marty finds the truck he wanted in his garage|
|Marty donates to the Save the Clock organization to pay for a clock that got struck by lightning||Marty can get back to the future by harnessing the lightning bolt to power the time machine|
By knowing the end, it’s easy to write the opening scenes because you know where the story is going. If you don’t know what happens in the end, you can’t write an effective opening scene without major rewriting after you finally do write the ending.
To save yourself from wasting time, define the ending first. Once you know what happens in the end, you can then go back and write a more effective opening scene that matches the ending. Without matching the ending, an opening scene risks containing irrelevant information that has no bearing on the story and simply distracts from the main story.
There are two types of details that the opening scenes must foreshadow in the end:
- Specific details
- Mirror image actions
Specific details represent items or actions that are important in the end. In “Back to the Future,” one minor detail is that the hero wishes he could own a fancy truck. Then after he’s changed the future, he discovers his parents have bought him that same truck and left it in the garage for him.
A more important specific detail from “Back to the Future” involves the Save the Clock organization that gives the hero a flyer detailing the exact moment when lightning hit a clock. That information about the lightning is what the hero needs in the end to power the time machine and send him back to his own time.
Mirror image actions occur when the ending shows the opposite from the beginning. In “Back to the Future,” the hero gets rejected from playing guitar at the school dance. Then in the end, he has to fill in for the band’s guitarist so his parents can dance and kiss.
Another mirror image action scene occurs in the beginning when the hero searches for Doc at his home. Then in the end, that same action gets repeated when the hero searches for Doc at the shopping mall parking lot right before he gets gunned down by terrorists.
By knowing what happens in the end, you can plant specific details in the opening scene that’s important in the end. By knowing the actions the hero needs to take in the end, you know what similar actions the hero needs to take in the beginning.
Once you know your ending, you automatically know your beginning (and vice versa). The opening and ending act like bookends to frame your entire story. Get the opening and ending scenes to match and you’re on the way to creating a well-structured story. Fail to match the opening scene with the ending scene and you’ll risk winding up with an unfocused, disjointed, and ultimately unsatisfying story before you’ve even started writing.