How do you get your story off to a running start from the first minute? You start with a bigger story initiated by your villain. Now your hero’s story is just one story inside this much bigger story.
In the 1994 film “Hotel Rwanda,” the first scene is just a blacked out screen and the voice of a rebel radio announcer explaining why they must take back their land and kill their enemies. Right before we even know who our hero might be, we already know who the villain is and can only imagine that the worst that could happen will happen.
That’s the way every story must begin. Before the story even begins, the villain is already in motion and taking action now. Within a few minutes of “Hotel Rwanda,” we already see a crate full of machetes broken open on the floor, which foretells of future massacres. Then we see a street demonstration where a mob gathers around a van where someone from the other tribe is seated. Only when the hero waves a T-shirt with the proper picture on it do the street demonstrators leave, but not before we already get a sense of the threat facing the hero.
From the very beginning, we’re constantly getting hit on the head from all sides about the coming storm, and that’s the way a story can start off with a bang. Think of a hurricane where everyone hears of the news, everyone starts boarding up buildings, and everyone flees. That’s the sense of immediate motion your story needs to grab an audience’s attention right away.
“Die Hard” is a clever exception to a certain extent in that we don’t see the terrorists at the very beginning. Instead, “Die Hard” opens with a slow pace with Bruce Willis on an airplane. There’s minor tension when the passenger sees the gun, but Bruce Willis assures him that he’s a cop, so everything’s fine. Yet, the threat of danger is already revealed by the presence of the gun.
What you don’t want to do is start your story off slowly where the audience has no idea why they’re watching or what might happen next. Starting a story too early will simply be dull and boring.
In “Inglorious Basterds,” the story starts off with a simple farm and a man chopping wood when he sees in the distance a convoy of cars. Suddenly everyone panics and we as the audience don’t quite know why, but we sense that something’s wrong, and our sense gets rewarded when we see the Nazis drive up.
The tension just keeps tightening from there as the Jew Hunter questions the farmer and finally gets it out of him that the Jewish family is hiding underneath his house.
The basic pattern is start with a promise of something happening, keep tightening the screws, and then unleash an event that releases tension and gives us the worse possible outcome. Now your story is off and running when we meet the hero, we already know what dangers he or she is facing so we’re wrapped up in their fate right from the start.
The big story is your villain is already in control and setting a plan in motion. Your hero is an innocent by-stander and winds up getting caught in the whirlpool as a result. That’s how you start your story off with a bang.