The opening scene is a mini-summary of your entire story. Here’s what an opening scene must do:
- Grab the audience’s attention by making them wonder, what the heck is going on? (Then the rest of the story must eventually answer that question)
- Introduce the forces of the villain
- Introduce the hero
- Introduce the main conflict (even if we don’t know it yet)
- Leave us with a cliffhanger that keeps us wanting to know more
- Set up the ending
In the opening scene of “Wild,” the hero is a woman hiking alone when she takes off her shoes to study her bleeding feet. Then she peels away a broken toe nail. Just when we think her problems are over, she loses a boot that tumbles down the mountain. Furious, she throws the other boot after it and trudges off on a pair of makeshift sandals. That opening scene makes us wonder what’s going on, we see the forces of nature and the hero’s own impulsive nature working against her, we meet the hero as a woman hiking alone, the hero is trying to hike alone with no help and now she’s without boots, and now we want to know who she is, why she’s up there, and what will happen to her without her boots. In just this opening scene, we basically have a total summary of the entire story.
In the opening scene of “Whiplash,” the hero is practicing like mad on the drums when the sadistic teacher walks in to watch. The sadistic nature of the villain is subtly revealed and the hero’s dream of becoming the best drummer is also subtly revealed. The story’s ultimate clash will be between the hero and this sadistic teacher, and when the teacher walks away, we’re left wondering what will happen to the hero and the villain.
Remember, the opening and the ending are mirror images of each other In “Wild,” the opening is about a woman battling nature and herself. In the end, she finally reaches her goal (the Bridge of the Gods) and finds peace with herself.
In “Whiplash,” the opening is about a kid and a teacher sizing each other up about his drumming and the ending is about the teacher trying to humiliate the kid and the kid determined to show he’s a good drummer after all.
Study the opening of every good movie and you’ll see this pattern. In “Harold and Maude,” the hero appears to hang himself while his mother looks on and makes a phone call. As the mother continues chatting, the hero keeps trying to get her attention by waving his arms desperately. Then the ending is about Harold faking his suicide once more.
Think of your opening as a summary of your entire movie and as the mirror image of your ending. The opening scene, like all scenes, is about conflict and a goal. Knowing this, you can better shape what your opening scene should be.