The opening of your story needs to intrigue and draw an audience in. The way to do that is to start off with a mystery.
Imagine walking into a room and seeing two people sitting together. Boring, right? Now imagine walking into that same room and seeing two people arguing, but as soon as they see you, they suddenly shut up and act politely to you. Right away you know something was happening before you showed up and your curiosity may be piqued as you wonder what’s going on?
That’s the feeling you must give your audience the first time they meet your story.
You want to hit the audience with a mystery. Something is happening that occurred before the audience even showed up, and now they’re witnessing some event that’s already taking place and heading somewhere. Your audience is immediately intrigued and curious, and that initial sense of curiosity is what grabs your audience and gets them involved in your story.
Think of “The Sting,” an Academy Award winning film starring Paul Newman and Robert Redford. Right from the start, we’re thrown into an organized crime office. That’s different, since most of us have never worked in organized crime. The era is also during the Great Depression, so the historical background also grabs our attention, but we’re curious because something is in motion already. In this case, a man is supposed to deliver a large amount of money.
Even if you’ve never seen “The Sting,” this opening is intriguing because it plays on our curiosity making us wonder, “What’s going on?” When we see the money runner given the task of delivering a large amount of money safely, we suddenly know this character’s goal and the movie is moving forward right from the start.
In the beginning of nearly every story, the villain’s plan is already in motion but we get dropped right in the middle of it so we don’t know what’s going on. Gradually as the movie unfolds, we learn more and more about the villain’s plan until near the end, we know exactly what’s happening and why. Then the only question left is who will win, the hero or the villain?
In “The Terminator,” the big question is why is the Terminator trying to kill Linda Hamilton. Finally near the end of Act IIb, we learn the real reason the Terminator has arrived, and suddenly everything that happened at the beginning makes sense.
In “WALL-E,” we see a solitary robot surrounded by mounds of garbage. As the story progresses, we gradually understand how it got that way.
In “Star Wars,” we see Darth Vader chasing Princess Leia’s ship, but we don’t fully understand why.
Start off every story with a mystery that gradually clears up as your story progresses. By not revealing everything up front, your audience will be curious to know what happens next. By gradually revealing more details, you keep stringing the audience along. By the time the audience understands what’s really happening, the movie is nearly over and Act III is ready to show the final conflict. Once the audience knows what’s at stake and why, the final conflict suddenly has more meaning than watching two people fighting no matter how many special effects or fancy karate movies we see.