The beginning of your story needs to grab the audience right away and let them know what type of story you’re telling. Two common ways to do this include focusing on the villain or focusing on the hero.
Movies like “Rocky” and “Die Hard” start out by introducing the hero first. Right away, the hero needs to be doing something active. In “Rocky,” Rocky’s fighting and losing. In “Die Hard,” Bruce Willis is terrified of flying and a passenger cheerfully talks to him to ease his fears. When you start a movie by introducing your hero, you need to subtly introduce your hero’s goal right away to foreshadow the rest of the story.
Movies like “Star Wars” focus on the villain right away. With this approach, the villain must start pursuing a goal right away, although we don’t know what it might be until much later.
The emphasis on either the hero or the villain is more of a choice since in reality, both your hero and villain are pursuing a goal from the very beginning although we, as the audience, don’t necessarily know what it might be. In “Die Hard,” Hans the terrorist has already put his plans into action but we don’t see that. In “Rocky,” we don’t even know who Apollo Creed is until much later, but his plans are already in motion long before we meet him.
In “Star Wars,” we don’t see the hero until much later, but Luke is already dreaming about living an adventure and getting off his boring planet. The key is that both the hero and the villain are pursuing goals right from the beginning of the story. That’s why you absolutely must know the goals of both your hero and villain from the beginning. Unlike novels, movies don’t have the luxury of gradually introducing us to the hero or villain so we can see them formulate a goal. We need to know what that goal is right away even if we don’t know what they’re really searching for. Gradually discovering the goals of the villain is part of what keeps us on the edge of our seats because each Act reveals a bit more of the villains’ goal until we finally understand the full story before Act III. When Act III begins, we have a clear picture of what both the hero and the villain want, and now it’s just a matter of watching to see which one will win in the end.
Although you can often write a beginning that introduces the basic tone of your story, it’s usually best to introduce your main story. In many bad James Bond movies, the opening scene has nothing to do with the rest of the story, but just establishes James Bond. The better James Bond movies introduce an action scene while also setting up the rest of the story at the same time. In “The Spy Who Loved Me,” James Bond escapes from a bunch of skiers trying to kill him. To escape, James Bond kills one of the skiers, who turns out to be the lover of a Russian agent he’ll later work with, who has sworn to kill the man who killed her lover. In “Skyfall,” James Bond gets shot and nearly dies, which sets up the story on how he might be too old for this type of work any longer.
As a general rule in screenwriting, try to say as much as possible using as few words as possible. The more information you can cram into every scene, the less likely any scene will drag and feel dull and pointless. It all starts with your beginning. Write a great beginning and you set the tone for the rest of the story. Write a weak beginning and you’ve handicapped your story from the start.