Telling the Backstory Visually

In the old days, bad stage plays used to have a maid and a butler talk about the problems of the main characters. This dialogue was meant solely to tell the audience who the main characters were and what they want. Once the maid and butler finished their dialogue, they were never seen again.

Such a clumsy way of introducing a story won’t work today. However, the beginning of every story must grab the audience’s attention right away and tell us what we need to know to understand the rest of the story. Instead of using a maid and a butler to tell us what’s going on, “Star Wars” simply tells us what’s going on through its unique scrolling text that disappears in the background of stars. While not the most elegant way to introduce a story, it’s much better than just ordinary text on the screen.

A far better way to introduce a story is to use a visual element that says it all without saying it. In “Waterworld,” the Universal Studios logo of the world appears, then shows the land masses getting flooded by the oceans until the entire planet is covered in water. That simple animation tells you everything you need to know in seconds.

A similar approach to this occurs in “The Survivalist,” a movie about a man surviving in a world where society has completely fallen apart. In the opening scene of “The Survivalist,” a graph displays two lines. One line shows the population of the planet and a second line shows the global production of oil. The two lines gradually climb but suddenly skyrocket as they represent the future.

Suddenly, the oil production line halts and plummets straight down. Moments later, the population line halts and plummets straight down. With just this simple image, we know that the world’s population has dropped dramatically because of an oil shortage. We don’t know the details, but we do know that something terrible has happened to the human race and society has collapsed.

“WALL-E” is another movie that uses a simple image to introduce the entire story. In the beginning of “WALL-E,” we see skyscrapers. As we get closer, those skyscrapers turn out to be mounds of garbage. As the camera zooms in even more, we see armies of broken down robots, frozen in various poses. Finally, we see the hero, WALL-E, a lone robot diligently working to stack garbage into piles that form the skyscrapers we saw earlier. Without a single word, “WALL-E” tells us what he hero is and that he’s alone in a world filled with trash.

A visual image is always preferable than straight narration because an image engages the audience more. The initial scene is most effective when it foreshadows the final battle.

In “Rocky,” Rocky appears fighting in a run down arena, getting beaten by his opponent. Only when his opponent cheats by head butting does Rocky get motivated to fight back and win the fight. This fight foreshadows the championship fight in the end.

In this short scene, we learn two crucial facts¬†about Rocky. First, he can win when motivated. Second, he’s a down and out boxer fighting in pointless matches with no hope for the future.

This opening scene isn’t just about foreshadowing the ending but is about introducing the hero and his problem in a visually engaging manner. How exciting would “Rocky” be if the opening scene consisted of words telling us that Rocky is a down and out boxer with no hope for the future? That would be boring. Seeing Rocky as a down and out boxer in a dingy boxing ring is far more visually exciting.

So craft your opening scene carefully. That opening scene must do more than just grab the audience’s attention. It must also introduce your story without directly introducing your story. Audiences don’t realize that the opening scene is performing multiple tasks. They just want to be entertained so make sure your opening scene entertains first, and informs second. If your opening scene fails to inform, then ultimately your movie will also fail to entertain.

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