September 20, 2011

The Opening Number

by Gary Fearon, Creative Director

For many writers, coming up with an idea for a book or a screenplay is the easy part.  The hard part, they contend, is how to start the story.  If you have that dilemna, I invite you to take a cue from some of the great blockbusters. 

All good tales draw you in with a strong beginning that makes it impossible for you to not want to know what’s going to happen.  Here are elements that make them work:

A strong beginning gives the reader a taste of what lies ahead.  This can be done in a number of ways, such as starting out with action (like the murder in a mystery), or introducing a compelling hero and their present circumstances, soon to be challenged.  Additionally, the opening scene will establish the theme or moral that comprises the main idea behind the story.

JAWS doesn’t fool around.  From the opening credits we’re plunged under the sea, following the villain’s own predatory path to the tune of that ominous theme. Already feeling dread, we then see the prey: young people enjoying a beach bonfire, unaware that their party will be crashed in less than five minutes by a great white shark. You could say that the opening of  JAWS has teeth. (Or, if you prefer, legs.)

RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK opens with a bite as well, taking you on a relentless thrill ride through death traps, savages and snakes.  By the time we observe Indiana Jones at his day job of soft-spoken professor, we’re already familiar with his courage, ingenuity and weaknesses because of the riveting opening sequence. It’s obvious there’ll be more adventure ahead.

THE LORD OF THE RINGS begins as the classic fairy tales do, by spelling out all the backstory up front.  Without ado, we learn of the rings’ origin and how they sparked a war between good and evil, just as the Brothers Grimm caught us up on evil stepsisters at the start of Cinderella.

Disney is particularly adept at the opening number. After BEAUTY AND THE BEAST’s own fairy tale prologue, Belle reveals her hopes and dreams in song while introducing us to her village. The townsfolk chime in with their own observations about the heroine.  In the midst of this colorful gaiety, geese fly overhead, and one of them is shot from the sky, giving us an immediate negative impression of the man wielding the musket.  We’ve declared him the bad guy even before he has his first conversation with Belle.

FIDDLER ON THE ROOF, aided by an introductory narrative from its protagonist, begins with “Tradition”, a big, proud declaration of the code his village lives by, which for the next three hours is threatened at every turn.  Pick any musical and the opening number sets the stage for what follows.

Setup is everything.  Captivate your audience with a great opening scene, and they’re very likely to come along for the ride.

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