Due to the massive amount of info hurled at us each day through phones, computers, and social media, our collective attention span is shrinking. While in the past, it was OK to meander into the opening of a book or film and spend time introducing characters, setting things up, the expectation now is to get your story rolling fast.
Here’s the opening line from Celeste Ng’s beautiful novel Everything I Never Told You, “Lydia is dead. But they don’t know this yet. May 3, six thirty in the morning, no one knows anything but this innocuous fact: Lydia is late for breakfast.”
Here’s the opening for AMC’s miniseries THE NIGHT MANAGER (based on a John LeCarre novel.) We see Richard Roper, who appears to be a benevolent philanthropist, making a speech about creating his “Safe Haven” project for refugees. We cut immediately to unrest in the streets (there’s a violent Arab Spring type uprising,) as Jonathan Pine, the night manager of the Nefertiti Hotel in Cairo, rushes toward his place of employment to help protect the guests.
Do you see how quickly the conflict is introduced and we meet the main characters?
One of the most common problems with early book and screenplay drafts is that the story takes too long to get started.
Here’s how to begin your book or screenplay with a bang!
Start with your story already in motion. In the first moment of your book or screenplay, the story must be already moving forward. Better to let the reader/viewer have to catch up, than to spoon feed them boring set up. Notice how Ng tells us right away that Lydia is dead. We know that something terrible has already happened. In the opening scene of the NIGHT MANAGER, there’s an uprising. Jonathan is rushing to the hotel. There’s no set up. We’re right in the middle of the action, which is already moving full steam ahead.
Plunge us immediately into CONFLICT. Get to the inciting incident of your story quickly. The catalyst that will drive the narrative forward. Ng’s novel starts with a death. Jonathan Pine races through streets filled with screaming mobs and smoke bombs and protesters and violence. See how we are immediately engulfed in conflict?
Visually establish your theme. If you can use an image (no dialogue) to reveal your theme, awesome. The reader may not yet know what this image means, but they will. Ng’s novel starts with an image of a girl who is late for breakfast. One of the themes of this book is family secrets. The visual of parents not being able to locate their daughter, subtly reveals this. Early on in THE NIGHT MANAGER we meet Richard Roper, who appears to be a benevolent man. In actuality, he is a ruthless weapons dealer, “the worst man in the world.” One of the themes of the miniseries is that things are not what they seem. See how we’re getting this visually, subliminally, right at the start of the story?
Introduce us to the main character. Lydia, the main character, is introduced in the first sentence. Jonathan Pine, right after we see Richard Roper. Quickly, we are being introduced to the major players in the story.
Pose the Central Dramatic Question. The Central Dramatic Question is the query, posed by the plot, that the reader or viewer wants answered. For example, in the BOURNE IDENTITY, the dramatic question is, “Will Jason Bourne figure out who he is?” In Ng’s novel, we want to know, “What happened to Lydia?” In THE NIGHT MANAGER, we see Jonathan trying to save his hotel guests. When one of them (his love interest) is killed, the central dramatic question becomes, “Will he avenge her?” See how the writers are introducing us to these central dramatic questions right off the bat?
Take Action! Do you have too much set up in the opening pages of your novel or script? If so, how can you get your story moving more quickly? Start with your story already in motion, plunge us immediately into conflict, and if you can, visually establish your theme. Introduce us to your main character. Have you posed a dramatic question that is strong enough to hold the reader/viewer to your story?
Have fun starting your book or screenplay with a bang!
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