One of the greatest examples is the opening of Raiders Of The Lost Ark , where Indiana Jones is on the verge of finding a great treasure, deep in a cave in the South American jungle.
-by Lee Matthias
He’s confronted with a diabolical series of obstacles to getting to the treasure, each of which he expertly and bravely overcomes, one after another. Once he’s gained the treasure, he’s betrayed by his guide, and left trapped.
All appears lost. With almost superhuman effort, he overcomes his predicament only to then face being crushed by an ancient booby trap. He barely avoids death again.
But then, emerging from the cave, he is met by an army of fierce natives, and has the treasure stolen from him by the villain of the larger story.He tries to escape,against overwhelming odds, and when he manages it and is safe on his seaplane, he finds himself belittled by his pilot for being afraid of the guy’s pet snake slithering around his feet.
We get his universe of danger, his expertise, his daring and resourcefulness, his sheer luck, and his weakness, all in the space of ten or so pages. And for good measure, we meet the villain of the larger story. That’s an opening!
But openings don’t have to be mini-movies. They can focus on setting up the hero, the setting, or the background of the story, too. The only requirement is that they succeed in pulling the audience in, hooking them with appeal, surprise, and strong entertainment value such as action, drama, tragedy, humor, or excitement.
Elsewhere, we’ve already mentioned the opening of HARPER where detective Lou Harper, played by Paul Newman, is shown getting up after a rough night.
His reluctant decision to re-use some other day’s coffee grounds and filter tell us much about him: how poorly he must feel to need coffee that badly, how sloppily he must live to still have it in the trash, how dedicated to his job he must be to force himself forward rather than just go back to bed and sleep it off.
Openings don’t have to be mini-movies. They can focus on setting up the hero, the setting, or the background of the story, too.
I like to start by opening on a compelling image or action that embodies or comments on the story in some way. I am referring here to the very first shot or two. This has the effect of influencing the audience subtly, through tone or emotion. An example is the opening shots of ROBIN AND MARIAN: we see a still-life image of two ripe apples on a table, sumptuous and appealing, strongly reminiscent of classical renaissance paintings; then the fruit transforms, becoming brown and spoiled.
The imagery refers to the film’s story of an older Robin and Marian, long past the flower of youth. It sets up the larger story visually. Imagery can then begin the process of creating a film’s image system.
This is a way to influence the look and feel of the film on the visual level, thereby reinforcing or counterpointing the story level. Sound can be utilized in the same way, either corresponding to the image or counterpointing and commenting on the image.
A great example of the latter is in Francis Coppola’s film, THE CONVERSATION. The sound seems to bear no resemblance to the imagery, but as the opening progresses, it becomes clear what we are hearing and how it relates to what we are seeing.
The essential thing about beginnings is that they be about the business of the story and nothing less. This can mean starting the story itself, or setting up the story to be started after. And the story itself usually dictates which.
But, as with all screenwriting, there must be no space wasted on extraneous, irrelevant, or indirectly relevant material. One can’t establish just the setting of the tale if the tale is not directly about the setting itself.
Films that do this, such as Alfred Hitchcock’s REAR WINDOW have eventually related that opening setting to the story. It mustn’t be about some people and events that just happen to be in that setting, and as easily might’ve been in another.
So, Jimmy Stewart isn’t just another resident in the apartment complex, he’s a guy watching all those residents we’ve been seeing day and night because he’s laid up with a broken leg and can’t see anything else. He’s a guy who sees things, out his rear window.
The essential thing about beginnings is that they be about the business of the story and nothing less.
Pure action-thrillers most often just go right into the story, wasting no space on set-ups or back-story. They prefer to give all of that kind of information to the audience by indirect means.
It is the audience’s job to draw conclusions, infer meaning, and make the leaps necessary to stay with the narrative. The ones that don’t are left behind. This is because pure action films generally have universally-accessible Inciting Incidents.
The dilemma can be in the first seconds of the story because we can all relate without difficulty. Other types of stories may require the characters or setting to be established before introducing the Inciting Incident so that the audience can understand the impact and meaning it presents.
Pure action stories take the stylistic approach of realism. They create scenes and sequences that imitate reality to pull the audience into the moment and provide immediacy. This heightens the experience and produces the most visceral result.
Other action films may take a slightly less realistic approach, such as the James Bond and Indiana Jones films, where they allow for stylistic comment, including, occasionally, short-hand versions of back-story and self-deprecating, ironic, or clever types of humor.
Pure action stories take the stylistic approach of realism.
The more lyrical or metaphoric the story, the more room can be made for openings that set-up the larger story. This has the effect of implying meaning that is greater than the story itself.
The central character in Clint Eastwood’s film, HIGH PLAINS DRIFTER, is introduced with a shot of him approaching the camera out of a rippling mirage of high desert heat. This has the effect of visually implying his character comes from outside reality, drifting in from some other, higher plane of existence, in order to right the wrongs within the story.
Other types of openings that set up the larger film are the use of time-shifts to comment on the film’s story, or book- ending to frame or bracket the tale, giving the opening larger meaning.
CITIZEN KANE opens on Charles Foster Kane’s dying whisper, “Rosebud,” and then we move successively out of the extreme close-up we have of the snow-globe to his massive castle-like mansion, and from there to a newsreel that begins the process of explicating Kane’s life through film and life- spanning time-shifts. In this classic example, we are finally brought full circle by the end-shot of the sled with “Rosebud” emblazoned on it, just one more item from Kane’s life being disposed of in the furnace, profoundly book-ending a life without any other real meaning.
The irony is now clear: there is nothing more worth striving for in life than pure, unburdened, unattached, and innocent happiness, not even all the wealth,possessions, and power in the world.
(from his book “Lateral Screenwriting”,
Publishing, June, 2012)
I am a writer with three published novels, others on the way, a nonfiction book in the works, several screenplays written and in development.
During and after college, I worked as a theater projectionist and manager, in public relations, and as a literary agent selling to publishers and producers. Two heads are better than one, so I keep a human skull on my desk for inspiration (and a second opinion).
I currently work as a computer network administrator in government. I’m married and the father of two daughters. “I’m a computer professional: I don’t lie, I manage information.”
Photo Credit: Will Hart – monkeyc.net – Lali Masriera – Fr. Dougal McGuire