Updated: Jan 19
Have you ever read the book Dracula by Bram Stoker? Cause I haven’t. But I have seen a handful of the movies.
And the one thing I’m always asking myself when watching these old monster films is why the hell are the openings so boring? In Dracula from 1931 the first almost twenty minutes of the movie are dedicated to Renfield getting to Dracula’s castle, not much happens other than exposition and characters talking about who Dracula is. Not much happens and it’s honestly quite boring.
And it’s not just Dracula, all sorts of monster movies from this time like Frankenstein and Godzilla have the same problem.
And you know why they don’t work? It’s because they lack somethings that all stories need to have. Conflict. If there’s no conflict, like with Dracula, things get boring very fast.
Now you might say: well, there are other movies that don’t have conflict in the beginning, yet you’re still engaged from the very start. And you’re right. Movies like Pulp Fiction and Alien don’t have any proper conflict until later in the story yet still have strong openings.
So, what is it about the beginnings created by Tarantino and other filmmakers that work so well in comparison to movies that don’t have an immediate problem?
This is what I’m here to talk about
For this post, I’m going to go over a lot of what I think are excellent openings and first scenes in fiction and other media. The way that conflict is introduced into the story. The way that they break structure to create character. And most importantly, the way that these stories engage you from the very first line.
This is The Art of the Beginning.
The First Scene
Originally, I wanted to go over what makes a good first line in literary fiction before going into openings as a whole, but then I realized I don’t have much to say on that front so instead I’m going to hop straight to beginnings as a whole. Now, what am I referring when I talk about beginnings? Well, I’m not just talking about the first couple of minutes or the first handful of lines. But almost the entire first act as a whole.
According to the book 5 secrets of story structure: how to write a novel that stands out by K.M. Weiland, the classic three-act structure needs to have a few key elements in order for it to work well, those elements being:
- The Hook
- The Inciting Event
- The Key Event
The Hook is something you’ve probably heard of before, it’s the very first thing that happens in your story that makes the reader want to read further. The Inciting Event is when the protagonist first has a brush with the main conflict of the story and The Key Event is when the conflict of the story properly starts.
Of course, these are all in accordance with the three-act structure and can vary depending on what you’re reading or watching. But even so, it’s still important to keep them in mind as they help create extremely engaging first scenes.
Now that we’ve discussed the fundamentals of good openings, next I want to go over a lot of different ways (or techniques) that I’ve made note of throughout the years. These are methods that storytellers have used to implement all three of these elements in different ways to create the all-important engagement that every story needs. So, let’s start with:
The Miscellaneous Scene
In terms of effective and easy to use techniques for creating strong openings, what I call The Miscellaneous Scene is by far one of the best if you ask me.
The idea behind this beginning is simple, to start with a scene usually devoid from the rest of the story that isn’t directly related to the main conflict or main character of the story. Think something like in horror movies or detective novels where there’s usually a prologue following one of the victims of the main murderer of the story as they get killed. In this example, the main character doesn’t make an appearance, but we do get a very good understanding of what the conflict is about.
Of course, this isn’t limited to just crime fiction and is used on a lot of popular movies and novels such as: Raiders of the Lost Ark, Jaws, and the Frankenstein novel.
I’m a big fan of this one for various reasons. First of all, it completes all three of the elements that first acts need to have in accordance with K.M. Weiland’s book. It also shows you the story and rarely requires any sort of explanation.
With The Miscellaneous Scene, it’s very easy to hook the reader as you don’t have to waste anytime explaining stuff or introducing characters since that comes afterwards. Instead, you can focus on creating a scene that doesn’t require any context and allows you to hop straight into what’s important. It also gives you a lot of freedom since you don’t have to worry about what comes before or after. Want to have a long action sequence in the very beginning of your story? With The Miscellaneous Scene you can do that and get away with it. Want to have the person who is set up to be the main character die in the prologue? You can do that.
Creating engagement is The Miscellaneous Scene’s game since this brief look into the world of the story can serve as the perfect steppingstone for what comes after.
To further punctuate how great this technique is done right, let’s use one of my favorite uses of it as an example, the aforementioned Raiders of the Lost Ark.
For the first 15 or so minutes of this classic action film, we see Indiana Jones on a quest to steal a statuette from a south American temple. This scene doesn’t have much to do with the main conflict of the story (that being to steal the lost ark before the Nazis) however, what it does do is give you a perfect representation of what Indy’s character is like.
From just seeing him work in this mission, you learn that he’s an adventurer, that he’s a risk taker, but at the same time, he’s still human and screws things up a lot, like when he fails to replace the statuette with the sand bad correctly, or when the Nazis take the statuette from him. And this is without mentioning the reveal of his fear of snakes at the very end of the opening.
With this miscellaneous scene unrelated to the main plot, you feel like you already know who Indy is and are ready to go on whatever adventure he goes on next. All while never even mentioning the actual main conflict of the movie.
The Normal World
This way of starting stories is probably the most common version, one that you’ve seen done countless amounts of times before and taken straight out of Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey.
Once again, the idea behind this one is very simple. You’re hero (the main character) is currently in what is called The Normal World, it can be a literal world or something more metaphorical. In this place, the hero has gotten used to living in a specific way, usually a comfortable life. But then, something happens, a call for adventure. Some event occurs that forces the hero to leave The Normal World and into the main conflict of the story. Sometimes he’ll reject it, but the hero will always end up leaving The Normal World in pursuit of solving the conflict.
To me, The Normal World is one of the safest ways to start your story. It’s very friendly to traditional structure and in general, works very well. Yes, in comparison to The Miscellaneous Scene, you might have a bit of down time from the very beginning up until the problem is introduced. But this down time can be used for a lot of things that aren’t possible in other techniques, primarily set up. The lie that the main character believes can be set up, what he wants, the reason for why he believes the lie, characteristic moments. Of course, all of this can also be done with The Miscellaneous Scene, but The Normal World makes it a lot easier to do so and is generally more effective. It’s easier to get more out of it in the long term.
Though, this technique also comes with its drawbacks. The obvious one is that The Normal World doesn’t really have much in terms of hooks. Because everything is so normal, there just isn’t much to immediately pull the reader in. On top of this, you also have some time between the very start of the story and the introduction of the problem which, as screenwriters will tell you, can be a death sentence for your reader’s patience.
There are ways you can circumvent these problems. Like giving your reader brief glimpses of the antagonistic force early on or by cementing an extremely strong and likable main character from the very start.
One of the best ways to go around the problems of The Normal World that I’ve seen is to combine elements of it with elements of The Miscellaneous Scene. Like in Lord of the Rings which starts with the creation of the ring and the defeat of Sauron to hook you in before cutting to Frodo’s normal world.
This technique has problems, but there are ways to go around them if you’re willing to put in the effort. Like all of these techniques, it’s all on the execution for engaging the reader early on. And if you do pull it off, then you’ll probably have a great opening in your hands.
Now, so far in this post I’ve gone over a lot of great ways to engage your reader at the start of the story. In terms of starting your story, there’s no real right way to do so. But there is a wrong one: The Exposition Dump.
The Exposition Dump
You’ve probably seen The Exposition Dump countless amounts of times throughout fiction, especially in kids’ movies and genre stories like fantasy or science fiction.
It’s the act of having a narrator or character in the story start off by blatantly explaining a lot of important aspects of the story. Like what the world is like or who the main character is.
I understand that sometimes exposition like this is necessary for the audience to understand key elements of the narrative, but The Exposition Dump just completely betrays one of the golden rules of storytelling: show don’t tell.
By blatantly explaining things (especially at the very beginning) you’ve probably already lost your reader as there’s no real hook, there’s no immediate conflict, nor is there any real character moments. Everything is just explained, and that’s boring.
Now, like all things, this doesn’t mean that The Exposition Dump is always a bad idea. If pulled off correctly, The Exposition Dump can work just as well as any of the other starting techniques that I’ve previously explored. Heck, one of the most iconic film openings of all time is an exposition dump.
The opening crawl, one of the best and most memorable ways that any story has started. It’s the definition of iconic.
The thing about Star Wars is that in its core, it’s a story that needs a lot of exposition in order to truly understand everything that happens as stuff like the force and lightsabers can’t really be explained well in a visual manner. Of course, George Lucas had the option of doing things the traditional way, but as I’ve said before, that option simply doesn’t work. His solution? To make the presentation as astounding as possible to make what you’re reading seem a lot cooler than it is.
The way the text slowly reveals itself, the space in the background giving it an intergalactic feel to it. And of course, the thing that ties it all together, John William’s score just fucking blasting in the background.
And the thing is, if you remove all these elements and put the opening crawl as plain text, it’s actually quite a boring read. But by making the presentation as best as he possibly could, George Lucas created something so amazing and iconic that every mainline Star Wars movie since has felt the need to replicate it even if it’s completely unnecessary.
Of course, I still don’t recommend using The Exposition Dump to start your stories. At the end of the day, it’s still a technique that pales in comparison to the other ones and requires a lot of effort put in for it to work properly.
It can be done well, but it will require you to jump through a lot of hoops to create the engagement that beginnings need.
So far in this post I’ve gone over three techniques to start your fiction piece that I’ve made note of over the years. But now, I want to briefly go over other forms of media and see how they start their pieces. I think doing this can give us fiction writers more ideas of how people start their work and maybe even take inspiration from them.
So, with that said, let’s continue with:
Beginnings in Non-Fiction
Having been doing these blogs for a few months now, I’ve learned juts how important having strong beginnings is for your non-fiction pieces. Heck, that was kind of the inspiration for this post.
While I’m definitely still learning about non-fiction and just how to write it, I think I can at least write this brief segment on it.
In school your taught that all non-fiction texts have an introduction, development, and conclusion.
In terms of the introduction, your told that the best (and sometimes only) way of starting your essay is by telling the reader key information about your topic. For example, say you’re writing an essay on Star Wars. Then you would start by saying that it’s a film released in 1977 that started a global phenomenon, was created by George Lucas and so on before going into more detailed information about the topic.
Of course, you then tell your teacher that there’s no point in wasting time writing in a bunch of redundant information cause she already knows all of this. But then she’s all like: “well, what if the person reading this doesn’t know anything about the topic.” And then you’re like: “well you’re the only person reading this, so your argument makes no sense Mrs. Kaitlin!”
While I do understand the idea behind it, in my opinion this manner of explaining important details to the reader simply does not work. It goes back to the “don’t blatantly explain things” concept I was talking about in The Exposition Dump.
You do still need to convey this basic information about the topic to your reader in some way but explaining it like they expect you to in school is just boring.
Instead, there are lots of other ways to convey the main idea of your non-fiction piece to your reader. One way that I think works very well is to find the story in your topic. This is a technique that the author Malcolm Gladwell uses very well.
In his book Blink (a book all about the subconscious), Malcolm Gladwell starts his text not by talking about what the subconscious is, but instead by talking about an art dealer who received a kouros statue in 1983. For those of you unfamiliar, a kouros is an ancient Greek statue of a young nude male, there were only about 200 made back the Greek age and most of them have been destroyed by time. The opening of Blink focuses on this kouros statue and the skepticism it received by professionals after it was admitted into a museum. The professionals didn’t know why they knew the statue was a forgery, they just had a hunch. At the end of the prologue, it’s revealed that it was eventually found out that the kouros was a forgery made in the 60s and all the professionals were right because they listened to their subconscious. See how it connects to the main topic?
Of course, my description of this beginning doesn’t really do the actual piece justice so if there’s anything that you should take away from this is that Malcolm Gladwell used a story to (much like in fiction) show you what the main topic of the book is instead of telling you.
I actually implemented this technique myself in my History of Shonen Jump post and I found it to work very well.
Like I mentioned before, I’m definitely still learning the art of non-fiction writing, but hopefully this brief deep dive gives you ideas of what you can do with this medium.
First Pages in Japanese Manga
I’ve talked about this book before, but the book: Manga in theory and practice by Hirohiko Araki has been really eye opening for me.
According to Araki (Creator of JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure) in most manga magazines in Japan, the editors are ruthless. If your manga doesn’t have a strong first page, heck, a strong first panel. Those editors will just take the manga and put it right back in the folder it came from, not even bothering to read the rest of the comic.
It was reading this book that I realized for the first time just how important beginnings are in fiction. The editors in this example might seem ruthless, but the reason they’re like that is because the readers are worst.
Unlike with movies or literature, manga and comics have to abide by a different set of rules. When it comes to that first page, you need to make sure that every single panel has some sort of final purpose, that being to engage the reader.
Araki gives a lot of different ways to start your manga, but a lot of them are similar to what I’ve already discussed before, so instead, I wanna go over one aspect of openings that I haven’t talked about and think that manga does very well.
In the previous segments of this post, I went through a lot of different ways that you can start your fiction piece. However, one that I never got the chance to talk about is the use of something extremely different and surprising in your opening.
What do I mean by this? Well, another great way to start your story is to have something that will shock your reader or subvert their expectations if you will. By having something completely different to anything the reader was anticipating, you create that spark needed for great first lines and pages.
For example, let’s take one of my favorite manga openings, Chainsaw Man.
Unlike a lot of other manga, Chainsaw Man doesn’t start with a description of the world, main character or even conflict. Instead, you get a monologue filled with tons of characterization and one that gives you a perfect idea of the state that the protagonist is currently in. There’s no exposition or time wasted exploring the character’s normal world.
It’s also a really funny opening, with Denji going on about all the money that he’s made while still being in crippling debt.
By combining the shock element of the page with the characterization of the monologue, you get an opening page that immediately makes you want to know what happens next and who this character is.
Throughout this post, I talked about a lot of different techniques that I’ve made note of over the years to start your stories. Of course, these are far from all the techniques out there and there are way more than just the ones in this post. So, I encourage you to try and find other types of beginnings that you’ve found and tell me about them in the comments below.
Heck, I actually only scratched the surface of everything that I wanted to talk about in this post. I ended up having to cut a lot of sections for the sake of space, sections like beginnings in video games, beginnings in tv shows, and first lines in literary fiction. I might come back to this topic someday and further expand on it.
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And if you’re interested, here are all the books that I talked about:
5 secrets of story structure: how to write a novel that stands out by K.M. Weiland get it here:
Blink by Malcolm Gladwell get it here:
Manga in theory and practice by Hirohiko Araki get it here: