Thursday, February 07, 2013

Key Story Elements: Opening Image

There’s a saying in Hollywood that “If you have six great scenes, you have a movie.” 

Well, very often these six great scenes are off that list I gave you of the Key Story Elements. It makes sense, doesn’t it? Scenes like The Call To Adventure and Crossing the Threshold are magical moments: they change the world of the main character for all time, and as storytellers we want our readers or audiences to experience that profound, soul-shattering change right along with the character. These are numinous events, and we crave scenes that are worthy of them. That’s why I think it’s useful to study the more blatant examples — the way these scenes are depicted in fantasies like Harry Potter and The Wizard of Oz — so you get the full-on, literally magical experience of a Call To Adventure or Crossing the Threshold scene first, and then start looking for more subtle variations in less fantastical stories.

Just as filmmakers consciously design some of these key story scenes for maximum emotional and visual impact, we as novelists can be doing the same thing on the page for our readers — making the most of critical scenes such as ESTABLISHING THE HERO/INE’S GHOST, THE CALL TO ADVENTURE, CROSSING THE THRESHOLD, ESTABLISHING THE PLAN, and so on.

So this week I want to look more closely at a few of those key story elements (and that’s key to all genres) and detail some examples of how filmmakers create these beats as setpiece scenes. And of course, these key scenes are very often used as act climaxes or sequence climaxes — we’ll talk about which elements are generally used as which act climaxes.

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As I said earlier, in a film you have an opening image by default, whether you put any planning into it or not. It’s the first thing you see in the film. But good filmmakers will very consciously design that opening image to establish all kinds of things about the story: mood, tone, location, and especially theme. There can be more than just one image or shot at work, too; sometimes it’s more like a whole opening scene.

The opening image of Romancing the Stone is a small, stuffy cabin — which quickly opens up to a classic, gorgeous Western landscape of magnificent buttes in a desert setting; the heroine of the opening scene is a voluptuous buckskin-clad heroine straight from the old bodice-rippers. It’s adventure and romance, which the voice-over narration also establishes as comic and tongue-in-cheek. It’s a great miniature of the whole story — this is protagonist Joan Wilder’s fantasy, which quickly becomes her not-so-appealing reality.

The opening image(s) of Notting Hill is a montage of movie star Anna Scott’s career: newspaper headlines, magazine spreads, photo shoots, paparazzi tailing her at premieres and the Oscars. This montage sets up this story’s unusual antagonist; it’s Anna’s fame that is the constant opposition to Will and Anna’s love, and the storytellers make that fame concrete and vivid in these images.

The opening image of New in Town is a frozen, wintry landscape, symbolizing the heroine’s frozen emotions, and then the first scene shows a group of three women scrapbooking and talking about the fate of the new plant manager, a scene that brings to mind the three Norns, or Fates, of Scandinavian myth.

Well, novelists, instead of (or in addition to) killing yourselves trying to concoct a great first line which will just as likely annoy a reader into throwing your book against the wall as make them keep reading, how about giving some thought to what your opening scene looks like? It takes a lot of the pressure off that first page anxiety — because you're focused on conveying a powerful image that will intrigue and entice the reader into the book.

What do we see? How does it make us feel? How might it even be a miniature code of what the whole story is about?

Take a look at a few of the films on your master list and see what they do with the opening image. Again, bear in mind that the opening image may be more of an opening scene — and the key image may not be the very first thing we see. For example, in Casino, the film starts with DeNiro walking out to his car, with narration over. Then as he gets in, the car explodes in flame — and the credits sequence begins, the visual underneath which is a long, long take on a cut-out of a man falling slowly through flame: a descent into hell. That falling through flame, with the blinking neon of the casino all around, would be the opening image, what Scorsese has chosen to fix in the audience’s mind — it is exactly what the story is about.

One of my favorite opening images/sequences is the credits scene of The Shining. I don’t think there’s a creepier opening to be found anywhere in film. It’s all aerial camerawork of those vast, foreboding mountains as that tiny little car drives up, up, up toward what turns out to be the Overlook Hotel. It’s vertiginous, it’s ominous, it emphasizes the utter isolation of the hotel and the circumstances, and somehow, through the music and the visuals and the constant movement, Kubrick establishes a sense of huge, vast, and malevolent natural forces. As a thriller writer (or whatever you want to call me), I am constantly looking for ways to convey all those things — that experience — on the page. Mo Hayder’s The Treatment is one of my favorite recent examples … when she focuses on a murder of crows strutting on the grass of a crime scene, evil just rolls off the page, and you start to wonder if you really want to keep reading the book. (It’s worth every shudder, but don’t say I didn’t warn you.

Here’s another great film technique to be aware of: The opening image will sometimes —often — set up a location that will return in the final battle scene or in the resolution scene of the story — only at the end there will be a big visual contrast to show how much the hero/ine has changed. A fantastic recent example of this is in the truly lovely animated film How to Train Your Dragon. It opens with a long aerial swoop down into the Viking village. It’s dark, torchlit, forbidding … and then smashes into the opening attack by dragons, a scene of chaos and violence. And we hear young protagonist Hiccup’s wry narration over it.

In the RESOLUTION, we see the same aerial swoop into the village, but now it’s daylight, sunshine, flowers — and instead of attacking, the dragons are flying with their new — well, not owners, but partners: the same Vikings who were fighting them in the beginning. And Hiccup’s wry final narration is the same as his opening narration, with only a few key words changed. The whole village has been transformed by Hiccup’s personal journey; it’s a magnificent visual of not just character arc, but also of the change in philosophy of the whole Viking society.

Now, look, I’m not at all saying that an opening scene has to be visual to work. I had a student in a workshop recently who opened her romantic comedy with a series of dueling press releases. It was hilarious and perfect for her very funny book. As authors we have the luxury of not having to convey things purely visually. I’m just saying, if you’re struggling with an opening, this could be a technique that might help you pull it all together. It works wonders for me. And thinking of the opening visually instantly solves the problem that I’ve become increasingly aware of in the opening chapters of newer writers: they fail to set up the visual in any way, which leaves the reader floundering to figure out where the hell they are. Not an auspicious way to begin, let me tell you.

As human beings, we are primarily visual creatures (and no, I don’t just mean men. All of us.). So? Use it.

- Alex

ASSIGNMENT: Make a list. Visual or not visual — what are some of your favorite book and movie openings of all time?

ASSIGNMENT: Now look at your own opening pages. Are they visual? Do we know where we are? Can you make that location, and the things we see in it, thematically meaningful?


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Sheridan Jeane said...

One of my favorite opening scenes is from J.J. Abrams new Star Trek movie. The themes of bravery and honor and sacrifice are all there, along with the the idea that one person can make an enormous difference by making a bold decision. He bonds us to the captain and his sacrifice by showing us the birth of his son amidst the chaos of battle and the love he shares with his wife. The captain ensures their safety with his sacrifice. Later, Spock risks his life to save his parents, and finally, the new James Kirk risks everything to destroy the threat facing Earth in the same confrontation which killed his father. The film is tght, exciting, and awesome in ts execution.

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Sheridan, I thought Abrams did a superb job reinventing the franchise. And starting with a birth always gives us that sense of destiny (Harry Potter being another great example!).