Where to Begin your Tale

Starting your tale

Lighting up your tale

How should your tale start? With a cymbal crash to grab the reader’s or audience’s attention? Or with a gradual build-up to draw them deeper into the world of the characters?

There are many successful examples of both sorts of starts – Lord of the Rings, Speed. In his book Film Scriptwriting, A Practical Manual, Dwight V Swain calls finding the right moment to begin the story, the point of attack.

Interrogate your Tale

Swain suggests that in order to determine this optimal point in our tale we should ask ourselves the questions: What is our genre? Are we writing for impact, characterisation, or atmosphere? Only when we know the answer to those questions can we know what note to strike in our opening.

In The Grudge, a horror film, we are presented with a man standing with his back to us on the balcony of an apartment block several stories up. A woman, whom we presume to be his wife or lover, lies in bed, regarding him placidly. The man seems somber, pained, but calm. Suddenly, we see him tip himself over the railings and fall to the ground, killing himself.

The effect is one of shock, followed by intrigue and a series of questions: Why did the man commit suicide? What did the dark expression on his face mean? Why did the woman not see it coming? These questions demand answers and pull us into the story.

While the rest of the movie provides, a little at a time, the answers, the start poses the questions in an abrupt way. The screenwriter and director could have chosen to present events in chronological order, but that would have robbed the story of its mystery and dark intrigue.

The same can be said of Memento, a neo-noir psychological thriller. Here the protagonist, who suffers from short term memory loss, can only remember events that have occurred no more than a few minutes back.

In order to solve a life threatening problem, he leaves himself clues through a series of tattoos on his back. To make matters worse, the film relates the story about-face – from end to start. The note struck by the opening scenes, therefore, is one of extreme confusion and obfuscation.

Both openings in these examples are ideally suited to their specific stories. They provide maximum audience engagement.

Summary

Determine the tone you need to strike in order to determine the precise starting point of your tale.

4 thoughts on “Where to Begin your Tale

      1. Gerhard Pistorius

        Great post . One of the most important questions when it comes to film is the depiction of your opening image. The opening image ( regardless weather it’s a landscape or an object) is perhaps the single most important moment of capturing an audiences attention(smart phone generation) . Imagine your a five year old toddler going through a menu in a restaurant. Ingredients mean nothing to you , you will eat anything so long it looks good visually.

        The Wolf of Wall street a film by Martin Scorsese made Time’s magazine’s list of best films of the 21st century because of the first 5 minutes that captured the tone of a 3 hour narrative.

        Kill Bill vol 1 has a profound opening image . Quentin Tarantino’s acknowledges that everything you see on screen is not a accident. Why would Tarantino shoot the scene in black and white or show a big close up of the hero in a dutch tilt?

        In short : To tell a great a story in film one must first understand technicalities such as voice overs and track shots (Scorsese) and shooting powerful opening images.

        Reply
        1. Stavros Halvatzis Post author

          Agreed, Gerhard. The opening image sets the tone right off the bat. The closing image, too, is important at providing the other bookend.

          Reply

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