How to Establish Story-Context from the Get-Go

Starting gun

Starting gun

The purpose of the establishing scene is to provide the context of a story, and to do so early. In his book, The Writer’s Journey, Christian Vogler refers to the world in which we first encounter the Hero as the Ordinary World. By clearly establishing a before and after, a writer is able to emphasize the transforming effect of the Hero’s actions on the world around her — the amount of change that this world undergoes by the end of the story is precisely the measure of success that the Hero has achieved in acquiring the goal. How do we go about sketching in the main features of this world quickly and efficiently? One answer is to do so through the deft use of imagery.

Establishing Context Through Imagery

Precisely what is established at the start of a story? In Advanced Screenwriting, Linda Seger, suggests that an establishing scene should introduce the tone, time, location, as well as, the theme of the story, in other words, the framework of the tale. The first couple of minutes of Wall Street, for example, introduces us to the world of business through a series of images — its buildings, the morning rush, the energy of those whose pursuit of money defines who they are. Indeed, the first images in a film or novel are often the most powerful and, therefore, need to be selected carefully since they set the framework for the entire story.

Schindler’s List opens with a black and white closeup of a drawer, and a man putting on elegant cufflinks in preparation for attending an important Nazi party. This immediately sets the tone and time period of the affluent and influential world that Schindler will eventually use to help get Jews out of Germany.

Dead Poets Society, too, begins with a defining sequence of images, those of a school preparing for its opening day procession — banners announcing the school’s solid foundations of education and moral learning, foundations steeped in discipline, excellence, and honour. Such images help to establish the theme of conformity stemming from such traditions, a conformity which will be questioned by Mr. Keating’s creative approach to education, putting him at odds with the school’s hierarchy, and pointing to the central conflict in the story: conformity vs. creativity.

Having established the time, place, tone, and theme through an effective use of starting imagery, the writers of these stories are now able to concentrate on plot and subplot from the basis of a solid framework. It is no coincidence that all three films went on to become huge hits with world audiences.

Summary

Selecting the right images with which to start your story is important, since such images help to set the tone, time, place, and theme of your entire tale. Incidental or irrelevant imagery can mislead and confuse the reader or audience and should be purged from your manuscript.

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2 thoughts on “How to Establish Story-Context from the Get-Go

  1. Russ Welsh

    This post clarifies what I thought I was doing but didn’t know for sure. Anyway, the context in which I mean is:

    “What She Wrote About Me”, my feature screenplay, originally began at a funeral with the protagonist getting yelled at by the sister of his love interest (a girl that just died). It now begins with the protagonist standing at the end of a jetty, looking out to sea, and I have flashes of religious imagery and narration speaking of how he blames himself… tormenting him. This, I think, is a far more relevant beginning because, for the most part, the protagonist is tormented by the fact that he should have known the love interest was going to kill herself. The rest of the film offers clever little clues about the love interest and why she did what she felt she had to do.

    Reply

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