The purpose of the establishing images 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 emphasise the transforming effect of the Hero’s actions on the world around him. The quality of change that this ‘ordinary‘ world undergoes by the end of the story is precisely the measure of the hero’s success or failure.
But how do we sketch in the main features of this world quickly and efficiently? One way is through the effective use of appropriate images.
“In Advanced Screenwriting Linda Seger suggests that establishing images introduce the tone, time, location, as well as the theme of the story. In other words, they provide the framework of the tale.”
The first minutes of Wall Street, for example, introduce us to the world of business through a series of snapshots of buildings, the morning rush, the energy of those whose pursuit of money defines who they are.
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 world that Schindler will eventually use to help get Jews out of Germany.
Dead Poets Society, too, begins with the defining sequence of images of a school preparing for its opening day procession—banners boasting the school’s reputation of discipline, excellence, and moral learning.
Such images, however, also help to establish the sense of conformity that will be challanged 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 time, place, tone, and theme, through an effective use of starting imagery, then, the writers are now able to create plot and subplot from a solid foundation. It is no coincidence that all three films went on to become huge hits with world audiences.
Select the right establishing imagery to set the tone, time, place, and theme of your tale. Incidental or irrelevant imagery can mislead the reader or audience and should be purged from your manuscript.