People say that writing endings is hard, but I don’t think that’s true. Endings are only difficult if you aren’t sure how your story is supposed to end, and if that’s the case chances are you’ve either missed something or taken a wrong turn along the way. The end of a story is where you place the full stop that gives the sentence meaning; it’s the moments you tie your themes and ideas together and reveal exactly what point you were making all along. If you know what you’re trying to do then the right ending will reveal itself to you, and that’s only if you didn’t know what you were working towards going in.
No, endings are easy. But beginnings, on the other hand, suck.
It’s something I’ve grappled with a lot; what’s the best, sexiest, most intriguing way to start a story? After all, a clunky opening can lose an audience; you really need to nail it in order to make sure they stick with you. So many of the best TV shows or novels have weak beginnings because a first chapter has to do so much; you need to establish the characters, world and conflicts in a way that doesn’t feel like awkward table setting or an info dump. You need to give people a sense of the journey they’re about to embark on without giving too much away, you need to introduce intrigue and basically make a promise that it’s all going to be worthwhile. And all of that only matters if readers get past your first paragraph. So how do you land that hook and reel your audience in?
So many young writers, and I am as guilty of this as anyone, start in media res; with an out of context glimpse of a later, more exciting part of the story. In theory this makes the audience immediately engaged by teasing them with the good stuff; in practice, it often just comes off as a cheat, a desperate attempt to assure the audience that the story will get good if they can just stick through the boring early stuff.
I’m not saying in media res is an inherently bad way to start a story; Breaking Bad famously opened its first episode and many episodes thereafter with a form of it. But then so did Twilight. And in a recent episode of Rick and Morty, Morty bluntly tells a wannabe screenwriter who has tried to employ the trick that ‘stories should start when they start’.
Like anything, there’s no hard and fast rule; what matters is less what you do but how you do it. During my Master of Screenwriting I had this idea for a TV show about a couple of uni students who figured out a way to anonymously adjust internet banking numbers and turn anyone into a millionaire. My idea was to open the first episode with the main character lying in a gutter, covered in blood, dressed in an expensive suit, while hundred-dollar bills float around him. It would then jump back to a year or so previously, to show his life as a broke, party animal student.
My tutor at the time didn’t exactly roll his eyes, but I think it took him a lot of effort not to. I was thrown by his lack of interest in what was clearly an amazing, striking, iconic opening, but he went on to make a very important point; there was no real difference between the two presented versions of my character. One was rich, one was poor. They were still both the same reckless hedonist; the suit and cash revealed that much. That kind of juxtaposition needs to be very stark in order to be interesting.
Consider Breaking Bad. The first thing we see is a man wearing underwear, an apron and a gas mask driving an RV. The guy in the passenger seat is passed out. There are two corpses in the back, sliding around what looks like a drug lab. We hear sirens getting closer. Then the RV crashes. The man gets out. He’s terrified. He records a farewell to his family on a video camera, before picking up a gun and walking out on to the road, ready to face his pursuers.
Then we cut to a month earlier. The man is a downtrodden, mild-mannered high school teacher who works at the car wash to make ends meet. The two characters are strikingly different and yet the change came about in only a month. How the hell did that happen?
It works on a couple of levels; firstly it’s irresistibly intriguing, secondly it pays off by the end of the episode so it doesn’t force us into an interminable wait, and lastly it suits the theme of the show; terrible circumstances can change almost anyone. Now we’re going to show you how.
My TV pilot Windmills, which won the Sir Peter Ustinov Award and was recently shortlisted for the Monte Miller, starts in media res. We see the burnt remains of a prestigious private school. In the centre of the school’s courtyard is a blackened, dead tree. Cops are everywhere, body bags are being carried out but the lead detective is fixated on the tree. In the middle of a concrete courtyard, setting it on fire had to be deliberate. So why? As he says this the tree grows back and we pull out to see the courtyard years previously, full of students in immaculate uniforms, leading into the start of our story.
I grappled with whether or not to have this opening; generally speaking, I’m of the ‘stories should start where they start’ school, but Windmills is a special case. The narrative spans years and travels from a high school mistake to a higher stakes world of organised crime. The progression, I believe, is organic, but one of the biggest criticisms that every version of Windmills has been met with is that it feels like two different stories. I decided on that opening as a way of being honest with the audience, a way of saying that as much as this might initially seem like a high school drama, that’s not the story I’m telling, so be ready. It wasn’t a choice made to be clever or get to the good stuff early; it was purely made in the name of clarity. Although the fact that it pulls you in nice and early doesn’t hurt.
But, generally speaking, when it comes to opening a story I always point to the first lines of two of my favourite novels.
Will Graham sat Crawford down at a picnic table between the house and the ocean and gave him a glass of iced tea.
This is the opening line of Red Dragon, the book that gave us Hannibal Lecter and spawned a massive media franchise comprising several more novels, a bunch of beloved films including one that cleaned up at the Oscars, and one of the more beloved TV shows of recent years. As our first introduction to this saga, it could scarcely be more less significant or pretentious; there’s no description, no ominous foreshadowing, no sense of who these people are, what they look like or what they’re doing. Crawford doesn’t even get a first name.
I love this opening. It gives us no time to decide whether or not the book is for us, it doesn’t attempt to dress up a mundane conversation as something more portentous or powerful; it just drops us into the action and implicitly makes us ask questions. Who are these people? What are they talking about? The scene goes on with essentially just dialogue; the back and forth telling us enough to intrigue us, but still not what we want to know. There’s no flowery language, not potent imagery, nothing but this conversation that begins our story, because there doesn’t need to be anything else. It’s stripped back, efficient, and confident storytelling. It’s also my preference of how to start; just jump in. Don’t worry about sounding pretty or profound or anything. Just start. Because sometimes the best way to pull your audience in is to not give a shit about pulling them in. Trust that the strength of your story will do the work, and you won’t have one of those clumsy openings that tries to do everything and only succeeds at making people bored early. This is the trick I tried to pull off with the opening to Sunburnt Country and a few other things I’ve done recently; except it’s not a trick. It’s the complete opposite. Just honest, robust, blunt storytelling.
That said, how you start always depends on what kind of story you’re trying to tell. The book I probably consider to be my all-time favourite, The Book of Joe by Jonathan Tropper, opens with the following line:
Just a few scant months after my mother’s suicide, I walked into the garage, looking for my baseball glove, and discovered Cindy Posner on her knees, animatedly performing fellatio on my older brother Brad.
Apart from being simultaneously shocking and funny, it tells us a lot. It introduces the trauma that hangs over the novel. It implicitly establishes the relationship between the two brothers and it sets up Joe as somebody who accidently stumbles into situations that have nothing to do with them, only to make them worse. It also tells us exactly what kind of book we’re reading; one that lets humour and heartbreak sit side by side in a succession of deeply awkward encounters. In short, it tells us everything we need to know going in.
I tried to do a similar thing with Boone Shepard:
I always take the time to appreciate the rolling green fields and pretty woods of the English countryside, whether I am viewing them from the seat of my motorbike or, as I found myself on the day this story begins, hanging one handed from the side of a speeding train.
In one line I try to set up the tone of the book, (humorous and action packed), Boone as a character (someone for whom death defying scenarios are almost mundane) and the setting (England). It also throws the audience headfirst into the story and directly tells them that this is the proper start; no unnecessary preamble. Whether or not I succeeded is up to the reader.
In plays I often try to be a bit cleverer, starting with a line of dialogue that speaks to either the themes or overall plot. Moonlite, a play about the divide between truth and legends, starts with the line ‘I don’t believe him’. Heroes, about two best friends who try to use dark secrets to destroy each other, starts with ‘we need to talk’. The Critic, about subjectivity when it comes to art, starts with ‘maybe, in the end, it’s a matter of perspective’.
But then conversely, Chris Hawkins and Regression, probably the two best plays I’ve ever written, respectively start with the words ‘hello’ and ‘fuck’ so it’s hardly an exact science.
That, in the end, is probably the truth about openings; there’s no one way to do it, because stories are different and have different demands. What suits your story? A clever, layered opening line, a funny, quirky, surprising establisher, or a direct dive into the action?
I hate overly showy descriptions of weather or settings. I find them tedious. I’m someone who wants a story to get going and prove itself as worthy of my time. But I’m not everyone and my taste doesn’t always dictate the best way to proceed. My advice would be, if in doubt, take the Red Dragon approach. Dive in, start telling your story, and don’t worry about drawing out the beginning. You can always change it later, but you might just find that starting at the start is the best way to do it.
Writing words about writing words.