by John Bucher (@johnkbucher)
More than any other scene, the opening sequence of your screenplay must be captivating. It must intrigue us in some way. But what about the very first image the audience sees? Are there ways to master visual storytelling that entrance the viewer from the very first second light hits the screen? Here are four ways to do it.
1. Begin with an image that shocks or provokes the audience
Why waste a single second trying to arrest your audience’s attention or imagination? Opening with an image that moves the viewer to the edge of their seat can be one way to get them on board immediately with your story.
It will be important to keep your audience’s attention through pacing and strategic inhales and exhales in the plot. But don’t be afraid to hit the audience hard from the opening frame. In True Story, it’s not James Franco or Jonah Hill that we see first. Instead, we are jolted by the image of fluffy teddy bear falling on top of a dead child, who has been stuffed inside a suitcase. While not for the faint of heart, it’s an image that any viewer won’t soon forget. We know a horrible crime has been committed. We immediately feel that whoever has committed this crime deserves the harshest punishment imaginable. We know enough backstory to go on the journey before us.
Fight Club’s opening shot is less morbid but no less shocking. Edward Norton’s character sits staring right into the camera, eyes wide and sweat dripping down his brow — with a gun in his mouth. We immediately begin to question who Norton is, who is holding the gun, and what led to such dire circumstances.
2. Begin with an image that creates a world without a single word of dialogue
Storytelling for the screen is by nature a visual medium. Finding ways to tell the story through images rather than words is an essential skill for anyone wanting to master the craft. While you’ll have plenty of opportunity to work in clever dialogue and amazing one-liners, try opening your story with no words at all.
In Super 8, the first image we see is a sign that indicates the number of days a factory has worked without injuries. A hand moves into frame placing a number 1 on the sign. We know that tragedy must have struck the day before. We know this will be a story about people coping with this in some way and perhaps trying to pick up the pieces. The tone of the world we are entering is clearly established.
Similarly, in Star Wars: A New Hope, the first image we see is that of a small craft fleeing a much larger spaceship. The larger ship is blasting the smaller with firepower. We know this will be a story about underdogs. The world of this story is ruled by a much larger force that is in the business of wiping out any rebel insurgents, no matter how small. All this is accomplished without a single word of dialogue.
3. Begin with an abstract image that communicates a major theme of the story
Worried about being too on the nose with your opening image? Try beginning with a visual that’s more abstract but will later have significance.
In Woman in Gold, we see tight shots of Gustav Klimt’s hands crafting his masterpiece painting, “Lady in Gold.” Klimt’s unusual technique of applying gold to his painting sparks our curiosity as to what exactly is being created and what the significance of this creation will be. All this is eventually paid off in the story. Even the crafting of the gold to the canvas serves as a visual metaphor for the internal journey that Ryan Reynolds’s character takes throughout the course of the film.
Proving that this technique is not just effective on the big screen, we can recall how TV juggernaut Breaking Bad used this same method. The first movement we see on screen in the saga of Walter White is a pair of khaki pants falling from the skies to the ground – a wonderful metaphor for the plunge this vanilla suburbanite is about to take over the next several years.
4. Begin without an image
It’s a risky thing to let an audience sit in complete darkness for any length of time. It can be jarring, and even one second when the screen is black plays three times longer in a theater full of people. It can, however, be an incredible attention-grabber.
In Inherent Vice, the poetic voice of a woman guides us through the darkness into the world we will spend the remainder of the film reconciling. The same technique is used in Kill Bill: Vol. 1. Over black, we hear Bill’s voice and another character’s heavy breathing, asking us “Do you find me sadistic?” In both cases, there is a small relief in the viewer’s mind when an image does finally appear on-screen. We know that the darkness is over and we will now journey into the story. Used sparingly, the lack of images can be a captivating technique in visual storytelling.
Check out more examples of powerful opening images and their closing counterparts in this great video.
John Bucher is a writer, speaker, and story consultant based out of Los Angeles. He is the author of several books including The Inside Out Story and the upcoming Secrets of Short Visual Storytelling. He has written for entities ranging from HBO to International Ambassadors. He teaches at The LA Film Studies Center and has conducted story seminars on five continents. He can be reached on Twitter @johnkbucher and through his blog, welcometothesideshow.org.