How to boost your storytelling with cinematic techniques

BEGINNINGS: Kicking It Off—That Super-Critical Opening Moment

Where and how to start one’s yarn, including choosing the just right opening words for a novel, play or short story, selecting that optimum moment for the beginning of a screenplay or teleplay, and the crucially important first meeting between your fictional creation and your audience is — once again — about hooking them. Right up there in importance with how you choose to introduce your characters, those initial words involve creative decisions not to be taken lightly. 

Nor are they usually easily arrived at.

Look at some incredibly memorable opening lines, two of them dialogue, the others narrative:

“Now is the winter of our discontent…” (William Shakespeare, RICHARD III)

Let me tell you about the very rich – they are different from you and me… (F. Scott Fitzgerald, THE RICH BOY)

“Call me Ishmael…” (Herman Melville, MOBY DICK)

As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams, he found himself transformed in his bed into a gigantic insect… (Franz Kafka, THE METAMORPHOSIS)

Or check out some great opening movie scenes, from Raiders of the Lost Ark (screenplay by Lawrence Kasdan), to His Girl Friday and others. Or the awesome first few minutes of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (screenplay by William Goldman). Or The Godfather (screenplay by Mario Puzo & Francis Ford Coppola), in which a dozen-or-so characters are introduced — and their complex relationships — vividly-and-economically defined, riveting our curiosity. 

Examine how these films hook us, how deftly they handle exposition, how quickly they are into the story. Writers of any type of fiction, as well as authors of nonfiction, can learn a lot from the choices made, from the way those movies begin. 

There is much about storytelling technique to be learned from the visual media, all the way from TV commercial spots to epic movies and miniseries. How it looks, and how it’s written. The effective juxtaposition of sounds and images. Has the influence of film and TV on narrative writing been consistently positive? Of course not. But cinema has definitely changed — and refreshed — the way novelists, historians, and biographers practice their art.

I don’t know that there is a for-certain technique for writing terrific opening scenes, nor any guarantee that yours will be as effective as those cited. But, like so much of the mindset I acquired while writing for TV, awareness of the problem — of the need for truly arresting hooks and grabbers — will ultimately improve your writing.

Posted in Writing Tips

About the Author

Emmy and Edgar-nominated, Tom Sawyer was head writer, showrunner, and producer of the classic series, Murder, She Wrote, for which he wrote twenty-four episodes. He also wrote, directed, and produced the cult film-comedy Alice Goodbody, and was the co-librettist/lyricist of Jack, an opera about JFK. He’s the author of FICTION WRITING DEMYSTIFIED and his latest thriller is A MAJOR PRODUCTION! Tom’s memoir is THE ADVENTURES OF THE REAL TOM SAWYER and he’s written a companion book called 9 BADASS SECRETS FOR PUTTING YOURSELF IN LUCK’S WAY. More at www.ThomasBSawyer.com.

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