How to Begin: 5 Ways to Start the Story of Your Screenplay
Originally published on WeScreenplay.com
Deciding where to begin your screenplay is one of the most important things a screenwriter must tackle. The first scene in any screenplay is crucial — both in introducing audience members to your characters and hooking them into the overall story. As such, you’ll want to choose a beginning that aptly reflects your story.
If you’re struggling to know where to begin, here are five ways to start your screenplay.
1. AT THE BEGINNING
The most obvious place to start your screenplay is at the beginning. The tricky part comes in answering the question, “The beginning of what?”
You want to begin your screenplay at the start of the story you’re trying to tell, which may or may not coincide with the beginning of your characters’ stories.
In some cases, this means starting with a scene that sets your characters on the journey of the film. In Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, for example, Martin McDonagh begins with his main character, Mildred Hayes, driving to town to inquire about the price of the eponymous billboards near her house. While Mildred’s story — the reason she’s asking about the billboards in the first place — happened before the start of the film, McDonagh chooses not to show those events at the outset. Instead, he starts right at the beginning. With three billboards that set off the events of the whole movie.
Starting at the beginning can be done in a more traditional way though, as it is in The Shape of Water and All the Money in the World. Both films begin right at the start of the action — with the arrival of a mysterious creature to a secret government lab and with the kidnapping of John Paul Getty’s grandson, respectively.
Utilize this type of beginning if: your story is contained, in that, it begins with the inciting incident and ends when the events following that incident have been resolved or come to a conclusion of some sort.
2. WITH THE CONCEPT
Sometimes, the very nature of your screenplay necessitates a different kind of beginning — one that introduces the audience to something critical about the movie or story itself.
I, Tonya, for example, is a dark comedy about the life and career of figure skater Tonya Harding. The screenplay is done in mockumentary style and breaks the fourth wall too many times to count. Subsequently, since the style of the movie is integral to the story, screenwriter Steven Rogers chose to begin with sit-down style interviews with the characters, showing each uncomfortably getting ready and featuring their names and titles on the screen like a real broadcast interview.
Similarly, The Greatest Showman begins with part of a musical performance. Like all musicals in the history of cinema, it’s required to introduce the characters-breaking-into-song style right at the outset, so that audience members understand that some of the story will be told through singing and music.
Slightly different is The Big Sick, Kumail Nanjiani and Emily Gordon’s summer rom-com hit. The film begins with one of Kumail’s stand-up routines played over real footage of Pakistan and photos from the actor/writer’s childhood. Through this voiceover, the audience realizes that Kumail’s journey be revealed through these stand-up routines throughout the movie, that they will be crucial to understanding the story as a whole.
Utilize this type of beginning if: there is something unusual or unique about the screenplay or story itself that would necessitate introducing that crucial fact to the audience right away.
3. IN THE MIDDLE OF THINGS
On the other hand, many stand by the idea that you should start stories en media res: in the middle of things. Instead of introducing the characters and premise, the screenwriter simply drops the audience members into the middle of the story and assumes they’ll figure out what’s going on.
Movies that employ this technique are widespread — from historical epics to superhero flicks to singular, indie dramas.
Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk begins during the WWII crisis on the shore of France, giving the audience a bit of context via slides of text and assuming they’ll catch on to the main narrative. Both The Glass Castle and Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 do the same — the former starting with the main character’s adult self living in New York City and flashing back to her childhood; the latter beginning with a short flashback before returning to Peter Quill and his gang of intergalactic guardians in the middle of a mission.
Utilize this type of beginning if: action of some sort dominates your screenplay, or your story requires a significant amount of flashback.
4. BY INTRODUCING THE CHARACTERS
Some stories feature characters so particular, outrageous, or unique that they require immediate introduction. In these character-driven screenplays, it’s best to let the protagonist shine and begin with a scene that perfectly encapsulates your main character.
Hercules Poirot, Agatha Christie’s long-time detective protagonist and main character of Murder on the Orient Express, has an eccentric personality, to say the least. The first 15 minutes of the film are used, not to further the overall plot, but to explore Poirot’s character. The audience sees him send a young boy back and forth in search of the “perfect” egg, turn a mystery in Jerusalem on its head, and nit-pick about the precise angle of a policeman’s tie — all of which set them up for the larger mystery at hand, an investigation led by the eccentric Poirot himself.
The same goes for Greta Gerwig’s Lady Bird, which begins with a scene that introduces the titular character, her mother, and their complex relationship, and I, Tonya, which starts with sit-down interviews with Tonya and the most important people in her life.
Utilize this type of beginning if: you’re dealing with the kind of characters who absolutely must be introduced before anything else, the kind of characters who are the story in and of themselves.
5. STARTING AT THE END
Finally: beginning at the end. Movies that start at the end and then go back to the beginning do so for very good reason — to illustrate just how far the characters have come and how much they have changed.
Screenwriters who use this technique are not doing so because it makes for a good beginning, per se, but because it makes for a more well-informed and meaningful ending.
The Greatest Showman and Wonder Woman both start at the end — using short expository scenes that lead into significant flashbacks (in these particular cases, back to childhood). The reason for doing so is the same. P.T. Barnum and Diana Prince (Wonder Woman) go through significant inner turmoil and struggle throughout the courses of their individual stories. By the time the films reach their conclusion and come full circle, back to where the movie began and the story finishes, audiences are able to see and appreciate the full extent of each character’s transformative journey.
Utilize this type of beginning if: your character undergoes significant change or growth of some sort over the course of their story.