When you write something creative – anything creative – you have a contract with your audience. In the crucial first pages you’re setting the stage for everything to come. You need to deliver on the promises you made in the opening as the work goes on, with a fair amount of met expectations and surprises.
You would not believe how often I read a story where the opening pages are great and engaging, but the energy and promise falls apart the longer the work goes. Let’s take a closer look at the promises you make in your writing.
Structure is Everything…and Nothing
I’ve said before – many books on writing have said it, all my writing mentors told me it, and any professional writer is going to tell you the same thing. Stories follow the same general pattern of set-up, exploration, and resolution.
In your opening we need to know where we are; who the story is about; what they set out to accomplish; and the tone. After the set-up is complete, the story unfolds and the main character(s) are tested. The middle leads to a “black moment,” which is the sum of all that has come before. In this moment the character(s) will rise or fall, and then there’s the resolution phase, which ties up the loose ends. (If you want a deeper dive, check out my 3-part structure series: In the Beginning, In the Middle, and At Story’s End)
Do you have to set every story up this way? Of course not. It may be easier to think through the story in a linear way first, to make sure you hit the important points, and then play with how things unfold.
Who Is This About
Writing is tough. Stories with one or two main characters are hard. Ensemble pieces are even more difficult.
Sometimes you need to have a richly populated world, with a whole bunch of supporting characters. This is a good thing; there are all kinds of people in the world and on a daily basis we interact with people we know and lots of people we don’t know. Some we will see again and some we won’t.
Even in an ensemble piece, there are going to be some principal characters who the core of the story is about. It’s important these people are identified early on. There are a number of ways to do this – the most common thing is the leads get the most time and attention in the story. Other characters make appearances as well, but the main characters should be the primary focus.
We need to know the protagonist, who they’re up against, and anyone on either side.
What’s the Problem
Along this line, we need to know the question to be resolved involving the leads. There’s a problem or dilemma identified in the opening pages; this needs to be pretty clearly established. This is going to drive the character’s actions, and what they’re going to do in order to achieve this goal.
You would not believe how many stories I see that begin strong, have an amazing opening and a lot of promise, but then go on and don’t establish who the story is about. I’ve read scripts where it’s not clear until page 60 or 70 (and the script itself is only 90 pages). That’s way too late. Clearly identify these two things soon as possible.
Don’t feel like you need to do this on page 1. It’s probably better you don’t. With this point, take a little time. A couple pages building to the problem is OK; 30 or 50 is way too long…but don’t try brain dumping everything in the initial pages. There’s a balance and I would say a sweet spot in between. Where it is is up to you to find.
Decisions, Not Coincidences
I can’t stress this enough. The story must be driven forward through the characters making decisions and taking action. You’re going to be allowed exactly one coincidence, if any, and that’s the inciting incident if you’re using that kind of format.
Coincidences short circuit drama because the writer moves things along, not the characters. This isn’t to say a character can’t get a lucky break in course of the story – but they need to be the ones responsible for getting to a point where there’s a lucky break, you can’t do it for them.
Maintain the Energy
A strong opening has an energy. This can come from an exciting action scene; punchy dialog; a great visual. Maintaining this can be tough but it’s doable. What you need to do is balance highly energetic scenes with less energetic ones. This allows the audience to recover and build to the next big moment. It’s OK to start slow and build to a more exciting climax – this is the way many stories work.
Some writers open with the black moment, then rewind and show us what led to this moment. When this works it works well, usually in a story where time is of the essence (a “ticking bomb” plot).
Regardless, there needs to be a sense of escalating tension and rising stakes.
However you do it, make sure to ask yourself if you’re keeping the energy going. If you can’t see it, ask a few people you trust to review your work and give you honest feedback. This one is tough but doable.
See Raising the Stakes for a in depth discussion.
The Villain Must Appear Regularly
A good villain is going to drive the story forward (see The Drama Engine). Their presence needs to be established and their menace made clear. Darth Vader doesn’t get much screen time in STAR WARS but he doesn’t need it because the scenes we see him in make his menace really clear.
Even if the villain doesn’t have superpowers, their threat needs to be clear, whether it’s destroying the world, stealing the protagonist’s lover, or bulldozing the family home to build an office park.
Watch Out for Dialog
Personally I hate writing dialog. I’d rather keep my characters quiet and have them speak when they really have something to say.
Writing good dialog is an art and it takes a lot of work to make it sound genuine. We don’t write dialog the way we talk in real life; instead we have to adapt for our medium. In fiction we write for the eye and in scripts we write for the ear. Dialog that works great in a novel tends to be way too talky on screen and needs to be modified; the same lines that sound awesome on stage or screen can feel lackluster in a novel.
The rule I live by – I forget where I read this – is that in a script you should keep the majority of your dialog to 4 lines or less. If you have a long, drawn out speech it’s OK once – maybe twice in a script. More than that you should be taking a really close look at your work.
Move it Along
In writing classes we’re taught to write to length. Back when I was in high school and early in college, my instructors would bash my work if I came in at the lower end of the assignment’s page count. That always ticked me off, and when I finally landed in a writing program things flipped – my instructors actually encouraged me to write to the lower end, long as I could get my point across.
As it goes in business it goes in fiction. I’d rather read a tightly plotted 200 page script than 250 pages that may have a few interesting side journeys but meander. Make sure at all times the story is moving forward and tension is building.
Have a Clear Climax
Remember that black moment we talked about a few paragraphs ago? Make sure you know where it is. It’s got to be really clear to you and anyone reading the story this is the moment.
Sometimes you get a second, smaller climax (sometimes a false climax) that leads to a bigger one. This is OK; but watch out for so many smaller climaxes that the real one gets lost. I’ve seen scripts with five or six, and by the time I got to the real one I’d take my glasses off and stop reading for a while.
Wrap it Up
After the climax, things need to be resolved quickly. I’ve read 100 page scripts where the climax hits at page 50. Or 40. I ask myself where the script is going after this point; the story while engaging just peaked too early and there are a lot of flat pages to read through. It’s best to hold off on this unless you’re using it as a smash opening…
Sound like a lot of work? It is. No doubt about it. Creativity is hard work, but with consistent effort you can do it. Good luck, and if you want me to expand on anything please leave a comment.