Johnathan posted The First Few Minutes, and he brought up some excellent points. I was going to expand in the comments section, but my comment quickly spiraled out of control. So I made it my own post.
In cinema and screenwriting theory, there is a term for this: the First Ten Pages(or First Ten Minutes). This refers to the importance of the first pages/minutes of any movie. Producers use this rule as a way to quickly decide if a movie is producable/marketable. If the first ten pages/minutes attract their attention, then they read the whole script. Otherwise, it gets passed on. In advanced stages, marketers have noticed that the audience gives the filmmaker around 10 minutes before they decided if they’re going to change the channel/walk out on the movie or not.
And for reference, youtube audiences give videos 30 seconds to a minute.
Additionally, Blake Synder refers to this as “The Opening Image.” He says that the opening scene is the first “beat” of the movie. It establishes tone, mood, and scope. These are the moments that typically decide if your audience will watch or not.
When developing the story, it’s crucial to focus in on this beginning. Characters, tone, conflict, setting, all must be defined quickly. All great movies do this. All great books too.
In the world of publishing, it quite typical for agents or publishers to request the first 10-30 pages of a manuscript. They use it as a measure of the story as a whole. If it doesn’t start off good, chances are it won’t magically become good. Many books, readers know they’re going to like it from the first line.
Johnathan couldn’t remember the first line of several of his favorite books. I remember several of mine:
- “There was a hand in the darkness and it held a knife.” – The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman
- “When he was nearly thirteen, my brother Jem got his arm badly broken at the elbow.” – To Kill a Mocking Bird by Harper Lee (ok, this is actually my mom’s favorite.)
- “Our story begins where countless stories have ended in the last 26 years: with an idiot … deciding it would be a good idea to go out and poke a zombie with a stick.” – Feed by Mira Grant
Each of these lines set the tone, and adds intrigue to the book. The Graveyard Book is accompanied with a illustration of a two page black spread with a single hand holding a knife. It’s dark, scary, and full of potential. Is this a murderous knife? Is this a defensive knife? Is this a knife that’s going to make a sandwich? After reading that line, you immeadately have to turn the page. Of course, you learn that it’s a murderous knife, who’s killed a family. Yet, it’s target, a baby, has escaped.
Harper Lee’s classic, holds just as much intrigue, yet, has a completely different tone. You can instantly feel the Southern, youthful, feel of the book. This is a book documenting the events leading up to something moderately awful. The summer Jem broke his arm. Well, how does Jem (an unusual name) break his arm? We have to read the entire book to find out.
Feed opens with a bit of humor. This is a beginning that starts where most stories end. It’s narrator’s voice is quickly established, and we instantly know two things: it’s about zombies, and zombies have been around a generation. The tone and scope are instantly set, and damn, I need to know what happens when her brother pokes the zombie.
I totally gauge a book on how it opens, and I use that as my basis for choosing a book to read. Often, I read the first chapter to see if I’m interested, and only give a book about 50 pages before I decide if it’s for me or not.
I’m a little more lax on movies, because I’m more willing to commit to two hours than twelve. Though, I form my opinion of a movie in the first ten minutes. Much like a book, movies need a good opening too. There are several movies that spend way to long setting up. This is the End (which I watched this weekend) is one.
I only vaguely remember the opening image. I think it’s Seth Rogan meeting Jay Baruchel at an airport? I also remember thinking, what the hell is Seth Rogan doing just chilling at the baggage claim at LAX? I spent more time wondering about celebrity normal life than I did wondering what the hell was going on in the movie.
In fact, the entire first act,of the movie is nothing but set up. It doesn’t establish scope, or mood, or even what the hell the movie is about. It establishes the comedy tone and Seth Rogan and crew as characters. Though, like most Fanfiction, we the audience are already familiar with them, and therefore do not need huge amounts of backstory. The world doesn’t start ending until the end of Act 1. And for me, I’ve already lost interest. If I didn’t know this was an apocalypse movie, that would have surprise would have come out of nowhere. (Maybe, it’s because our inciting incident doesn’t have to be what closes Act 1.)
In contrast, Shoot ‘Em Up has one of the best opening scenes I’ve ever seen. In fact, spend the next minute in a half watching it:
In 1.5 minutes everything about this movie has been set. We know the tone from the opening two shoots (satirical and gritty). That intense CU followed by a sharp cut, then completely undermined by the carrot. Because, what bad ass eats veggies? We know our main character is a bit grungy, lives on the wrong side of town, takes the bus, is reluctant, but has a good heart. We know that he’s not involved with the conflict, but chooses to make himself involved because its the right thing to do. We see conflict: Pregnant lady is in trouble. Kinda a universal sign of good – pregnant women. We see our villains: truly evil, I mean, they’re gonna threaten a pregnant lady with a gun. The movie unabashedly sets itself up and carries itself throughout. In the first ten minutes, we have our inciting incident, a birthing scene, and an epic gun fight. The scope and tone are set. The mood is set. Our hero is defined, and he has a dilemma. Even with all this intense action and conflict, Act 1 clearly doesn’t end until the Hero fully dedicates himself to the baby about 30 minutes in.
First Impression Failures: Pocahontas
Why does the movie’s opening not linger? We start in England (scope fail) with our romantic interest (not our hero) followed by a boat ride establishing our secondary characters (John Smith saves Thomas, was there a point?). The tone is actually set rather darkly (someone almost dies), which is sorta indicative of the tone. However, the scope is totally absent. The romantic tone that perpetrates the majority of the movie is absent. Our Main Character is absent. So yeah, no wonder no one remembers it, because well, it really doesn’t set the story correctly.
Getting it Right: The Little Mermaid Does What Pocahontas Tried to Do.
We open with a chorus singing about “mermaids” on a boat with Prince Eric, which are renounced as “sailor tales.” Eric talks about how he is looking for someone, and he feels she’s just under his nose. Then very quickly (we spend like 1 minute with Eric), go below the ocean where we meet the mythical mermaids. We are introduced to 2 worlds very quickly (scope), as well as characterization of the two main characters. Eric wants something more (tone), and he isn’t stuff like Grim (character). Then we learn that Ariel is irresponsible and kinda the odd daughter out because she failed to show up for her coming out celebration. Tone is established quickly – magical adventure with a dash of romance. We know our characters, and we see their conflict. They are looking for each other, but they belong to separate worlds.
In generalization, Pocahontas and The Little Mermaid open the same way. On a boat, with our Male MC, and a reveal of our Princess who is just a little odd. However, they are weighted differently. We are given a teaser of Eric, where John Smith is introduced as our protagonist. This is implied because we spend so much time with him (and he saves someone). In Pocahontas, we even get our bad guy before we learn of our hero. Our conflict between Smith and Radcliff is established before we even get to “the New World.” We don’t even get to our setting before some crazy, irrelevant stuff happens! Stuff that feels critical (someone almost dies), but it really isn’t.
Yet, in the Little Mermaid, we get straight to the point. We are not confused that Eric is our hero. We just know he exists. The minute time frame gives us just enough foundation to recognize him, but not associate him as our MC. It also function as a set up for in about fifteen minutes, Ariel is gonna be saving him. He’s already planted on a boat.
Not Quite Right: Frozen
Since a lot of our inspiration comes from Frozen, I kinda want to point out that Frozen sorta screws up here. Our opening image is the ice workers, cutting the ice, with some weird song.
While this image sets our tone: cold, and our setting: cold, we don’t really get anything else from it. Our scope isn’t really clear. In fact, the icemen don’t really serve any purpose, except they are where Christoff hails from. And Christoff is a secondary character. This is not his story. We spend 3 minutes of irrelevant mood setting. We don’t even get an idea of scope because, well, I’m not even sure where this scene is. Then, this later poses the odd question of why was Christoff raised by the damn trolls?
Thankfully, we jump right over to Elsa and Anna where we quickly learn about the two sisters, their bond, Elsa’s secret, and we establish the conflict between them. So, it sorta redeems itself. Wish the movie would have just started here…
Johnathan is completely on to something here. (Also, he gets total props for mention my favorite sci-fi show as a pointer.) Openings are important. They are the first impressions of a story, and we all know how strong those can be. And while they aren’t the key factor in something being good or not, it’s a key factor getting audience to watch in the first place.