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The Art of Beginnings

All films must have a beginning. Syd Field (2005), an influential figure in the field of screenwriting, wrote that all films feature a “beginning, middle and end; Act I, Act II, Act III” (p. 26). However, some films, especially experimental ones, stray away from Field’s (2005) narrative maxim. Last Year in Marienbad (Resnais, 1961), Wavelength (Snow, 1967), Empire (Warhol, 1965), and Meshes of the Afternoon (Deren & Hammid, 1949) all challenge Field’s (2005) conception of story. While these notable exceptions prove that film design is not limited by narrative structures, they still have a beginning. A beginning can simply be defined as “the first part of something or the start of something” (Cambridge Dictionary, n.d.). Even experimental films are bound by the logic of beginnings. As soon as the film starts, it has begun, there is simply no way around that reality even if it serves no narrative purpose. Moving away from alternative cinema and closer to classical narrative designs, beginnings must accomplish a specific, yet vague goal: to “grab the reader’s attention” (Trottier, 2014, p. 11). David Trottier (2014), the author of The Screenwriter’s Bible, refers to screenplays, but the notion is equally valid for films. Seizing the viewer’s attention has become such a crucial part of screenwriting and filmmaking that TV shows specifically created a section reserved for this: the teaser (Miyamoto, 2023). Adding symmetry, TV scripts will feature endings that entice the audience to watch the next episode (Trottier,2014,p.265). This style of ending is sometimes called the tag, depending on how it is built (Trottier,2014,p.265). Beginnings have become an art form of their own, as capturing a reader or viewer’s attention can be done in a near-infinite number of ways (Renée, 2019).

Field (2005) notes that screenwriters have fewer than ten pages to grab a reader’s attention (p. 97). Despite the seemingly arbitrary page number, Trottier (2014) agrees by noting: “[t]he first thing your script should be concerned with is hooking the reader and setting forth the rules or parameters of your story” (p. 10). According to Trottier (2014), a beginning must communicate the rules, nature, and culture of the fiction world (pp. 10-11). Field (2005) corroborates the idea that the beginning sets the story in motion and pulls the reader into the story (p. 131). Lord of War (Niccol, 2005), accomplishes this with two scenes. The first shows the protagonist, Yuri Orlov, standing among a sea of used ammo cartridges (Niccol,2005). Orlov turns and speaks to the camera, claiming that there are 550 million firearms in circulation on the planet, which equals one for every 12 people (Niccol, 2005). This first shot establishes the protagonist of the film and the theme of war. However, it is hard to pinpoint exactly the approach taken for this theme. Orlov answers this question by lighting a cigar and saying: “The only question is… How do we arm the other eleven?” (00:01:26). Orlov is an arms dealer and the audience will see the world of fiction from his perspective (Niccol, 2005). This scene lasts only 36 seconds and already accomplishes the function of a beginning. The second scene is an opening credit sequence that follows the life of a bullet from manufacture to being fired through someone’s skull (Niccol, 2005). The protagonist, genre, setting and perspective are all shown within a three-minute opening sequence. This opening is more situational as the context born from the setting and perspective dominates.

Figure 1: Yuri Orlov standing on empty cartridges. Still from "Lord of War" (Niccol, 2005).

Another situational opening may choose to focus on conflict instead of context. For example, Jujutsu Kaisen (Sunghoo, 2020) opens with its main character, Itadori Yuji, tied to a chair in a mysterious room. Before him, a strange man wearing a blindfold informs Itadori that he will be secretly executed (Sunghoo, 2020). In total, this opening lasts 55 seconds. The audience does not learn anything about the protagonist or his world; rather they learn about an imminent danger preparing to befall him (Sunghoo, 2020). Another example occurs in the Netflix show Wednesday (Gough & Millar, 2022), which opts for a character-driven opening. Wednesday dresses in all black and has a highly pessimistic view of society, especially school life (Gough & Millar, 2022). Finding her brother shoved in a locker by bullies, she executes her revenge by dropping piranhas in a pool the bullies are using (Gough & Millar, 2022). Thus, her moral compass, true character, and characterization are revealed in a three-minute-long teaser (Praet, 2023). None of the context or conflict that drives the rest of the show is present in the teaser (Gough & Millar, 2022). Indeed, Wednesday is transferred to the special school of Nevermore (Gough & Millar, 2022). The series’ story engine revolves around a murderous beast lurking in the wounds surrounding Nevermore (Gough & Millar, 2022). While Wednesday (Gough & Millar, 2022) does not exactly set the story in motion, it does provide the parameters in which the protagonist operates, which is an important indication since the audience follows Wednesday's perspective for most of the show.

Figure 2: Wednesday unleashing her revenge. Still from "Wednesday" (Gough & Millar, 2022).

Alternatively, a mix of context, conflict, and character can create an equally interesting opening or teaser. In the famous opening from Breaking Bad (Gilligan, 2008), a man wearing nothing but underwear and a gas mask barrels down a dirt road in a Winnebago. Unconscious, three more men are in the vehicle (Gilligan, 2008). Swerving wildly, the Winnebago speeds off-road in a ditch (Gilligan, 2008). The man in underwear dives out and starts recording a video of himself and he states that his name is Walter White (Gilligan, 2008). He claims that this recording is not an admission of guilt and that he “did what he did” for his family (Gilligan, 2008). The teaser ends with Walter pointing a gun down the street as police sirens thunder near him (Gilligan, 2008). Much information is provided in this three-minute scene. However, since the audience does not yet know what is going on, little can be deduced from this information. Who is Walter? Why is he undressed? Why does he have a gas mask? Why is he recording a video? Who are the unconscious men? Why does he have a gun and why is he going to shoot at the police? The teaser makes the audience ask all these questions (Matt, n.d.). While Lord of War (Niccol, 2005) and Wednesday (Gough & Millar, 2022) only gave answers by accurately identifying character, perspective, context and/or setting, Breaking Bad (Gilligan, 2008) only raises questions. These questions do not make for a bad opening, quite the contrary. The beginning must “grab the attention of the reader or audience" (Field, 2005, p. 209), which is exactly what Breaking Bad (Gilligan, 2008) does. Jujutsu Kaisen (Sunghoo, 2020) works in a similar fashion by raising the question of how Itadori ended up locked in a room and why he will be executed.

Figure 3: Still from "Breaking Bad" (Gilligan, 2008).

In conclusion, there is no one way to build a beginning. The main purpose that needs to be filled is to capture the reader’s attention (Trottier, 2014, p. 11). Additionally, the opening will inform the audience on many parameters of the fiction world such as character, genre, setting, perspective, context, and more. Some openings may focus on the character itself, like Wednesday (Gough & Millar, 2022). Other beginnings may prefer a situational event like Lord of War (Niccol, 2005) where the protagonist addresses the audience directly. A conflict-driven opening like Jujutsu Kaisen (Sunghoo, 2020) is also valid even if little information on the story is provided. Finally, a combination of all the above results in the teaser for Breaking Bad (Gilligan, 2008). It is impossible to pinpoint exactly how to start a story, which is why the only advice for writers in the film is to “grab the reader’s attention” (Trottier, 2014, p. 11). Regardless of how the film starts, screenwriting wisdom recommends drawing in the audience in no more than 10 pages or 10 minutes (Field, 2005, p. 97; Snyder, 2005, p. 75; Trottier, 2014 pp. 10-11).

Bibliographical References

Cambridge Dictionary. (n.d.). BEGINNING.

Deren, M. & A. Hammid. (Directors). (1943). Meshes of the Afternoon. Maya Deren.

Field, S. (2005). Screenplay: The Foundations of Screenwriting (revised edition). Delta.

Gilligan, V. (Creator). (2008). Breaking Bad. Sony Pictures Television.

Gough, A. & Millar, M. (Creators). (2022). Wednesday. MGM Television.

Matt. (n.d.). What Is A Cold Open In TV? Definition & Examples. Film Lifestyle.

Miyamoto, K. (2023, March 3).The Screenwriter's Simple Guide to TV Writing. Screencraft.

Niccol, A. (Director). (2005). Lord of War. Saturn Films.

Praet, Y. (2023, February 26). The Problem of Likability in Protagonists. Arcadia.

Renée, V. (2019, March 3). What Makes the Beginning of a Movie Great? No Film School.

Resnais, A. (Director). (1961). Last Year at Marienbad. Terra Film.

Snow, M. (Director). (1967). Wavelength. Michael Snow.

Snyder, B. (2005). Save the Cat! The Last Book on Screenwriting You’ll Ever Need. Michael Wiese Productions.

Sunghoo, P. (Director). (2020). Jujutsu Kaisen. MAPPA.

Trottier, D. (2014). The Screenwriter’s Bible: A Complete Guide to Writing, Formatting, and Selling Your Script. (6th ed.). Silman-James Press.

Warhol, A. (Director). (1965). Empire. Andy Warhol.

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Yoran Praet

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