What has to be accomplished in the opening scenes of a story? A lot. It is a very busy time, and if you're not careful you lose the readers who judge the salability of your work, and your audience. Following is a list of things that must be accomplished, followed by some brief explanations.
All of the main characters who will appear in the story should be introduced in the opening. The opening is about the first twenty minutes of a film which ends with the conflict coming to a crisis.
The motivations for each of the protagonists should be given in the opening. This doesn't mean doing extensive character history. I prefer not to do any character history, but to develop the character's motivations in the first sequence (first three to five scenes). I do this by showing each character's motivation, then bringing them into conflict. Since a scene averages about two minutes, this can usually be done in the first six to ten minutes, then bring the conflict to a crisis in the next ten. This way the audience knows very soon what the story is about, and is captivated by the conflict.
By the time twenty to thirty minutes of the story has elapsed, the characters should be in a crisis that is going to go on for the rest of the story. So at this point, the crisis should be big and unmistakable.
To accomplish these things, I need to outline a sequences of scenes that will accomplish this. What is a sequence? It is a longer writing unit than a scene - usually three to five scenes. If you write in scenes, your story has a choppy quality to it. Each scene accomplishes something then goes on to the next scene to accomplish something else. If you write in a longer dramatic unit, the action takes place over several scenes and the drama carries forward smoothly. And to make things even less choppy, take note of the action that is to begin in the next sequence then mention or begin it in the previous. This way there are few sharp transitions. The only sharp transition will be the crisis, so it will stand out.
Motif - vacation choices: protagonists planning at separate travel agencies
Scene: They announce their conflicting vacation plans
Scene: She displays the packing and planning schedule - he throws it away
Scene: They try to reconcile the two plans. He tells her that anywhere is OK - he doesn't have to have any fun. They both announce they aren't going.
Scene: He dreams about selling her - gets marketing info from her.
Scene: Going to work - the morning routine.
Scene: At TV station - complains to peer. She complains to a friend.
Scene: fantasizes about selling his wife.
Scene: Writes an ad - drops it on peer's desk and exits.
Scene: A friend comes to the station. Sees the ad and writes down the number.
Scene: Investigator enters to see producer - sees ad while waiting. Asks sec. who it is - doesn't know. Writes down name. Sees producer - tells about an expose he wants to do.
Scene: The friend calls the wife. They both are shocked. They decide to do it to teach him a lesson.
Scene: Home. It gets ugly. Talk of divorce. Talk of counseling. Investigator shows up to give her a kitten - she hates cats. He asks her about the ad - she gets even more angry that investigator has seen it. Separate - can't afford - live in separate rooms.
In the opening, the motif, which is really the opening scene for this story, Bob and Julie are at separate travel agents planning different vacations. Bob is planning what he likes. We have no words, just music (light, comedy) and large posters of faraway beaches. Julie, at another agency, is planning what she likes. We see posters of tall buildings, shopping, theaters. The sound fades in as the credits end and the two finish their planning. They pull out their credit cards and sign for tickets. Julie stares yearningly at a poster of two people walking hand-in-hand away from a carriage in a park. Bob says, "We really need this getaway. I hope this puts our marriage back together." We hear the pain and sincerity in his voice.
Sequence 1, scene 1, outlineThe two arrive home. Bob hides his brochures in his briefcase. Julie greets him as he enters the kitchen with a smile and a kiss. Both have a secret and can't wait to tell the other. Bob, all smiles, fixes them drinks and sits on the living room couch and lays the tickets and travel brochures beside him. Julie happily glances through the kitchen door and sees Bob on the couch and the drinks on the table. She takes her tickets and travel brochures from her purse and goes to Bob. She hands him the tickets, standing beside him. As Bob studies the brochures, his smile fades. With disappointment growing over Bob's obvious dissatisfaction, Julie notices the papers beside Bob on the couch and picks them up. As she looks over Bob's brochures and tickets, her smile fades. She gives Bob a hurt and questioning look. He returns it. Julie turns to her drink for solace. Bob gulps his drink down and bolts from the room.
Does this scene work? Would Bob and Julie respond as I have painted them? They both want their marriage to work, so why are they so easily disappointed? They both have different dreams of what will save their marriage. It will help when they both can share the same dream. The settings work. We go from a glitzy setting, travel agencies, to the home, an appropriate scene for their encounter. How funny is it? Comedy? I wrote the scene as a drama. Gulp! Do it again.
Sequence 1, scene 1, outline
The two arrive home. Bob hides his brochures in his briefcase. Julie greets him as he enters the kitchen with a smile and a kiss. Both have a secret and can't wait to tell the other. Bob, all smiles, fixes them drinks and sits on the living room couch and lays the tickets and travel brochures beside him. Julie happily glances through the kitchen door and sees Bob on the couch and the drinks on the table. She takes her tickets and travel brochures from her purse and goes to Bob. She hands him the tickets, and stands beside him. Bob tries to hide his tickets in the couch seats. As Bob studies the brochures, he tries to keep a smile, but Julie can tell he is faking. With disappointment growing over Bob's obvious dissatisfaction, Julie notices the papers beside Bob on the couch and picks them up. As she looks over Bob's brochures and tickets, she grows angry. She points to the beach and women in bikinis and gives Bob a hurt and questioning look. No, he denies the beach brochure and points to her New York City brochure. He beams at her and the brochure, indicating he can't wait to go. Julie would like to believe, but she doesn't, and she turns to her drink for solace. Bob rips the beach brochure and tosses it in the fireplace, then holds Julie and smiles at her. She responds, but glances at the fireplace, then tries to go to it to retrieve the brochure. Bob tries to block her gaze, but she realizes what he is doing and tries to get around him, but he dances in front of her until she laughs.
Notice that even though the two scene outlines have very different endings, they will both work within the sequence. The reason is because nothing was resolved in either scene. Just like in real life, the basic conflict remains even though Bob tried to mask it.
Julie is in the living room writing something. Bob enters from outside carrying a sack. On his way to the kitchen with the sack, he glances at Julie's paper and is drawn to it. Devilishly she hides it from him. Bob sets the sack on the table, kisses the back of her neck, and while she is distracted he grabs the paper and looks at it. What's this? Julie explains her grand packing schedule. Bob grimaces, quickly hands it back to her, and takes the sack to the kitchen. Julie is right on his heels, waving the packing schedule like it was the treasure map of life. Bob ignores her. Dejected, Julie struggles for an answer, then walks to the fireplace and pulls out Bob's brochure. She confronts him with it. He waves it away, but obviously something is wrong. Julie returns to the dining room table, crosses New York off the paper, and writes Islands in. She continues writing the packing list. Bob looks over her shoulder, sees her correction, and yanks the paper away. He furiously marks out Islands and writes in New York, and slams the paper on the table. Julie just as vehemently writes Islands. Bob reaches for the paper and Julie holds it away. Julie stands and apologetically says, "I want you to be happy." Bob plays the martyr, sacrificing his vacation for her. Julie is offended and won't have any part of that - it's Bob's vacation, too. Happiness? Bob takes the packing schedule, recites the lines, screams, folds it into a dagger, shoves it into his heart and dies. Julie is livid. She rips the schedule to pieces and drops them over Bob like snow. She won't go. Bob declares that the vacation from Hell is off - it is he who won't go. He brushes the paper pieces off him and goes upstairs.
They are in bed asleep. Bob is troubled - tosses and turns. He dreams. In his dream he is standing on a street corner trying to sell his wife. Julie is there and models for the crowd that gathers. No buyers, but suddenly Julie is walking away with another man. She seems happy. Bob is sad and reaches for her, but Julie smiles back at him and he lets her go. He awakens, frightened, gasping for air. Julie awakens and asks him what is wrong. Nightmare. Trying to sell something. Embarrassed and loses everything. Julie tells him marketing is easy: keep the price up, talk benefits, and he can sell anything. Bob watches her sleep, innocent, beautiful, and peaceful. He rests his hand on her shoulder, then goes back to sleep.
Sequence 1, scene 4, outline
This is the last scene in the sequence, so it should blend with the subject of the next scene, if possible, to make the story less choppy. In this scene Bob and Julie are preparing for work. In the next scene Bob is at work and is motivated to think about getting rid of Julie. So the scene should have work related themes and set up the action in the next scene.
Bob is in his pajamas reading the paper at the breakfast table. Julie enters, fully dressed, grabs some breakfast, is a flurry of activity, and rattles off a long list of daily preparations that she wants Bob to do. Bob never puts down the paper, and rarely says a word, except to say flatly that he can't. He makes faces at her from behind the paper. Julie constantly checks the clock and informs Bob of the time and that he will be late. Bob is defiantly immobile. The moment Julie steps out of the house, Bob becomes a flurry of activity, and very efficiently gets ready for work.
Process management: At this point, the two main characters should have
been introduced, the main conflict should be developing so the audience
knows what the story is about, and the audience should know that this is
a comedy. Seems to be on track. I will begin writing the first sequence. Note the
absence of scene numbering.
EXT. METROPOLITAN STREET - DAY
MUSIC IS LIGHT - HAPPY.
An expensive, sporty sedan tools down a metropolitan street. License plate: BOB 1. BOB, in his late twenties, casually but well dressed, maneuvers smoothly through traffic, enjoying himself.
A travel agency comes into view - it has an exotic look about it. Bob pulls in, takes a moment to admire his car, then enters the agency.
INT. TRAVEL AGENCY - DAY
Bob introduces himself and is ushered to a waiting room seat. Bob peruses the many posters, which feature beaches, islands, and exotic locations. An agent greets Bob. As they walk to his desk they talk about his vacation. Bob is animated, expansive.
Other distribution restrictions: None