Friday, January 31, 2014

Plotting Part 2 - Opening Image or Paragraph

(Continuing with the Plot Structure Series. Still working on the opening "Set Up" section of the story. Check out Part 1 - Overview. Part 2- Opening ImagePart 3 - Character Intros 1Part 4 - Character Intros 1b. )

I suppose everyone agrees that the opening line or page or paragraph in a novel, or the opening image or scene in a movie, is incredibly important.  Most people however, look at it as a hook. A way to lure in the audience.

And, ironically, that attitude is something that actually leads people away from effective openings sometimes.  They're so busy trying to be special that they forget what the opening image is for in terms of the story: Orientation.

In A Chair With a Cat and A Book

When a reader starts a story, he or she is sitting someplace in the real world, hearing sounds of the real world, feeling the temperature, and the air and the texture of the book. And what he or she sees is not a story yet. It's marks on paper or a screen.

A few hundred marks on that first page just aren't enough to build a whole world for her. You can't just snatch her out of that chair and drop her into that complete and vivid other place.  While you can interest her immediately with details and promises, to immerse her in the world, you have to lay out the information one piece at a time.

And each piece will change the reader's understanding of not only what happened before, but also will affect what she expects and thinks of the next piece of the puzzle.

So last night and this morning I grabed up a bunch of movies from different times and looked at the opening sequence.

Movies have an advantage over text in that they can give you a whole big picture -- lots of people and objects and movement and sound -- all at once in a single image that may take more than a thousand worlds to describe.  Books have an advantage in that they can convey unambiguous information more quickly.  You can just say, outright, what something is or means.

That particular element is important in our first example of an opening image: Fargo.

Fargo: Words and a Tan Ciera From Heck

If you've ever seen Fargo, you remember what you think is the first image.  Anybody who has seen it talks about it.  And yet, that's not really the first image.  It's at least the second, and I would argue that it's the third.

The very first image of the movie Fargo is a black screen with white text.  The text claims that the movie is a true story, and says it took place in Minnesota in the 1980s, and something about the survivors and those who died.

This slide is a lie.  The story is not even loosely based on anything real.  That title card is there as a part of the story itself.  It might seem like a hoax, or a weird Coen Brothers trick, but the Coen Brothers weren't the first to do this.  It was a common practice in the old days.

The Prisoner of Zenda, for instance, starts with a similar title card, mentioning a great scandal that was whispered in the great halls of Europe -- although they claim this is not that story.  But that disclaimer is there to make you feel like it is the real story. (I mean. that's what you say about gossip.)  It's a fantasy of reality, and it's there for a the same reason it's there in Fargo: it tells the audience what kind of story is coming up.  It tells them how to interpret the images they will see next.

(With the Prizoner of Zenda, this is not the actual opening image. The opening image is a line of trumpeters playing a royal fanfare, and then we get the credits over a moonlit scene. Then we get the title card.  Then we get the story.  Each of these images, along with the sweeping music, tells us something about how to interpret what we will see. Here is the first ten minutes if you're interested.)

But back to Fargo....

Fargo opens with that title card (which I am told was later removed from some DVD version, perhaps by studio lawyers who feared getting sued for telling a lie).  So the audience is sitting in darkness, and now they know something.  This is a "true crime" style story. A melodrama about crime and chaos striking at the heartland of America.

The next image we see is complete gray.  Note that even though this image doesn't give you much information, it also doesn't give you confusing information either.  Instead, the blank gray makes the audience wait, and concentrate. That is partly because the title card which came ahead of it gave us information.  We are patient because the story has started already.

We soon see that this blank screen is actually the whiteout of a blizzard. The music is melancholy, and also sounds kind of folksy, and this plays into the true crime melodrama in the heartland story.

Then the first thing we actually make out dimly is weird.  It's a bird flying around in the blizzard.  Which feels like an artsy symbolic movie trick (and that's actually why it's there.)  But almost immediately, we make out a couple of other details: a fence line, and a road.  A rural road, an isolated location, a blizzard, and an incongruous bird.  And headlights -- but dim and distant headlights.  We don't know yet if those headlights are what we're supposed to be watching or not. They disappear from view.

The music becomes incredibly omninous. And suddenly the headlights reappear, much closer.  Almost bursting out of the dim grey of the storm.  An anonymous car, towing something behind it, sending up rooster tails of snow, going fast for conditions -- and yet in that weird, silent steady way of a car in a blizzard. Also it's filmed in slow motion.  It feels ... inexorable.  Like a demon or fury, which has just burst from hell into our world.

It's fateful.  And it's coming for somebody.  Not us. It doesn't pause or hesitate for us, it just keeps going. Again, like a Scandinavian art film, where death or the fates or the furies gallop by us in their chariots.

And then.... the blizzard is gone.  And it's an ordinary car, towing an ordinary tan Ciera into the parking lot of a roadside bar.  It's night, and that ominous misty gray is gone: We've got black and color and white, like a normal atmosphere.

The story then begins, and we find out that the guy driving that car is not the demon, but rather is the foolish and weak wizard who summoned the demons, who are waiting for him in the bar....

If they had started with the meeting in the bar, the story would have been fine, but we would not have had this ominous feeling hanging over our heads.  The humor would have put us at our ease, and we would have expected people to survive, the way they do in comedies.  We would not have the respect for the potential for real evil, nor would we have the level respect for our mild mannered heroine who will stand up to it.

And we wouldn't be ready for the nastiness, and we would feel betrayed.

The other thing that this opening does is give the story meaning.  The idea of chaos and evil affecting ordinary people.  It also allows the ending to feel more like a bookend.  We start with a symbolic demon bursting out of the storm in a car on a highway. We end with our heroine with the surviving "demon" locked in the back of her patrol car, driving him to where he belongs.  Minnesota Nice has survived and triumphed.  And as she comments, unlike the opening, "it's a beautiful day."

In The Heat of The Night

In The Heat of the Night is similar to Fargo.  It doesn't begin with text (other than the title), but it does begin with words -- in this case, lyrics -- and an unresolved image that makes us wait for details.

The opening image is black, with a couple of light haloes -- points of light, shot out of focus.  Ray Charles crooning soulful blues, "In the Heat of the Night."   As Charles sings, the yellow light halo in the center gets brighter and slowly resolved into the headlights of a train.

The train rolls on through a small town, late at night (we know it's late because the streets are empty) and the song and title tells us it's a hot night.  Then the train passes a sign, "Welcome to Sparta, Mississippi."  So we know where we are.

Then the train pulls into the station and we see the legs and hands of the porter as he climbs down and puts down a step for the passenger.  The passenger steps down.  We only see his legs -- clad in a nice suit with shiny shoes, and his hands and suitcase.  But because we see their hands, we know one thing about these characters:

The porter is white and the passenger is black.

(This might be a good time to mention that this movie was made in 1967.)

So we've got the Deep South, the blues, the pssion of the heat of the night, and a black man in a suit in 1967 Mississippi.

The passenger waits, and turns to watch the porter.  It almost seems like he's going to put his hand in his pocket, like maybe he'll give a tip?  But the porter keeps his back to the passenger, throws the step back on the train and the train pulls away.  The passenger pauses and then goes on into the station.

We never see their faces.  We don't know them as people yet.  And the movie cuts away from them anyway, to begin the story in a diner across town.

It's as though the passenger isn't the protagonist, at least not yet. He's like ... that tan Ciera in Fargo. Or even the shark in Jaws.  He is a catalyst.  An incident waiting to happen: something that will upend the balance of the town.

An argument could be made for the idea that Mr. Virgil Tibbs is actually the antagonist in the story of this town, and in particular it's Chief of Police. (Or at least a key impact character.)  Yes, there is a crime to be solved, and Virgil Tibbs will solve it.  But had Virgil Tibbs not been there, the case would have just been another small town crime in a story which changes nothing.  The status quo would continue to rule over justice.

So in some sense, his arrival is the real inciting incident of this story. (And yes, sometime soon we'll get to how inciting incidents can be split and happen both early and later in the first act.)

Of course, Mr. Tibbs isn't just a catalyst.  He is also definitely a protagonist.  He's a very much a character in setting with a problem.  (And oh, boy, is that setting and problem vivid in the mind of the audience of 1967.)  And that opening gives us all the information we need to know about both his problem and the problem the town will face.

A Hard Day's Night

The opening image of A Hard Day's Night is somewhat different: instead of a train or a car coming at us, in a lone and mournful location and an anonymous protagonist we see right off the bat, before credits, a crowded urban street, and at the far end, three of the Beatles are running toward us, pursued by a crowd of crazed teenagers.  They are laughing and tripping, and yet running as if for their lives. The teens are not laughing, but their screaming is passionate, almost desperate.

This opening image is punctuated by sound -- the discordant opening chord of the song "A Hard Day's Night."  And over that song and credits, we see John, George and Ringo dodging and running through a train station.  Paul is there too, but because he's in disguise and accompanied a sneering little old man, so he isn't being pursued.  His presence lets us know that this is a normal and forseeable occurance.

By the end of the credits, the Beatles have all made it onto the train, and we know all we need to know: they are stars, they are footloose, but also trapped by their own fame.  And the film will show us how their lives are an endless chase, as the lads fight to preserve their real nature and identity as the culture around them pushes to get a piece of them.

Say Anything

The 1980's teen romance Say Anything violates an awful lot of the rules of how a story should shake out, and one of those elements is how it opens.  The opening image however is a solid and standard one.  (NOTE: unfortunately YouTube doesn't have a clip of this, so I'll just describe it.)

We see a shot of a town on the water.  Modern day, working class / middle class.  We hear music and the voices of teens, talking about their yearbook.  Even though it feels more like background noise than information, we get the feeling that these are seniors talking about typical end of High School things.

As the camera pulls away from the water and the town and finally into the teen bedroom where the conversation is taking place, it settles on the face of Lloyd Dobbler.  He's not one of the ones talking, but once we see his face, he finally opens his mouth and says, out of the blue "I'm going to take out Diane Cort."  His friends try to dissuade him, and tell him that he'll only get hurt, but he declares "I wanna get hurt!"

Then the credits begin.

The thing that is extraordinary about this scene is that this is what is supposed to happen at the END of the first act. This is supposed to happen AFTER the inciting incident, and the charcter's life has been disrupted and he's considered his options.  He's not supposed to "Commit to the Quest" until after all that!

But ... that's what this story is about.  Lloyd Dobbler was  born committed.  He doesn't care about the consequences to himself.

In some sense, he's also a Mr. Tibbs, a Jaws shark and a tan Ciera.  While the story does test Lloyd, he doesn't really change.  So in some sense, this opening  hints that this story is really about Diane Cort -- who will have something to contend with in Lloyd Dobbler.  The subsequent scenes confirm this idea, as we see Lloyd and his determination long before Diane is even aware of him.

I should probably have saved this one until I talk about the "character commts" part of the story, but I just wanted to show you how sometimes, that opening image is literally just an establishing shot.  The image of the town, the talk of Lloyd's gal pals are not grabbers.  But they do efficiently set the stage.  We know the culture and the kinds of problems people of that age have.

So we understand what is at stake.  So, as with seeing a well-dress black man in 1967 Mississipi, Lloyd's declaration promises a us a story worth watching.

Okay, that's a lot of scenes.  I could talk about more movies, but I think I'll move on.

Next week, we'll talk about Character Entrances... part 1.  There are a number of subjects to talk about with that, and we'll start with another look at In the Heat of the Night as we look at introduction by conflict.

See you in the funny papers.

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Anonymous said...

Another good example would be the opening of BAD DAY AT BLACK ROCK.

The Daring Novelist said...

Oh, yeah. I forgot that one. (You made me go dig it out of my collection.)

Another train, another stranger arriving to disrupt the balance of a small town. (Although that town is a lot more on edge in the first place.)

I do think the opening images of that one are not as effective as they could be -- maybe because I don't like Andre Previn's overly dramatic music. (On the other hand, that music tells us right off, this is a thriller, not a frontier movie.)

I'll be adding this one to the pictures I'm looking at for examples. It's got an almost play-like structure.