Film making: Writing the opening

One of the most if not THE most famous opening lines ever written till date is ‘Once upon a time, in a faraway land’.

What does this line have that has worked magic over decades?

1. It has a complete fantasy element to it

2. It sets an atmosphere that is concrete yet out of reach. It tells a story of a time long gone by, in a land not accessible to us because it neither specifies it nor gives it a name.

3. It thereby, leaves a lot to imagination so each person can see the castles that exist far and beyond in their own heads with kings and queens, princes and princesses, knights and dwarves drawn out as they wish.

4. It sets an expectation of something magical that is about to happen. Of events that cannot happen in a real world or at least not to us.

However, if we read each of the stories that have followed this opening line: from The Sleeping Beauty to Snow White and the Seven Dwarves to Cinderella, there is a lot more to each story than just the opening line.

To write a story, it is extremely important to have a gripping start and many writers have great beginnings in their minds. One of the best I have heard is ‘it was a dark and stormy night’. Great! It is necessary to have a high sense of drama as a start point to have that great opening shot in a film that will instantly grip the audience the moment the hall goes dark.

Sadly, many stories fall flat after a great opening. And so do many films. Let us examine the opening of one of the stories listed above: Snow White and the Seven Dwarves.

As the story goes, the queen was sitting by the window, sewing and watching the white snow flakes fall against the ebony black frame of her window.

We have gone beyond ‘Once upon a time’ which had already transported the reader to another world. What we now have is the ‘atmosphere’ where the story is set.

There is a queen, she is watching white snow against ebony black window frame. There is complete sensory experience of watching this view with her.

Next, an action happens that sets the story in motion. She accidentally pricks her finger with the sewing needle and a drop of blood falls on her sewing. The vividity of the colours sets the story in motion as looking at the red against the white of the snow and the ebony black of the window frame she has a longing: a longing for a child who will be the most beautiful child in the kingdom with skin as white as snow, hair as black as ebony and beautiful red lips like the red drop of blood offset against the white snow!

Now, there is a fantasy which has become the goal of the story. Next, the queen gives birth to this child who is named Snow White and she dies immediately after giving birth. Soon after, Snow Whites survival is threatened as the king remarries and there arrives on the scene Snow Whites step mother. For the story to have an ending, we need to know what happens to Snow White? The queen had dreamt of having the most beautiful child in the land but did not live to see her.

Therefore, it is an unfinished business.

Hence, for Snow White to grow up and BE the most beautiful child and complete that wish, it is necessary that she survives. Her survival becomes the goal that has to be pursued.

This is why ‘it was a dark and stormy night’ is such an attractive beginning. It sets an unmatched atmosphere for some great action to take place. But this is not enough and often leads nowhere. Because ‘what’ the action is, ‘who’ does it centre around (protagonist or hero) and why (what is their goal) are still unanswered.

It is important to answer these questions along with that great dramatic beginning to write an opening that will set the tone for the rest of the film.

Coming back to Snow White, her survival in itself is the goal.While Snow White does not care about being the most beautiful, we as readers care. The reader hates the step mother because she is imbued with that vanity of wanting to be the ‘most beautiful’ woman in the land. This is how the plot cleverly makes Snow White’s survival important to us as it does her being the ‘most beautiful’ without any vanity associated with Snow White herself.

So to go beyond ‘it was a dark and stormy night’ the writer needs to decide ‘what’will happen to ‘whom’ to set them on their journey in pursuit of that goal that the viewer will care about.

It is again not enough to have a goal but the audience must have sympathy with that goal right through the story. In Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, it is important for us right through that the magic mirror declares Snow White as not just alive but as ‘more beautiful than the queen’,

her step mother. And this is achieved by making her beauty not her goal but that of her dead mother! It is the first queens child, who in pursuit of her own survival, will make her mother victorious over the second queen. Snow White being declared ‘most beautiful’ is a sympathetic cause which will result in a triumph for her dead mother.

The queen, by virtue of her death, has already got the readers sympathy,leaving behind a new born. To have a ‘beautiful baby’ versus wanting to be declared ‘most beautiful’ to satisfy vanity are completely different wishes with different sympathy quotients.

Thus, while a beginning like ‘Once upon a time…’is necessary to transport the reader into a magical world, each successive story contains in it well woven elements of story writing, which have sustained the interest of generations and these stories still continue to form the basis of many films like ‘Maleficence’ or ‘Snow White and the Huntsman’.

To summarise, a good, powerful opening needs the following elements clearly defined:

1. Atmosphere of the film

2. Clearly defined lead character, their backstory (what has brought him or her to the point where we meet them in the film).

3. What does the central character want? The Goal!

4. Why can he/she not get it? What is stopping them? If they could get it easily, there would be no film.

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