3 Beat Start

MCMFriday, August 11, 2017

So here’s the thing: you’re writing a scene and you know that, in this scene, Bob needs to eat a hamster. You know this because the outline tells you so… but what the outline doesn’t tell you is how you start off a scene about hamstercide.

Now, your first instinct may be to have Bob talking to Barb about hamsters, or food, or murder. Have Bob say “Gosh, I could eat a hamster right about now” and let nature take its course. But — and it’s not to say that’s not a great idea — what you’ve got there is an** inciting action**, not the start of scene.

The problem is, we don’t know who Bob is, we don’t know who Barb is, and we don’t know what they’re doing, or how a hamster fits in (ew! mind out of the gutter, people!) You can’t start without context, but context has a habit of getting baggy. For instance:

Bob and Barb are drinking tea. Barb is reading a magazine. Bob has a look on his face like he wants to eat a hamster and—

NO NO NO STOP RIGHT THERE. First of all, WTF does it look like when you want to eat a hamster? Is that a thing? Is it an American thing? South Carolina, probably? Because if so, wow, OK, that’s… uh… cool.

But OTHERWISE, there are three things wrong with this set-up:

  • It’s slow. Bob and Barb are drinking tea? Do you know how boring that is? To register that Bob and Barb are drinking tea, you need to start with a wide shot of two people sitting at a table, and then pause long enough to register they both have tea cups, and probably a kettle, and then even LONGER for them both to take sips in a way that doesn’t say “HEY LOOK WE ARE DRINKING TEA!” Now, if you want to draw out the first shot, then that’s fine, but don’t overpack a sentence (more on that at a later time).
  • Our first action is unrelated. Barb is reading a magazine. Also boring, but what does that have to do with hamsters? Or eating? Is it a food magazine? If not, why have you mentioned it? If you’re setting the scene, you’ve just overpacked TWO sentences in a row, you fool. Now stop it!
  • Stop telling me conceptual things! You can tell me that Bob looks like he’s going to puke. You can tell me that Bob looks like he’s falling asleep. You can tell me Bob looks lonely. I mean, you can do it BETTER than “Bob looks like he’s going to puke” by being specific, but even so, an actor can read that and go: “Oh, I can look like I’m going to puke. No problem!” whereas NOBODY will EVER say “Oh, I know exactly how to look like I want to eat a hamster that is not visible at this moment in time.” Unless they’re in South Carolina. That is not a filmable concept. Stop writing it. It’s wrong.

ALL OF WHICH IS TO SAY: if you don’t know how to start, and want to start fast and punchy, do this:

Thing. Thing. Go.

Super easy, right? Start with a striking image, then connect that image to SOMETHING, and then tip the domino. For instance:

A hamster nibbles carrots. Bob watches, eyes narrow. He licks his lips and carefully, CAREFULLY reaches for—

See? Striking image that you can process in half a second, a connecting image, and then he licks his lips and gets down to business. Or try:

Barb flips the page of her magazine. Bob watches, eyes narrow. He licks his lips and carefully, CAREFULLY reaches for—

That’s a whole other kind of disturbing, but also valid. Thing. Thing. Go. Nobody’s looking away because you’ve given them three URGENT images to care about, right away.

Fun Alternate Version: start with a HARD action. Something to snap the reader’s attention, like:

BAM! the knife hits the table. The hamster nibbles carrots, oblivious. Bob licks his lips and carefully, CAREFULLY reaches for—

The “BAM!” grabs attention, gets coupled with a compelling action with a WTF quality to it, and then you proceed as planned.

You can use this trick at the start of any scene that doesn’t already have a compelling first image… but try to mix it up. If it’s too obvious you’re using a trick, it bugs people, and they will look at you like you’re a hamster nibbling carrots.

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