“The end is in the beginning and lies far ahead.” — Ralph Ellison
What are beginnings and endings anyways? Until now, have you ever thought about it? It’s a lot more subjective than you think, at least from a screenwriting standpoint.
As screenwriters, most of you are probably used to the typical cookie-cutter movie opening: we casually meet the hero in their everyday life, we’re introduced to their inner circle and we get a basic idea of who they are as we move towards the drama. This is a simple text-book example of how many screenplays open:
- Setup: We’re introduced to the main character in the ordinary world.
- Inciting Incident: An unexpected event (call to action) leads the protagonist on an adventure.
- Turning Point: The hero encounters a new obstacle that transitions the story into Act 2.
If you want to begin your story that way, that’s perfectly okay (and convenient), but what about opening with a different approach? What if you open your story with an ending? And no, I’m not talking about sequels.
When you analyze what stories are, you realize they’re about specific moments in time. A movie represents carefully chosen sequences from your hero’s journey, not their journey as a whole. As Hitchcock once said, “Drama is life with the dull bits cut out.” Generally, a screenplay represents one of many adventures experienced by the main character.
Beginning with an ending is as simple as opening your story in transition from a previous adventure. It’s a transition from one chapter to another. Do we really need to begin in the ordinary world? Why not start in the middle of things, at the center of the action?
Like the example I provided above, many films today open with big action sequences, but some use what is known as the ‘bookend’ technique. This is when a film opens with the end scene (part of it), but the story immediately goes back in time to reveal what led to it before eventually returning to the end scene (all of it).
Some screenwriters like opening with the bookend style because it’s a good way to keep an audience engaged as they try to decipher what led to that moment. Think of it like a detective trying to solve a murder case. The detective (viewer) knows how the victim died, but doesn’t know the who or why of the story – at least not yet. This is a great method, but it proves a buzzkill to the viewing experience when not done right.
Regarding bookends, some screenwriters immediately take us to the ordinary world, where we’re made to wait until things get interesting again. What do the mundane details of the ordinary world actually tell us about the hero? When well executed, the ordinary world reveals the ‘why’ of your protagonist’s actions, but should you be compelled as a writer to expose your main character’s motivations with such immediacy?
Why not give your audience one piece of the puzzle at a time so they can put all the pieces together by the end of the movie?
I find characters more alluring when they’re introduced with some mystique and I gradually discover what motivates them and what they’re made of by a film’s end. After all, action reveals character, and character is something you reveal throughout your story. Any important details you would otherwise depict via an ordinary world setup can still be weaved-in piece by piece as your story progresses.
Returning to the opening scene above, why not start your story in the middle of the action and go on from there (no bookends or ordinary world setup)? This process suits the Thriller, Horror and Action / Adventure genres well as audiences expect lots of thrills from these formats.
Still not convinced?
If your story opens big and continues from that moment, not only will your audience be constantly entertained, but you will blow their expectations out of the water when you lead them to a climax that is twice as big and rewarding. I challenge you to apply this method to your next screenplay.
My favorite words of advice for screenwriters… open big and end bigger.
To conclude, I want to share something I learned early on about screenwriting: you have to know your ending before you write these 2 words:
And this goes beyond anything I previously discussed in this article. Many of you have probably successfully written your scripts without this trick, but let me explain why it’s important. If you know where your story is heading, you’ll know how to reach that coveted finish line. Knowing your narrative’s ending will guide you to that last page of your script where you’ll finally get to write these satisfying words:
As you now know, when it comes to screenwriting, endings are beginnings in more ways than one.