Opening with a Bang May Be Shooting Yourself in the Foot (or Head)
by John Robert Marlow
HEROES IN PERIL
Many authors feel compelled to open their stories with a scene involving their hero in action and/or high drama. This is particularly true of those writing in the action/adventure and science fiction genres. But unless you know what to avoid here, this is almost always a mistake—and it can be a fatal one.
There are several films I like to cite as examples of this principle at work. Speed 2 is the first. We open with a SWAT cop on a motorcycle, pursuing a step van up a steep and twisting road. During the chase, the van’s rear doors pop open, and large boxes fall onto the road, threatening to crash the cop, who swerves this way and that to avoid the tumbling boxes. It’s meant to be exciting, but it’s not, and here’s why: we’ve never seen this guy before, we don’t know who he is, and—because of that—we don’t care what happens to him.
Despite the fact that this was a sequel to one of the biggest hits of all time, Speed 2’s worldwide gross was a bit over half of what the first film made ($164 million vs. $350 million). Factor in the budgets (Speed cost about $28 million; Speed 2 more like $110 million) and that’s a very serious discrepancy.
Contrast this with Titanic, a one-shot with no sequel potential. The film is over three hours long and set on the water, at a time when either one of these alone was considered certain death at the box office. The budget was somewhere north of $200 million (no one will admit the actual cost), the movie is of all things a period piece, and you pretty much know going in that everybody dies. The studios—it took two working together to finance the film—were in a panic before the 1997 release, and the movie was widely expected to tank.
Instead, it vaporized all previous records, hauling in well over $1.8 billion (and more like $6 billion with video sales included) and spinning off the best selling soundtrack in film history (a soundtrack which, incidentally, almost no record label wanted). Titanic also swept no fewer than eleven Academy Awards—tying a record set in 1959.
Now let’s take a look at how Titanic begins. Writer/director/producer/editor James Cameron uses the opening scenes to introduce us to the main characters. We get to know and like them quite a bit. Though there is a good deal of romantic tension, it’s a full hour and forty minutes before the ship hits the iceberg and places our hero and heroine in mortal danger. That’s about as far from opening with a bang as it’s possible to get. Yet by the time that danger comes, we think of Jack and Rose as friends—and we care very much what happens to them.
The two styles of opening are like night and day. It’s the difference between reading about a complete stranger involved in a car wreck—and learning that a close friend or family member was in the same accident. The first has minimal if any impact because you have no “connection” to the stranger; you’re not emotionally invested, so he becomes a statistic. The second can be devastating because you are deeply connected and emotionally involved. When it comes to your characters, you want an emotional investment on the part of your readers—and for most writers, that takes time to establish.
Which is not to say it can’t be done: Cameron himself opens True Lies with hero Harry Tasker torching through underwater bars and sneaking past armed guards with dobermans. And while this may not be opening with a “bang,” exactly, it is placing a protagonist we know nothing about in immediate jeopardy—which is the whole problem when “opening with a bang.” So what makes this different?
THE SUSPENSE OPENER
In those few brief moments it takes Harry to sneak in, we get to know a bit about him. First of all, he’s both daring (to even attempt getting into this place) and smart (taking a route few would expect). Slipping from the icy water, he peels off his dry suit to reveal—improbably but believably—a tuxedo; this is a spy with style. Next, he slaps on a bit of cologne; clearly a man with a knack for detail. Dropping a communication device in his ear, he checks it by saying, “Honey I’m home.” Already we have a daring, smart, stylish spy—with a sense of humor to boot.
After sneaking past the guards and their dogs, he enters an imposing mansion through the service door (a stealthy spy)—only to be noticed by the chef as he passes through the kitchen. Instead of waiting for the chef to ask him what he’s doing there, he starts complaining about the gourmet food as if he owns the place—in French, no less (a multilingual spy who’s quick on his feet).
Emerging into a grand room filled with important people, he snags a glass of wine from a waiter, greets several guests as if he knows them, leaves his used glass in a guest’s hand and makes his way upstairs, where he accesses encrypted files on a secure computer (making him technically adept).
When noticed in an upstairs hallway, he bluffs his way out of it by asking the security man–in perfect Arabic–where the bathroom is (cool under pressure; knows at least three languages). Returning to the party, he ducks suspicious security men (an elusive spy) and does a hot tango (a sexy spy) with the girlfriend of the billionaire who does own the place (how gutsy can he be?). This man fears nothing, and sees no reason why he shouldn’t take time to tango—even when he knows the jig is almost up.
Inside of ten minutes, we feel we know this guy—and we like him. A lot. Then the real action begins—by which time we care what happens to Harry Tasker. In Iron Man, Tony Stark is set up even faster—but he action is also very brief, and we then jump back 36 hours and spend more time getting to know him better before we pick up with the action line.
THE BAD GUY ACTION OPENER
Often, a film or novel will “open with a bang” involving the villain rather than the hero. In fact, most successful “bang” openers do this. Cameron’s Terminator opening is a classic: we see the cyborg from the future appear in our time and attack three punks with astonishing force. Why does this work?
The reason is simple: our sympathies aren’t supposed to be with the bad guy. Because of this, the reader/audience focus shifts from wondering “Who the hell is this guy that I should care what happens to him?” to “Oh my God what’s this horrible person going to do next?” and maybe even “Someone’s got to stop this guy—who’s that going to be?” And that’s much easier to accomplish without some prior groundwork.
Then we move on to our hero (in this case, heroine), and spend some time getting to know and like her. After that, her life is placed in jeopardy.
SEQUELS: THE BOND OPENER
The glaring exception to all of this, of course, is the classic James Bond-style opening, which places Our Hero in immediate and extreme jeopardy. There is, however, one crucial difference here: Bond is an ongoing character, so readers and viewers already know him—and root for him—because he was established in a previous story.
By the same token, something like Dark Knight—impressive though it may be—does not stand on its own. An enormous amount of time was well-spent setting up Bruce Wayne’s character in the previous film, Batman Begins. Dark Knight draws from and builds upon that known backstory—but even here, the writer employs the Bad Guy Action Opener, and not the Bond Opener, which is inherently risky.
Opening with a bang may be shooting yourself in the foot—or head. Avoid placing your hero in peril before your reader or audience has a chance to “connect.” In fiction as in life, danger—even death—mean less when they happen to strangers.
copyright © by John Robert Marlow
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