Writing The Cinematic Novel: Act I-Getting The Opening Image Right
In the first Act of your story, we enter the “Stasis World.” This is the world as is, before you and your writer genius gets in there to shake things up. This world is super important. You must know where a hero has been in order to understand and appreciate where they end up. This is your chance to show your reader the fresh hell that is your main character’s life.
This is where we find out everything that’s wrong with the world (well, your story’s world) and everything that’s wrong with your hero. Act I is where your hero’s imperfections shine (more about writing the perfect imperfect hero here). This is them at their worst before transformation happens. That’s why getting the Stasis World right in Act I is crucial.
During this Act, you’ll tackle your opening scene, the set-up of your Stasis World, your hero’s call to adventure or catalyst, and their subsequent refusal or denial. It’s an info-packed Act, not to be confused with an info-dump Act, and it will take some real writer mojo not to fall prey to the latter. That’s okay, though. I got you. I’ve already written a ton of info-dump Act I’s, and I know what to do to prevent it. Let’s begin.
Your Opening Image
The opening image is your first meeting with your reader. It’s your proverbial hand-shake or high five. Sometimes, it’s a rough-handed smack in the face. Other times, it’s kind of like a creepy caress. You know what I’m talking about, one of those grips that lasts just a tad long enough to send a pervy vibe down your spine and make you want to run in the opposite direction of the person as fast as possible. And then shower.
No one wants to greet a reader like that. Be an enigma. Be chilling. Be captivating. But whatever you do, DO NOT overload. Your reader needs a clear picture of what they’re getting into, not a synopsis or backstory they have to sink their teeth into.
Set The Mood
The mood of your novel is one of the most important elements. It goes beyond the atmosphere; It’s the feeling your novel inspires in the reader. Mood influences context and how your reader experiences the story. It’s vital you understand what you want your reader to feel so you can entrench them into these experiences.
“Her first name was India – she was never able to get used to it. It seemed to her that her parents must have been thinking of someone else when they named her. Or were they hoping for another sort of daughter? As a child she was often on the point of inquiring, but time passed, and she never did.” –Mrs. Bridge by Evan S. Connell
Set an emotional goal for your opening scene. What is it you really want your reader to feel when they set their eyes to the page? Write with intention. Make your reader feel from the start.
Show Your Style
There’s no place where an author’s style shines more than in an opening scene. Style can be a broad term but, for our purposes, I’m speaking about your unique brand of writing. What makes you stand out as a writer? How do you personally string words together to craft a unique experience? Your style should radiate from the page in an opening scene. Let your creative freak flag fly.
“This is a true story but I can’t believe its happening.
This is a murder story, too. I can’t believe my luck
And a love story (I think), of all strange things, so late in the century, so late in the goddmaned day.
This is a story of a murder. It hasn’t happened yet. But it will.” -London Fields by Martin Amis
This is your opportunity to allow your reader to fall in love with you as a writer. Grip them the moment they read your words. Let your personality as the author come through.
Start with Tension
What’s more gripping than gold ole’ fashioned conflict? Nothing. Your opening image should sink us deep into that Stasis World we talked about earlier and your hero’s conflict. Don’t tell us about the conflict, either. We need to experience it. Better yet, force us to experience it through your protagonist. What can your hero do in this scene that reveals flaws and imperfections? Inner conflict? Weave us a web of tension and litter it with your hero’s imperfect actions.
“He-for there could be no doubt of his sex, though the fashion of the time did something to disguise it-was in the act of slicing at the head of a Moor which swung from the rafters. It was the colour of an old fashioned football, and more or less the shape of one, save for the sunken cheeks and a strand or two of coarse, dry hair, like the hair on a cocoanut. Orlando’s father, or perhaps his grandfather, had struck if trom the shoulders of a vast Pagan who had started up under the moon in the barbarian fields of Africa; and now it swung, gently, perpetually, in the breeze which never ceased blowing through the gigantic rooms of the house of the lord who had slain him.” -Orlando by Virginia Woolf
Top Five Dos
- Start with a compelling hook which contains a clear moment of action that serves as a tease and grounds the reader at the moment while also propelling them to keep reading.
- Ground us in the hero’s perspective. Focus on your hero’s conflicts and individuality. Readers experience the story through your protagonist. Allow us to sink into their eyes firmly.
- Set the scene, but be specific. It’s much better to paint what’s different about this scene than to use generic descriptions. We won’t care. We don’t want to get lost in the setting. Readers are there for the story.
- Mini-plot your opening scene. Give us your hero, their perspective, a conflict, and a satisfying resolution to that conflict. Opening images should contain an arc of their own and how that first minor arc plays out will resonate throughout the rest of the story.
- Give us a hint of the ending. The first minor arc we experience will show us the hero’s external conflict and come to a resolution, but there’s a second nugget here contained within that first arc. It’s your hero’s internal motivation and what he/she wants in the long run. This will play out for the rest of the story. Your opening image should mirror your closing one. Keep that in mind at the beginning.