5 Keys to Unforgettable Story Introductions

by Suzannah Windsor Freeman

Hand holding antique key

If you haven’t already heard of Winter’s Bone, it’s an independent film which was nominated for Best Picture at the 2011 Academy Awards (watch the trailer here).

An unflinching Ozark Mountain girl hacks through dangerous social terrain as she hunts down her drug-dealing father while trying to keep her family intact. –IMDB

With a smallish budget and no big-name celebrity actors, Winter’s Bone must have done something right to garner itself a nod from the Oscars.

I watched it earlier this week and thought it was one of the best movies I’ve seen in a long time.

Unforgettable Story Introductions

Although I loved this film from beginning to end, one thing I really noticed was its effective beginning.

A great story introduction isn’t just about introducing the characters; it’s about drawing your reader in with a combination of character, conflict, setting, mood, and other elements. All of these factors work together to make your audience want to stick around.

How does Winter’s Bone succeed in this?

Within just the first five minutes, there are (at least) five factors that work together to give the film an unforgettable introduction:

1. Sets the Mood

The first scene is a montage which opens with a lone woman’s voice singing a traditional folk song, The Missouri Waltz (“Way down in Missouri/Where I heard this melody…”).

No background music, no instruments. Just a raw voice against the silence. This was a great way to instantly establish the mood of the story.

2. Establishes Setting

During the opening montage, we see shots of the setting:

  • the cold landscape of the Ozark mountains in winter
  • a young boy and girl in winter coats, jumping on an old trampoline in front of a log cabin in the woods
  • the same children playing amongst old tires, empty buckets, and other junk in their yard while an older girl hangs laundry in front of the cabin

The last picture in the montage is a shot looking up to the hazy sun through the twisted, branches of bare trees, along with the title, WINTER’S BONE. They say a picture is worth a thousand words, and I think that’s true in this instance.

3. Hooks the Audience

Most of us reading this—those of us who have the luxury of a computer and access to the internet at this very moment—have no idea what life is like within this type of harsh landscape and social context. We’re mesmerized by how different these characters’ lives are from our own. We want to learn more.

I’m not saying that a story can’t be interesting if it’s about everyday people dealing with everyday problems, but presenting us with a foreign environment is one great way to keep our attention.

4. Introduces Main Character(s)

After the opening montage, the first scene shows us the teenage girl, Ree Dolly, standing at the kitchen counter washing her face. She’s dressed in a plaid jacket, her hair in a messy ponytail, and she looks a bit on the tough side.

The camera turns to Ree’s younger siblings, Sonny and Ashley, who have been asleep on the living room couch and chair. It’s morning, and we later find out it’s a school day, so we can assume these children don’t have proper beds to sleep in (that is, it’s not the weekend and they’ve just fallen asleep watching TV on the couch, or something).

For breakfast, Ree fries some potatoes in a pan on the stove. She looks into the refrigerator hesitatingly, then hands her little sister a bowl of food to give the dog, but first she gives it a sniff to make sure it’s okay. “Better than nothing,” she says.

Later, we see Ree standing behind her mother, combing her mother’s hair. The woman doesn’t speak. She has her eyes closed and her head back, and we can tell there’s something not right with her.

Ree walks her brother and sister to school, quizzing them on spelling and math questions as they walk.

All of these shots show us that Ree is the one who cares for these children, not her mother. We also see that she does the best she can with what’s available to her. She’s not your average teenager.

5. Shows Us What’s at Stake

From the very opening, the audience knows Ree and her family live in harsh conditions. We can see she cares for her younger brother and sister, and her mother isn’t well. We sympathize with her character because we can tell she cares for her family the best that she can.

So, without even knowing the main conflict of the story, we already know that the stakes will be high, whatever that conflict may turn out to be.

Storytelling, On and Off Screen

When you write the opening scenes of your novel, consider these five elements and how they can help you make your introduction an unforgettable one. Set the mood, establish the setting, hook your readers, introduce your main character, and—if at all possible—show us at least a little bit of what’s at stake.

Some of you may think, “This is a movie, and we’re supposed to be talking about writing novels.” But there’s no denying the connection between storytelling done on screen and that done in print.

To prove my point, I just went to Storyfix.com so I could link to some of the film deconstructions Larry Brooks has done in the past. Instead, I noticed his latest post is also about a film you should watch if you’re an aspiring novelist. Here’s a direct quote from that post:

…if you’re about to invoke your rights as a novelist who feels above the craft of the screenwriter, think again: story is story, and there’s no more transparent tutorial for it than in a solid flick.

A happy coincidence. And so true.

By the way, the film Winter’s Bone is based on a novel of the same name, written by Daniel Woodrell. I haven’t read it yet, so I can’t comment on it. But I do intend to read it soon.

Have you seen or read Winter’s Bone? How did you feel about the way the story is introduced on screen? What does all of this tell you about effective novel openings?

  • Neha Garg

    I agree. A story is a story is a story. Whether you present it as a novel or as a screenplay or even as a song, it doesn’t matter. The introduction still has to be strong enough to pull a reader in.

    One of my favourite openings is from the children’s book called Knife. It begins thus

    ‘I only want to go out for a little, little while,’ the faery child pleaded. ‘Just below that window, on that branch. I won’t fly away and I won’t tell anyone, I promise.’

    This line itself shows so much more that it tells. Right away you begin to wonder why she isn’t allowed out. If it is only because she is a child then why is she talking about not telling anyone? Maybe it is forbidden to wander outside?

  • diane

    this is about the movie,not the book. big difference

    • http://writeitsideways.com Suzannah

      Have you read the book version? If so, maybe you could give us some insight into how the book and the movie differ in their introductions.

      As I said at the bottom of the post, there is a lot novelists can learn from film. Larry Brooks is a published novelist AND screenwriter, and he often does film deconstructions to help aspiring novelists understand story structure.

  • http://twitter.com/cathyyardley Cathy Yardley

    I agree: you can learn storycraft from a variety of media. I enjoy movie examples. (Also love Storyfix.com!) I’ll have to check out Winter’s Bone.

  • http://www.gracefulword.com Jim H

    I agree with your premise. The modern novelist must also be a student of film. The proliferation of visual media, its ready access (Netflix, YouTube, etc.), and its conditioning of the modern audience means we must think cinematic: do our story in scenes. This is not a new technique. It’s been around for a while. Mastering it will improve our storytelling. (I say this from a 14-year background in theater.) There are lots of great films from which to learn. My favorite is Chariots of Fire. Not only are the scenes well executed, but the overall theme is brilliantly woven. Thanks for your post.

  • http://twitter.com/judyblackcloud Andi Judy

    I love watching stories through film and agree that there is a lot that can be learned from a well done film. Movies have an even shorter span of time to tell a story so they have to keep the plot engaging from the first second to the end.

  • Carter0945

    Since I am aspiring short story writer. I suggest short story writers should begin their story with a action scene. We don’t have the luxuary of building a background with setting and characters.

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