Arguably the most important portion of your story is the opening. This is where you must seduce your readers and audiences as you draw them into the world you’ve created. And this is where you must introduce us to the hero/heroine/protagonist of your story, creating immediate empathy and identification with this character.
Take a look at the opening scenes of Nora Ephron’s screenplay for Julie and Julia:
EXT. LE HAVRE – 1948 – DAY
A sky-blue 1947 Buick station wagon dangles in the air on a crane. It starts its descent. An American in France.
EXT. BUICK – 1948 – DAY
A diplomatic license plate is affixed to the car. Bags are packed in the back. The car pulls away.
PAUL CHILD (O.S.)
Repeat after me. Nous
cherchons un bon restaurant
JULIA CHILD (O.S.)
Nous cherchons un bon
Her French is atrocious.
EXT. HONFLEUR – 1948 – DAY
The Buick drives through the port of Honfleur. JULIA CHILD, 36, a tall American woman wearing a hat, is in the passenger seat. Her husband PAUL CHILD, 46, shorter, debonair, is driving.
We then see Julia Child for the first time as she and Paul step from the car, finishing their French lesson with the words “Bon Appétit!” – foreshadowing a phrase that will echo through the entire film. They swoon over a lunch of fish sautéed in butter, then drive to their new apartment, where she introduces herself to their landlady with, “Je suis Julia Child.”
Notice first how simply and efficiently Norah Ephron draws us into the setting and characters, providing a lot of information in just a half a page. We (and the audience watching the film) learn that the hero’s name is Julia Child, her husband Paul is a diplomat, they have just arrived in France from the U.S., they are moving to Honfleur, and it’s 1948 (not just because the script tells us, but because a 1947 station wagon and the fact that Julia is wearing a hat make it pretty clear this is a period piece).
Other elements of the story are indicated more subtly. Julia has probably never lived in France before (her French is atrocious), and they love food (the French they practice is about finding a good restaurant). So from the very moment we meet our hero, the essential qualities of her situation and personality begin to inform the story and affect the action.
One of the advantages of a new arrival opening like this one is that it subtly tells the reader, “Don’t worry, you haven’t missed anything – the story is just getting started.” Particularly when the locale is unfamiliar (such as a foreign country or a period setting), the audience will be more eager to enter the world you’ve created when they know they’ll be introduced to everything as soon as the hero is.
After this brief introduction of Julia Child, screenwriter Ephron cuts to her second hero, and we immediately see the close parallels between Julia and Julie. A super tells us we’re now in Queens, New York, in the year 2002. The first shot of Julie Powell shows her packing a copy of Julia Child’s book Mastering the Art of French Cooking – the book that will unite the two heroes’ stories. And like Julia, Julie is also driving to a new apartment with a loving and devoted husband.
Because Julie & Julia takes place in two different time periods, Julia and Julie are introduced separately, with alternating opening sequences. But even if the two heroes were contemporaries, this would be the most effective way to introduce them. Any time your story contains two equal heroes or protagonists, they should be introduced separately, then come together later in the story.
The exception would be a film like Wedding Crashers, where the two heroes are already friends, in which case they are introduced simultaneously in the opening scene.
If you introduce one hero, and then introduce his sidekick or love interest when that character enters the hero’s life – as with Ned (Morgan Freeman) in Unforgiven or Anna (Julia Roberts) in Notting Hill – the first character introduced already has the audience’s attention and empathy, and the second character won’t function effectively as an equal hero.
As soon as you introduce your hero, you must create an immediate psychological and emotional connection between the reader or audience and that character. They must subconsciously become your hero so they can experience emotion through her. And the three most powerful ways of creating this essential empathy are with sympathy, jeopardy and likability, because we identify most strongly with characters we feel sorry for, worry about, or like and admire.
Our initial empathy with Julia comes from her likability, which is first established by her relationship with her husband Paul. They treat each other kindly and lovingly, and we see how much he adores her (notice his loving, understanding, and almost comforting reaction to her speechlessness over the taste of the fish). One effective way to make your hero likable is to show or describe her as well liked by other characters in your story. By showing how much Paul loves her, we are drawn to Julia as well.
Julia is also warm and good hearted, which is first established by the way she greets her new landlady. And her excitement and sense of adventure at these new surroundings is ingratiating.
Our empathy toward Julie Powell is based primarily on the sympathy the screenplay creates for her. Instead of an elegant Buick with wood panels, Julie and Eric drive a purple Bronco van. Julia and Paul drive past a beautiful, ornate tower and up to a magnificent old building; Julie and Eric drive past an ugly water tower and up to a small, dingy apartment above a pizza parlor. Julia oohs and ahhs over her lavish new apartment, and declares to Paul in her mangled French, “I’m so happy”; Julie drops the silverware drawer, complaining that “everything is falling down,” and asking, “What are we doing here?”
Julie’s likability is then revealed a few pages later, when we learn that her job is helping victims of 9/11, and we see how she tries to stand up for someone who hasn’t received the help to which she’s entitled. And like Julia, Julie’s husband also loves and supports her.
These opening scenes constitute what I term the setup of your story; you’re revealing your hero’s everyday life before any extraordinary event occurs that will move your story forward. This is the “before” picture of your hero – the snapshot of who and where the character is before her journey begins. At the end of the story you will again show your hero’s everyday life, this time after having completed the journey you’ve created for her.
At the beginning of your story, if you wish to portray an arc or transformation for your hero, he should be in a state of inertia – longing for something he’s doing nothing to obtain, or settling for a life that may be emotionally safe and tolerable, but lacks passion, risk and fulfillment. This character’s life might be filled with activity, might even give the illusion that he is striving for something, but all this effort is ultimately going nowhere.
All this spinning in place illustrates that your hero is living in his or her identity – my term for the emotional armor we all carry to protect us from our deepest fears. In Jungian terms, it’s your hero’s persona. It’s the false self the character presents to the world to avoid feeling vulnerable and terrified.
This mask grows out of some wound or painful experience from the past that the character believes he has left behind, but which is determining his behavior nonetheless. He’ll do just about anything to avoid experiencing or facing whatever caused this pain, even if it means living a false, limited and unfulfilled existence. Because given a choice between safety and happiness, we’ll opt for safety almost every time.
Even though both Julie and Julia are moving into new homes, we get a clear picture of the lives they’ve been living for some time: both have been married a while to loving husbands, and both are defined by careers that don’t fulfill them (Julia is simply the wife of a diplomat; Julie is enduring a frustrating and depressing position helping 911 victims battle an unfeeling bureaucracy).
In other words, both these heroes are stuck, as your hero must be at the opening of your story if you want to develop an arc for that character, and a deeper theme for your story. When we first meet her, your hero must be afraid of experiencing life fully, of becoming who she truly is, of living her truth and her essence. For both Julie and Julia, their fear that they aren’t strong enough or talented enough makes them withdraw from life a bit. Certainly neither woman is shy, but at the same time, neither is standing up for herself or her passion for cooking.
Julia believes that food isn’t something she could build her life around. When she tastes the fish in the restaurant she is speechless – she hasn’t yet found her voice, her way of expressing who she truly is. And Julie hasn’t even figured out what her passion might be. She just knows that she’s unfulfilled, and that when she gets together with her much more successful friends, she feels like an outsider, and a loser.
Finally, your setup must end with some opportunity for your hero. Something must happen to your hero that has never happened to her before, that will create a desire to move into some new situation. For Julia it’s the cooking class, and the realization that there are no good French cookbooks written in English; for Julie it’s the discovery that her friend has a blog, and her desire to create one of her own.
But prior to those key turning points, Nora Ephron has created an emotionally involving introduction to two heroes with whom we fully empathize, and whom we are eager to accompany on their journey to accomplishment and fulfillment. Its simple style, vivid details, well-chosen settings and subtle foreshadowing are all essential to both the commercial and the artistic success of the entire film.
If you’re a speaker or a marketer, rather than a screenwriter or novelist, this introduction of your hero and his everyday life needn’t take ten pages or ten minutes – they can often be accomplished in just a few sentences. Just be certain they’re included. Otherwise you’ll have lost your opportunity to draw your reader or audience into your hero’s life before his journey begins. And without that emotional connection, the power of your story will never reach its greatest potential.