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Plot : The First 5 to 10 Minutes
Successful, dramatic screenwriting involves a certain degree of promiscuity fueled by an unerring obsession to seduce and be seduced. The initial dalliances with character and story might not take place on a computer screen, but at some stage that becomes the metaphorical boudoir in which a lot of the creative energies are developed and exchanged. When it comes to producing a compelling set of relationships, the first evidence of a compelling relationship or set of relationships should occur as early as possible in the script, hooking in the audience with a collection of images and actions that is conventionally referred to as “the set-up”.
An effective set-up presents rather than hints at the nature of the environment/s in which the action occurs by showing the ways in which that environment works - or might work - to either help or hinder the characters in their struggle to overcome or defeat whatever opposes or threatens them.
Every screen story begins with plot - a problem that gives rise to a plan of action that when employed moves a character closer to or further away from their goal or desire. Plot is the course by which the characters – including the writer – navigate the action of the story that is being dramatised. Plot is what we see – it is the structure by which we move from one part of the story to the next.
In the film, The Verdict, for example, during the set-up we meet a middle-aged Frank Galvin, playing a desultory game of pinball while he sips disinterestedly on what's left of his beer. The outside world - seen through the windows of the bar - is cold, grey. Galvin plays with a complete absence of enjoyment and enthusiasm. He is in fact a lawyer down on his luck – an "ambulance chaser" - with a bleak past and a seemingly bleaker future.
World War Z
The thing about structure is that over-plotting tends to stagnate your creativity and spontaneity, whilst lack of it might very well create confusion. The way to find the middle ground is to follow the characters. It is their journey, a journey in which the writer and audience and tribe have an interest to be sure, but not to the degree that their hopes, expectations and fears usurp the convictions, values and needs of the dramatis personae. This is certainly the case with the opening of World War Z. No messing around. Gerry Lane (Pitt), a retired United Nations trouble-shooter; his wife, Karin (Mireille Enos); and their two young daughters, are driving in their S.U.V. when they get stuck in traffic in downtown Philadelphia. Suddenly, the street erupts: motorcycle cops whiz by, a garbage truck plows through the waiting cars, there’s an explosion up ahead, and people start running, terrified. The speed and the violence hit you like lightning. Then, gradually, in brief, searing glimpses, you see them: human-looking creatures, with disintegrating flesh and wild eyes, biting and mauling people and causing general mayhem.
Having said all this, the set-up generally occurs during the first three minutes or three percent of a script. The set-up allows the audience to get their bearings as they develop a feel for the tone, setting, and pace of the story. It occurs in many forms, but some common ones are:
Back story – think John Carpenter’s The Fog, Sucker Punch, When A Stranger Calls (1979 version), Vertical Limit, Bonnie & Clyde
Present Life Problem – Inner or Outer conflict - For example, grief in Truly Mady Deeply or an abusive husband in Sleeping With The Enemy
A hook – intense, dynamic action or situation as in Blade, Twilight Zone, The Movie, Utopia, Casino Royale and all Bond films.
Theme – The pimp’s opening monologue in A Serious Man, Hustle and Flow, intro to Magnolia
Impending Danger – War Of The Worlds, Arachnophobia, The Last Voyage, The Conversation
A question to be answered/mystery to be solved - as in Nature of the Beast, Breakdown, Don't Look Now, The Bear, Nowhere Man, Rashomon
Like a first date, the set-up will get you through the door with your audience. Intrigue them enough and they will stick around…for a bit. Like the props used in a first date, the set-up will get you through the door, but a good story will keep you there.
The Dark Knight
False Point of Attack 1 (Teaser / Character)
When A Stranger Calls
Brilliant example of a great - albeit extremely long (approx 22 minutes) - set-up, establishing main character, threat, back story of antagonist, and more. From the original, 1979 version, arguably the scariest film ever made.
Song For A Raggy Boy
Pictorial / Opening credit montage as means of setting scene
Bonnie & Clyde
Touch of Evil
Suspense occurs every time that we - the audience - are aware of something important that one or more of the characters in a scene is not aware of, something that poses a threat to the character, and whose ignorance makes the threat real.