Plot : The First 5 to 10 Minutes
Effective 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”.
In the made-for-television film, Final Jeopardy, we are very quickly introduced to two sides of the the city, which is the film's location - the world of the night time urban jungle - a stark, inhuman, and uninviting, no man's land, the sort of place that one drives rather than walks through. Contrasted to this is the hustle and bustle of the city during working hours, full of commerce, people and familiar activities. The distinction is important. because Into this seemingly safe and predictable daylight world comes a young couple, both of them clearly out-of-towners with little if any knowledge of the city and its dangers. All of this is presented within the first five minutes of the film, laying the groundwork for the problem that will soon place the couple in extreme jeopardy.
To the writer's credit, he has quite effectively and succinctly dramatised how the couple's naivety, in concert with their lack of knowledge of the city and its ways, has given rise to some faeful misunderstandings and false assumptions, which prove to be major contributing factors to the horror that is to come.
Unfortunately, the set-up promises so much more than the rest of the film is able to deliver. If only the writer had followed the instincts that are very much in evidence in the set-up and allowed the relationship to become the major source of the emotional energies and anxieties, this could've been a wonderful film. Instead of turning it into an us against them schlock melodrama, how much more compelling it would've been if it was Us against Us.
Central to this unexplored scenario is the inadequacy of the couple's world view to cope with the frustrations and problems they encounter, and the way that these inadequacies work to reveal themselves to themselves as well as each other. The challenge - which is still there but blunted - would have been very powerful. If they are to survive the city night they had better be quick learners.Certainly, by the ten-minute mark we have no doubt about the sort of story we are watching - a fish-out-of-water thriller, where the characters themselves might possibly be their own worst enemies. Unfortunately, they can only stumble from one melodramatic moment to the next.
By way of an addendum, please note that Neil Simon's film, The Out-Of-Towners, employs most if not all of the same element that drive Final Jeopardy, but they have been re-contextualised - and successfully so - into a comedy rather than a thriller.
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.
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.
Every screen story begins with plot, 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.
The thing about structure is that over-plotting will 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.
With that said, 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, When A Stranger Calls (1979 version), Vertical Limit
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, 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 in the 1979 version what is arguably the scariest film ever made.
Song For A Raggy Boy