Begin Again (2013) + How to Nail Your Opening Scene 

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Director/Screenwriter: John Carney

Keira Knightley & Mark Ruffalo are an unlikely duo. Job loss and break-ups leave the two rejected by society and quite hopeless. But it’s their unexpected partnership that thrusts the plot forward. The grandest lesson of Begin Again is probably that the only way to get over breakups and breakdowns is to, well, get your sh*t together… so you can create good art. No pain, no gain – right? Begin Again tells the journey of how courage and conviction are enough to help any artist reach liberation and become successful.

How to Nail Your Opening Scene

Even with a great story on deck, you may not have a clue about where exactly your story should start. And given that every story is unique, which method is the best?

The Brilliance of Double Flashback and Flash-Forward

Begin_Again_2013_Movie_Mark_RuffaloBegin Again opens with a subtle and familiar scenario: the New York amateur on open-mic night. As the crowd boo’s the timid woman on stage, an older man begins to stare at her in awe as she performs the worst solo ever. Who is this guy and why is he staring? How can he appreciate this awful performance? Instead of seeing what happens next, we travel 8 hours back through time before the performance. We get to know this guy as the story progresses back to the open-mic night. The weird staring makes sense now. However, we still don’t know the woman or what’s causing her train-wreck performance. Naturally, we wait to hear what the man has to say about it. But instead, the story rewinds again, this time to the last few months of the woman’s life. It’s only as the story arrives back at the open-mic night do we understand how cleverly fate is about to bring these two together. You can’t help but take delight in their inevitable meet.

Begin Again walks audiences right into the middle of a seemingly meaningless scene, and stimulates curiosity as clues get dropped in and the plot develops into a bigger story. Not all facts are known, but we know enough to keep watching. It makes audiences active detectives in the story with the use of flashbacks and flash forwards.

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Where does the perfect opener hide?

Great openers lie in the reveal. We writers generally know the beginnings of our story, but hardly do we obsess about the perfect opening scene or how to best present the story to audiences. When starting the first draft, we naturally want to begin the story where, duh, it actually begins! But is the first idea that pops into your head always the best? Of course, not. Neither is the first chapter in your story which can be slow-paced, lengthy or too far removed from the bigger action-packed story we really want to be able to tell within our 2-hour time slot. Instead, you should press fast-forward and start your story somewhere in the nearby future or even the past.

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To get a clearer idea of your story’s best possible opening scene, consider the following story points:

  • First hit: What scene first shows the delightful oddities of your story world?
  • First disturbance: When does your protagonist first encounter an abnormal level of action or conflict in their life? What specific incident initially forces your protagonist out of his/her element? This can be a simple or layered scene.
  • First enemy: When do the protagonist and villain first meet? When is the villain first corrupted? Can you manipulate what the audience will assume about these characters?
  • Before and After: Is there a place that drastically changes during your story? Which would excite audiences more – knowing what will become of it or what it’s like before it changes?
  • Third Act Secrets: What’s revealed in the last few scenes of your story? Are there any secrets that would hold audiences in suspense if they knew about them from the start?
  • Philosophy: What scene or character first introduces the grand question or idea about your story?

These types of scenes all hold punch and can hook audiences. Whether it be a peculiar, average or dramatic scene. Or in the past, future, or alternate reality. It’s just important to remember that the first scene doesn’t have to be synced with the first day of the story. In Begin Again, there’s a subtle nudge to find out why a man is so entranced by a woman with no talent. It’s a not a million dollar question, but it’s enough to pique the audience’s interest as we get thrown back in time to find out who he is.

The beauty in writing your script’s first scene is that you aren’t obliged to parallel it with the first part of your story. How a story reveals itself lies entirely within the writer’s creative control – your only duty is to tell a whole story.

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