This is the eleventh installment in a series analyzing the humor, heart, and zany plots of various Pixar films. The focus is on applying these principles to children’s stories, however, writers of all genres can benefit from Pixar’s literary genius, so I highly encourage you to have a seat and prepare to write like the wind!
Writing opening scenes is as easy as eating pancakes while scrubbing the dishes while talking on the phone while doing squats while reading this article. Occasionally, the first scene will flow effortlessly, but most times it’ll be the most rewritten part of your book. For my time travel novel, I probably rewrote the first chapter at least seven times—and it’s still not right.
The culprit of these cantankerous scenes is that they are what determines if someone reads your story. A girl might wander though the bookstore and flip open your book to skim the first page. Or an Amazon user might download a sample to see if it’s an interesting book. If you deliver, they’ll most likely buy your book. If not, you know what happens.
I know this might sound hasty, but I can usually tell whether or not I’ll like a book/movie by the beginning. When I saw Inside Out in theaters, I instantly knew I was going to love it even before Riley reached the toddler stage. Likewise, many of the other Pixar movies have captured my attention immediately.
Maybe it was the breathtaking animation or the music. I think it was something more—techniques that tickle the emotions, awake the senses, and foretells the future of a great story by doing 4 things.
1. Sets up the Protagonist, the Problem, and the World
You probably know that the first scene needs to introduce to main character(s). Though a few have writers seem to lack that instinct and start by describing the five different colors of the leaves, most will start off with the protagonist. But as you probably know, that’s not enough. Otherwise you wouldn’t be rewriting it fifty times.
I already mentioned this in an earlier post, but I believe it’s something that should be brought up again. The first scene needs to showcase the most important parts of the protagonist’s personality. You can’t just begin your story with him brushing his teeth! All that shows is that he’s concerned with personal hygiene.
What if Up had begun when Ellie died? Besides missing out on the cute romantic sequence, the audience would’ve missed Carl’s love for adventure, an essential aspect of his character. Or what if The Incredibles had opened with Bob and Helen’s wedding? People wouldn’t have gotten to see Bob’s devotion to saving the world, whether it was apprehending a French terrorist or rescuing a cat out of a tree. In the same way, think of scenes that bring out the essential characteristics or core values of the protagonist(s).
Besides introducing your characters good points, you’ll also want to introduce his bad points. (if your character has a flat arc, then you’ll probably want to introduce his outer struggles because his inner struggles will be more minimal.) In Inside Out, you immediately saw a hint of Joy’s controlling nature when she tried to pry Sadness’s hands off the panel. In It’s a Bug’s Life, you saw the ants inability to think for themselves when they acted clueless about getting around a leaf, and by their scorn to Flik for thinking on his own. By foreshadowing the internal or external problem, you are giving readers something to wonder about (see next section) and something to relate to (because we all got problems).
Lastly, introduce readers to the world. This doesn’t mean you write ten pages describing the way the wind blows or the ins and outs of the government. Remember, this is introduction, not the history of your world 101. Instead, drop hints and tidbits of the world into the first scene, filling in the rest as the plot progresses. Inside Out showed how memories were made and emotions controlled humans brains, without showing all the mind workers or long term memory until later. Wall-E showed piles of trash, but didn’t go into detail about technology for a while.
2. Arouses Curiosity
Let’s say you’ve done everything above. Your character is interesting, the problem hinted, the setting established, but yet your scenes still hits a screeching note. The key to writing hooks is playing the tune of mystery—you want each sentence to pose a question that leads to another. People are curious beings, and this will keep them reading.
But how do you do this without typing a question mark after each sentence? First, ask yourself what kind of question you want your opening scene to pose (without actually stating the question)? Secondly, think of all the things the reader won’t know and how you can use those things to pose that question.
If you have enough mystery and intrigue, you may even be able to start the story without your protagonist in certain cases. Monsters, Inc. began with a monster (only shown again briefly at the end) applying for a job. First, the audience is wondering what hideous creature is in the room. Next, they’re wondering why the child is a robot. Then finally, when the lady monster pointed out the monster’s grievous error of leaving the door open, the audience immediately wonders, “what would happen if a child came into the monster world?” And leaves that question hanging in the air for the audience to mull on.
3. Fits the Vibe of the Story
How many times have you read a book with an intense beginning, but the end was just “meh” ? Or maybe the book wasn’t bad, but it didn’t live up the expectations you formed in the first chapter. Although you want to reel readers into your story, you mustn’t let that pressure cajole you into writing something that’s interesting, intriguing—and doesn’t match the story (for further reading, check out Brandon Miller’s article).
You’ve heard you should start off you book with action—this is excellent advice, except when you think it means starting off every story with a fight scene or landslide. If your story is slower paced, then your beginning should be too. If the plot is lighthearted, your first chapter shouldn’t be gloomy. Finding Nemo began with Marlin being a clown which soon turned into a horrible tragedy—just as the rest of the film featured moments of humor and action (jellyfish, sharks, and of course, the terrible Darla).
Likewise, Toy Story 3 began with outlandish scenarios, helpless orphans, evil Dr. Porkchop, and Woody and Buzz running to the rescue—promising fans more bits of quirky problem solving (Mr. Taco head, anyone?), toys in need of rescuing, ruthless villains, and most importantly, the heroism of Woody and Buzz.
Try nailing down your story’s vibe. Is it funny? Quirky? Heartbreaking? Inspiring? All of these? Then, make a list of the ways you can string those throughout your first chapter.
4. Starts with Action
I know I advised you not to start with fight scenes if it doesn’t fit your story. However, I didn’t say you shouldn’t begin with action. When I say action, I don’t mean dragon attacks, buildings exploding, or trains crashing. Those are all fine ways to begin stories, but not every novel needs that kind of opening. In fact, sometimes the best stories start with the smallest things.
Action can be anything you want it to be. A heated argument, an annoying insect, a rat escaping from a sharpshooter senior. Action is anything so long as it’s happening and your character is doing something and has a goal.
So ask yourself what should your character be doing in the first chapter and why? Is he jumping over rocks pretending they were mountains because he just watched an infomercial on Charles Muntz the explorer? Is he revving his engine’s because he’s about to race and is ready to win?
Secondly, what’s the character’s goal? The goal doesn’t have to be his objective for the whole story. Maybe his mission is simply to get to his wedding on time or gathering seeds for the colony. Whether little or big, life-threatening or everyday humdrum, a goal will give characters something to reach for and hence move the plot along. However, you’ll want to make sure the goal makes sense within the story and would be something the character would actually do.
First Chapter Checklist
Don’t you just love marking checkboxes? Here’s some more for you to check off as you write your first scenes:
Have you introduced your main character?
Have you shown the 3 most important parts of his personality (including flaws)?
Have you alluded to his inner or outer struggle?
Have you set up the world?
Have you left parts of the story out for revealing later?
Have you given your readers questions to ask?
Have you foreshadowed the theme/vibe of the plot?
Is your character doing something?
Is what he’s doing make sense to the plot?
Does he have a goal?
The Story Begins…
Your first scene has the power to suck readers in and imprison them, or shove them away faster than you can say “Kachow!” Don’t be afraid to revise it five, ten, or a hundred times. In the future, you’ll be thankful for the extra effort you put into it.
And if you’re having trouble, just start it with a lamp jumping on the letter “I. That always works.
I hoped you enjoyed this eleventh post to our Pixar series! Each month Aberdeen and I will break down different concepts into further depth. Please join us next month for the final installment as we show what Pixar teaches about ending your story.
For the rest of the posts in this series: