Stories have a beginning, a middle and an end. They usually open at the start of this sequence and close at ‘the end’. They can open in ‘the middle’, or at ‘the end’ and jump about back and forth in time. Non-linear narratives use flashbacks and backstories to fill in the missing gaps. Opening at ‘the end’ produces a how-did-we-get-here story. Opening in the middle creates a how-did-this-begin-and-how-will-it-end story. The storyteller chooses where the narrative opens.
Graham Green acknowledges this in the first line of The End of the Affair, ‘The Story has no beginning or end: arbitrarily one chooses that moment of experience from which to look back or from which to look ahead.’ Green acknowledges the writer’s control of the entry and exit points of their narrative. He hooks the reader by giving us an insight behind the creator’s curtain, mesmerising the reader with his ‘honesty’ (giving away the storyteller’s secrets), while offering us an intellectual conundrum.
While the start point may vary, all good beginnings need the same things: impact, mystery, intrigue, a way to demand the reader or viewer’s attention; a way to emotionally hook them and create empathy for a character, or to demonstrate a way of thinking about the world, which the audience can relate to.
In Apocalypse Now Benjamin L. Willard, a combat veteran suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, looks up at the hotel room’s ceiling and imagines the fan as whirling helicopter blades. His narration, combined with images of him having a psychotic episode, bring us into his experience — we empathise with him, and, through his point of view, we witness the insanity of war.
A couple go for a drunken, romantic, midnight skinny-dip in the ocean. Moments later, in Jaws, the giant shark strikes. There’s a terrifying monster lurking in the sea: it must be stopped. How? Raiders of the Lost Ark also begins with a complete mini-story when Indiana Jones goes on a mini-adventure (it’s a complete story in itself with its own climactic chase scene) to steal a golden statue. If this amazing mini-story is just the beginning, just imagine what the rest of the film could offer? The Spy Who Loved Me takes the same approach. Even before the films credits have completed, the hero has literally, loved, taken up the call to action, given the audience a breath-taking ski chase, and escaped by skiing off a cliff and opening up a Union Jack parachute. It’s another self-contained mini-story within the wider narrative to come.
Another way of beginning a story is by introducing an element of the bizarre and the extraordinary. In Magnolia the story opens with a series of literally fantastic facts. It sets the scene for the surreal elements that emerge later on, and the unlikely, sometimes shocking, connections that will be revealed between the characters. It alerts the audience that the impossible can happen.
Sunset Boulevard opens at ‘the end’, a body floating in a swimming pool, the narrator is the voice of the murdered man. Tension in storytelling can be created through the audience wondering what happens next. It can also be produced by telling the audience what will happen, but not when it happens. Mystery, tension, and suspense come from making the audience wait; making them wonder how the plot will play out. In Sunset Boulevard we wonder: how did that floating body get into the swimming pool? What was the sequence of events that took the character to that moment? Other films that open at ‘the end’ are Citizen Kane, where Kane dies and releases the snow globe, letting it crash onto the floor, and Paris Texas with Travis Henderson walking aimlessly through the desert. How did this strange man get into this weird limbo? What happened?
Writers consciously play games with the narrative sequence. In Groundhog Day Phil Connors relives the same day; Phil (and the audience) experience a series of mini-stories, multiple versions of the same challenge. Leonard Shelby in Memento has amnesia. At the opening and the close, he doesn’t know where he is in the story, at the start, the middle or the end.