This is probably the biggest stretch of any of my letters, but shut up, it’s the end of the month. Anyway, we all know that beginnings are hard. You have to very quickly orient your audience in your new world and get them rooting for the right characters, and you have to do it in a way that feels natural while making the whole thing interesting enough to keep people hooked. We’ve already looked at a couple of examples of this balance that were less than great, so let’s go for one that does it really well.
I’m not the first person to express admiration for the opening credits of Guardians of the Galaxy, and I’m probably not going to be the last, but really, it’s glorious. After the gut-crushing cold open, we see the adult Peter landing on a dead planet. He takes off his imposing mask, slips on some headphones, and starts grooving. Right away, it establishes the tone of the movie, alternating between grandiose and goofy. But more importantly, it establishes the character of adult Peter within seconds. By the time that title card appears, with Peter dancing his heart out underneath it, you know who this guy is: he’s a space pirate with a shameless sense of fun. There’s a little more to him than that, but you’re already on board after that opening. (Cleverly, there’s actually plot being foreshadowed with this sequence too, since Peter dancing to his mix tape winds up being a surprisingly crucial part of the climax.)
Star-Lord’s intro gets the most attention, but they do it with others, too. Let’s look at Rocket and Groot’s intro on Xandar. It’s no accident that it starts with Rocket’s voiceover; a talking raccoon gets dangerously into kiddie movie cute animal territory, which was one of the big reasons people were so skeptical about this movie’s chances for success. But you get the sarcastic, misanthropic running commentary first, before you see that it’s coming from a tiny fuzzy guy. It cuts off any preconceptions toward cuteness before they can take root. Meanwhile, Groot is playing adorably in the fountain, and pouts when Rocket yells at him.
It’s not just the heroes getting this treatment, either. Ronan’s first appearance shows him ritualistically preparing to brutally murder a member of the Nova Corps. He doesn’t actually get a lot of screentime in the movie; his presence is more felt by the other characters’ fear of him, and of what he could do with the Orb. But that’s not quite enough to make the audience feel that same fear, hence he gets a more… impactful introduction. (I would apologize for that pun, but nope, not gonna.)
Even if you’re writing a more plot-driven story, it’s still characters that people connect to, and so their introductions should be handled carefully. What’s the most important thing that we need to know about them right off the bat? Where is their character arc going to end up, and what’s an effective way to contrast that? What kind of impression do you want this character to make? Answering these questions can help you craft an electrifying and memorable opening that lets the audience dive right in.