Plot : The First 5 to 10 Minutes
Effective screenwriting involves a certain degree of promiscuity fuelled 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”.
The setup is simply the situation, person, entity, institution, or event that gives provide hints about the nature of the of the story world and what the protagonist will ultimately have to contend with in striving to achieve his/her objective or goal.
Take for instance, The Verdict. It is during the set-up we meet the protagonist, the lawyer, Frank Galvin, who plays a desultory game of pinball whilst sipping what’s left of a beer. The outside world through the windows of the bar is cold, grey, and Galvin plays with a complete absence of enjoyment and enthusiasm. He is in fact a layer, down on his luck – a virtual 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), Vertical Limit
Present-Life Problem – Inner or Outer conflict. For example, the abusive husband in Sleeping With The Enemy
A hook – intense, dynamic action or situation
Theme – The pimp’s opening monologue in Hustle and Flow, and the intro to Magnolia
Impending Danger – War Of The Worlds, Arachnophobia, The Conversation
A question to be answered/mystery to be solved as in Breakdown, Nature of the Beast
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.