In a new regular series on The Story Department, Jack Brislee will shatter all the screenwriting principles we have so strongly advocated.
First he introduces us to the rule, then explains how it has been successfully broken (or bent).
The Rule: Introduce the Protagonist on Page One!
Well, maybe not exactly on page one, but most of the experts agree that we must see the protagonist at the beginning of the film.
They express this rule as follows:
The reader must know who the main character is, what the dramatic premise is, what the story is about, and the dramatic situation – the circumstances surrounding the action.
These elements must be introduced in the first ten pages.
(From “Screenplay: The Foundations of Screenwriting’ 2005. p107)
The beginning of a film must set up
a dramatic problem for the protagonist…
(From ‘The Art of Plotting’ 2008. p3)
In the first “ten pages you have to set up your scenario. Establish who your main characters are
and especially who your protagonist is…”
(From ‘Teach Yourself Screenwriting’ 2003. p110)
Blake Snyder’s fifteen point beat sheet has the opening image as beat one. This beat is
“an opportunity to give us the starting point of the hero.”
(From ‘Save the Cat’ 2005. p72)
The logic behind the rule
This rule makes very good sense. The audience needs to empathise with the protagonist and follow his or her story. The quicker you get your protagonist in front of the camera, the quicker this process can start. Also, if your hero is played by a major star who commands millions of dollars, you want to get your money’s worth as soon as possible.
The majority of films which feature the protagonist’s name in the title feature the protagonist in the first scene. The hero might be making a speech – Patton, applying for a job – Erin Brockovich, or even dying – Lawrence of Arabia, Gandhi.
Can this rule be broken?
Most experts say no, but look how successfully the Coen brothers break it in Fargo. Policewoman Marge Gunderson (Frances McDormand) is introduced on page 36. How do they get away with it?
Two easy answers are
- They are the Coen brothers. They have a string of successful films behind them. They can get away with anything.
- Frances McDormand is married to Joel Coen.
But I think there is more to it than that. Look how much information the writers give us about Marge in her opening scenes:
- She is pregnant
- She has morning sickness
- She has a very strong accent
- She is kind and considerate
- She has a sense of humour
- She has a great relationship with her husband (who paints ducks!)
- She is intelligent
- She is very good at her job
Break the rule – then fix it
In fact, the Coen brothers give us so much information about Marge in such a short time that we feel we know her. The fact that she was introduced very late in the story is irrelevant.
The writers have broken the rule, and broken it successfully. If they had not provided all these character details so quickly the rule could not have been successfully broken.
Are there other examples of late introductions to protagonists? Are they successful or unsuccessful? Why?
– Jack Brislee
He collects and dissects books on screenwriting.