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Introduce the Hero on Page One!

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.
-Syd Field

(From “Screenplay:  The Foundations of Screenwriting’ 2005.  p107)

The beginning of a film must set up
a dramatic problem for the protagonist…
-Linda Cowgill

(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…”
-Ray Frensham

(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

  1. They are the Coen brothers.  They have a string of successful films behind them.  They can get away with anything.
  2. 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

Jack Brislee is a business broker and property developer by day and a screenwriter by night.
He has written 12 scripts, one in pre-production in the
UK and one in pre-production in South Africa.

He collects and dissects books on screenwriting.

About the Author

Jack Brislee

Comments 16

  1. One of the most famous examples might be the introduction of Luke Skywalker.

    What we do know from the time C-3PO and R2-D2 land on Tatootine is that he lives on a deserted, not to forget boring, planet.

    As soon as we get to meet Luke, we see…

    – he is a young man, but tired of his life
    – he lives with his uncle and his aunt
    – he is a farmer boy
    – he has the dream to break out
    – he has a strong will to keep up with his friends
    – he is intelligent, as he wants to study
    – he is a reliable person, as he won’t abandon his uncle before the next harvest

  2. The television series Columbo had a great way of breaking this rule. They would show you the crime first and then Peter Falk would come into the story about 15 to 20 minutes into the show.

    You need to maintain the audience’s interest and they will come along for the ride.

    1. This was done in most other shows of the 80s. Usually, we met the villain first, as in The A-Team or Knight Rider. Also, CSI adapted this method with success. It’s kind of a cliffhanger or a hook.

    2. I suppose the other thing with TV series is a late introduction of the protagonist will not detract from the story. We already know the protagonist from previous episodes.

  3. When I hear talk of the ‘rules’ of screenwriting, I reach for my revolver. ‘Following the rules’ gives the impression of you as a smarmy school kid (or worse), while ‘breaking the rules’ gives the impression of you as some hip young rebel.

    Let me share something from my experience of actually working in the industry.

    THERE ARE NO RULES TO SCREENWRITING

    There are, however, techniques. The point of learning the techniques is to understand how using them impacts on the audience. Once you are skilled in the techniques, you can chose to use them or not, because you understand what they do.

    Music also has no rules, only techniques. But try DJ-ing at a busy dance club sometime, put on a tune in 3/4 or 5/4 time signature, and see what happens to the dance floor.

    Incidentally, if Ray Frensham is an expert on screenwriting, then I’m an expert in reconstructive surgery.

    1. I think of it more as guidelines instead of strict rules; a golden thread if you like to say so. It’s more to show you a path how to do it, but not a pattern to be nailed down on.

      It’s like the common term “breaking into Hollywood”. “Breaking in” sounds like you’d go from one extreme to the other, but it’s much more of a development of life, work and events that get you where you want to go.

    2. The iron glad rule is “It must be entertaining”. Then there are guidelines, suggestions, techniques and examples. Films that ignore all guidlines, sugestions, techniques and examples usually play in very small theatres to very small audiences who often wish the writer had reached for his revolver.

  4. Many successful movies open with a sequence that doesn’t have the Hero but that shows us some sort of inciting incident that will later catch up with the hero, like we see in e.g. Jaws and The Matrix.

    Perhaps the most important thing at the start of a movie is not so much to introduce the hero but rather to grab the audience’s attention.

  5. How about Psycho? Introduce a pretty young leading lady, set up her character, give her a problem to overcome, get the audience on her side, kill her.

    Although I suppose you could argue that the real hero of the story is Sam, who we meet relatively early as well before he falls off the face of the film for a half hour while Marion gets herself killed.

    Er, spoilers, I guess.

  6. I noticed that you quote me above saying, “The beginning of a film must set up a dramatic problem for the protagonist…” It’s the problem that is set up, and it usually will involve the protagonist. But not always right away. I agree that there are no rules in screenwriting, only a couple of fundamental principles. The many good examples sited above attest to this. I might argue, though, that Marge is Jerry’s antagonist.
    -Linda Cowgill

    1. I agree that Marge is Jerry’s antagonist, but I also think she is the film’s protagonist. Perhaps we have discovered a new type of character – the Protantag or the Antagpro.

      I am very flattered to receive a response from you, Linda, and think that your book, “The Art of Plotting – Add Emotion, Suspense and Depth to your Screenplay” (reviewed by me on this website earlier in the year) is one of the best. Many screenwriting experts fail to explore the audience’s emotional reaction to a film, and your book rectifies this problem. I think all screenwriters should add a column to their step outlines or index cards headed: “How do I want the audience to react emotionally here?” They should then check that each scene is likely produce the desired reaction.

      I can think of many films where my emotional reaction has unfortunately been indifference. I can also think of many others where the writer had me exactly where he or she wanted me.

  7. I am a new ISA member, but with years in writing and producing TV commercials (mini-movies), now a novice screenwriter. I understand the Rules and Techniques in discussion, but I believe in writing for the audience. I try to grab their attention by developing the traits and arc of the Protagonist, his/her problems, and goals. A powerful Antagonist, etc., and follow-up to the inciting incidents quickly, within the first 5-10 pages. Hopefully, the audience will empathize with sufficient curiosity to become involved in the story
    and stay in their seat.

  8. I noticed while reading Armageddon that the (Bruce Willis) character wasn’t intro’d until very late, or even mentioned. Once he was intro’d, they knocked it out of the park, and he never left the screen after that.

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