Posted in Film, Writing

How to Hook Your Readers in the Opening Scene

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Watching Like a Writer is a movie review series that looks at films from the perspective of a fiction writer, complete with one writing takeaway, and an exercise that will help better your fiction!

He’s one of the most respected actors in the world, but it must be said that for every great film Anthony Hopkins has made, another stinker is waiting in the wings. The Wolfman, anybody? But thankfully Hopkins’ dignity remains in tact with these five terrific films, all of which feature great Hopkins performances and rich, spellbinding storytelling. Let’s take a look at the five best films of Hopkins’ career…

5. Audrey Rose (1977)

This surprisingly effective and chilling horror film from the late 1970s features Hopkins as an obsessive man who believes the spirit of his deceased daughter is living in a young girl in New York. There’s a lot of great suspense, and fine acting among its small ensemble, which includes Academy Award nominee Marsha Mason.

4. Titus (1999)

One of at least three dozen gems from 1999, Titus is not a movie for everyone, and certainly not one for the squeamish. Director Julie Taymor gorgeously visualizes this unique William Shakespeare world, and pits the great Hopkins up against a wonderfully macabre Jessica Lange. That dinner scene at the end is even more disgusting the conclusion of Hannibal!

3. Nixon (1995)

Oliver Stone’s last great film, this maniacally entertaining presidential biopic has half of Hollywood in it, plus a dozen more. Just like Stone did with JFK, he puts a spotlight on a President in a way that only Stone could. Hopkins was nominated for an Oscar for his performance as Richard Nixon, and deservedly so.

2. The Elephant Man (1980)

David Lynch followed up his disturbingly brilliant Eraserhead with this lyrical, absolutely gorgeous black-and-white film about the trials and tribulations of a disfigured and tortured human being. It might be Lynch’s most uplifting film, and certainly one of his two or three best. Hopkins fits well into this mood piece.

1. The Silence of the Lambs (1991)

Hopkins is at his most terrifying best in this, easily his best movie, easily his most memorable movie, easily his all-time classic performance. Hopkins has said that he modeled Hannibal Lecter after animals, specifically reptiles. His stillness throughout his jail scenes are chilling, and the wild animal he displays toward the end marks some of the scariest moments ever recorded on film. Plus his toe-to-toe with Jodie Foster is pure delight. Both Hopkins and Foster won Academy Awards, even though the film was released super early in the year in February, and even though it’s a horror film. It simply can’t be denied: The Silence of the Lambs is movie magic of the highest order.

Watching Like a Writer

One strategy to hook your reader is to open with the threat, start the conflict as soon as possible. But you may want to start your story with the protagonist, and that strategy works, too. You just have to be careful, again, that you start in the right place. Don’t open with your main character waking up. Don’t open with your character going about his morning — making breakfast, taking a shower, brushing his teeth. Get to the conflict as soon as possible. In The Silence of the Lambs, Clarice Starling gets her assignment to interview Hannibal Lecter to track down a serial killer all in the first few minutes. You are pulled into the world, her mission, the horror of what’s she about to face, by the time you’ve only just settled in your seat. No wasted time. No possibility the viewer might jump ship. You want to look at your writing the same way. Don’t give your readers any excuse to put down your story. Hook them in those first few pages, and never let them go.

Exercise!

Examine your short story or novel, and think about the opening scene. Is this the right place to start your story? Is it possible to start later, closer to the central conflict? And is there a hook on that first page to draw in the reader? What is it?

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