The famous movie impresario Samuel Goldwyn (the “G” in MGM) said, “I want a story that starts out with an earthquake… and THEN builds to a climax!”
Ol’ Sam knew something about pulling people into a story.
As you know, Clint Eastwood also knows something about pulling people into a story.
My wife and I recently saw the Clint Eastwood-directed movie Sully, about airline pilot Captain Sullenberger. Sully, played by Tom Hanks in the movie, had to make a forced landing right after takeoff from LaGuardia Airport in New York City. A flock of birds suddenly flew into the path of the airliner, destroying both of the engines on the plane. (Sorry about that, birds!)
After thirty seconds of engine tests and emergency diagnostics, Sully realized two things. First, his engines were toast, and he had to make a very careful emergency landing if he had any hope of saving the 155 passengers. Two, he didn’t have enough altitude to be able to glide back to the airport. So he landed in the Hudson River and didn’t lose a single life.
From the standpoint of a storyteller, this movie is fascinating to watch because the tense process of putting the plane down in the river only took a bit over a minute. How does one make a 90-minute movie out of one minute of action? Another challenge is that everyone who sees the movie (or read the book it was based on) already knows the outcome of the story. Yet a third difficulty is how to draw people into a story they already know.
It turns out that Eastwood took seriously Samuel Goldwyn’s desire for a story that starts with a bang. We barely hit the play button on the DVD when we see Tom Hanks in the cockpit as the birds strike the plane. He immediately begins preparations for an emergency landing.
Talk about starting with an earthquake.
All of us authors should make a mental note of this movie and its beginning. When we begin a story, we so often think we need to “set the stage” and explain to our readers who our characters are so that when the trouble starts, the reader will care about the characters because they already know them.
Eastwood shows in a powerful “earthquake” manner that we don’t need to know characters at all in the beginning.
If you want to grab your reader, put your characters in deep, deep trouble as early in the story as possible. The trouble makes us care about the characters who are struggling with it. The reader will eventually come to know your characters in the way you desire, no previous “stage setting” necessary. And perhaps readers will care even more because of the trouble your characters are in came on so strong and so fast.
Most important of all, when your characters get into bad trouble from the beginning, the reader is much more likely to stay with the story and not turn away looking for a “grabbier” story.
Take a look - or another look - at the movie Sully and see just how Eastwood does it. It’s a powerful lesson in storytelling.
P.S. Let's not forget what the real Sully did. Wow.