Once in a while, you come across a moment in a story that is so perfect that it stays in with you for years, or even a lifetime. These are moments that, in my opinion, are flawless; perfect gems of storytelling that cannot be improved in any way, and are a joy to treasure and revisit again and again.
Why it’s perfect
No matter the project, and no matter what medium, all storytellers face one problem when telling a story: How do you tell your audience everything they need to know about the main character within the first third of your story? There are countless ways to do so (Many, many, many, many, ways, actually), but I want to take a look at one of my favorite introductions, one that accomplishes so much despite showing so little.
2002’s ‘Signs’ opens with a man waking up in bed inside a house near a cornfield. He listens to see if someone else is awake, picks up some socks, brushes his teeth, and then hears a little girl scream. It sounds boring, but when he’s brushing his teeth, we initially don’t see Graham, just the door to the bathroom and the wall beside it. But on that wall is the faded outline of a vanished crucifix.
In an instant, that outline tells us that something terrible happened to this man, something that made him turn his back on his faith. We don’t know what that event is, but after seeing a family picture of him with a woman who doesn’t appear in the scene, it’s easy to guess. Coupled with the silence of the scene, the dim lighting, and the feeling of loneliness, we know this man has been through a lot, turning him into an underdog who’s trying to recover, but has seemingly given up and has resigned himself to just existing.
I’m still amazed how one tiny detail can tell so much about someone. When done correctly, such a trait can tell us the main problem the character is going to try and overcome, or tell us a lot about their history. Consider the following scenarios and what they tell us:
*We’re in a home. There’s a photo of a a woman and a young girl on the mantlepiece, but we can just faintly see the edges of someone’s pants on the edge of the photo, which looks like it was ripped.
*An old, out-of-shape man eats a microwavable meal for one in his tiny, filthy apartment. On a wall behind him are newspaper clippings and framed magazine covers about a star baseball player who was legendary in his day.
*A group of terrified explorers enters an enormous cave and finds it piled high with hundreds, if not thousands of bones of giant creatures, many covered in gashes. They hear something growling from deeper within the cave.
All three tell us something about characters: The first might revolve around a disgraced husband. The second, an old man who longs for the days when people cared about him, and the third, an unseen beast who has been around a long time, and clearly dangerous. When utilized properly, such small details can reveal so much about a character, even before they appear or talk. In my opinion, that cross in ‘Signs’ is one of the best examples on how to do it right – and in under a minute, no less!