by Roger Bourke White Jr., copyright Feb 2011
(here is the Power Point)
One of the lessons taught in both writer and film making classes concerns story structure -- what elements should appear in a story and where.
Having been taught about these, I now recognize them in the stories I read and the movies I watch.
For instance, it is common to introduce the main characters at the beginning of the story and have them reach their resolution, happy or sad, at the end of the story.
These structural rules serve a good purpose: They make it easy for the reader/viewer to understand what they are watching. But they can be broken. One famous example of breaking the rules is the 1950 movie Sunset Boulevard, where we see the main character floating dead in a swimming pool in the very first scene. Another more recent example is 2010 Megamind where the main character is falling to his death in the first scene. In both of these the rest of the movie explains how the character got to this point -- we see the end at the beginning.
Another example of rule breaking is the mood start -- in this start the opening scene sets a mood rather than introducing either the story or the main characters. In this start the movie/story starts with a skit that is only distantly related to the main story, but it's fun to watch in its own right -- it sets a mood. It will later be tied in to the main story in a passing way, but that's so it doesn't look like a complete accident. A famous example of a movie with a mood start is the beginning of Monty Python's 1983 movie The Meaning of Life. Three others are Kung Fu Hustle, 2001: A Space Odyssey and A Cabin in the Woods. Less famous examples are my 1975 MIT short movie Twist of the Tool which starts with a fun interview of one of the actors (see the movie here), and my science fiction story Where Does the Five Hundred Pound Alien Sleep? which starts with a Tarzan-Jane-like dream sequence from which the main character wakes up and finds himself in a hospital room setting on an alien world in a science fiction story. Yet another example is the start of Lord of the Rings: The first chapter is about the retirement of the main character of the prequel! Eh? What it is doing is setting the mood for what hobbits are like.
While mood starts are uncommon in stories and movies, they are quite common in music -- the "special guest" warm up singer is setting a mood for the main performance, and this is the purpose of overtures in operas.
Mood setting is an alternative way to start a movie or story. It is most useful if the following story is being told in an unconventional way or tells and unconventional story. But like any story formula rule breaking, it must be done carefully or it will confuse the reader/audience, and that won't help the mood at all!