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How I fell for The Good Wife…Elements of a Stellar Opening Scene

By Kyle Taylor, Flickr's CC
By Kyle Taylor, Flickr’s CC

You could call it love first sight, a surprising consequence given that I am a happily married gay man. But after just one evening with The Good Wife (TGF), albeit several years into its 7-season run, I was a goner. And as I speed thorough the seasons now, racing to complete the journey – no spoilers please – I find myself repeatedly returning to the opening sequence, marveling at how it so concisely captured the essential story question, and so compellingly bound the audience to its central character. Finally, after years of advice on the importance of an essential hook in the first five pages, or first seventeen lines, (or whatever narrowing margin is now demanded), I have found an example to which I relate, drawn from the vein of human drama I too wish to draw mine.

My interest is piqued by a pressing dilemma. You see, my current work in progress has three major characters, each offering a potential entry into the story. And so I’ve been on a quest, sampling not only books but also movies and television, exploring how the best manage to grab their audience viscerally while also cutting to the quick of the underlying emotional journey. In gathering evidence, here are a few lessons drawn from my new flame, Alicia Florrick (and the team of writers who created her), regarding key elements of a successful opening:

A Moment of Intrigue. The Good Wife opens with a blur of images. A well-dressed couple strides purposely over plush floral carpet in an elegant hall, gliding past paneled walls and fine furnishings. Hands clasped, they quicken their pace. Before them a doorman springs to action, ushering their passage into a packed and blindingly lit ballroom. Voices rise and cameras flash as they cross the threshold to an awaiting podium.

– Less than a page in, without a word of dialogue, and questions are percolating. What’s the hurry? Are they late to a reception? Who warrants such over-the-top attention?

The Wreckage You Can’t Ignore. The man begins to speak. But although his delivery is commanding, the scripted remarks come across choppy and forced. The scene crystalizes. Another politician is resigning, hand caught in the cookie jar, spewing vague platitudes about wife and children, sidestepping his own repugnant acts. He mentions charges and a coming legal battle, but offers no details. They are superfluous anyhow because in that instant one realizes this isn’t his story at all. The camera pans beyond him, narrowing to the woman at his side. We’re entering her world now, melding with her ordeal.

Alicia, her name glimmered from her husband’s statement, appears frail and numb. The opening mirage is shattered. Her mussed hair is tamed only by an expensive clip; hasty make-up can’t hide her sullen eyes. Neck muscles tighten as her husband continues. Her gaze evades the wall of cameras, though she flinches at the mention of “sexual favors.” Snippets of a tawdry video flicker, no doubt looping in her brain since the story broke. If at that moment she could sink through the floor, you know she would.

– And you would follow. Because you’ve always wondered, on some level, what it would be like to be in those shoes, forced to play accomplice at your own public debasement. How could a woman simply stand there? Why would she submit to this? Why would anyone?

Hints of Character and Relationships. The monster, for that’s who he’s become in under a minute, pleads for privacy (too late for that, jerk). For her part, Alicia observes his sweaty brow, and a grip that threatens to snap the podium lip. Apparently the monster’s world is crumbling too. A piece of lint hangs on his sleeve. Unconsciously she reaches toward it, her wedding ring catching the light. “So that’s it,” you think. She cares for him and instinctively grooms his image, probably has for years. You feel empathy, with a heaping side of pity.

And then the ground shifts again. Before she can complete her next selfless act, the man concludes his remarks and snatches her outstretched hand. Deafening questions about prostitutes and illicit payments chase the couple and their entourage from the room, not to the gilded hall but to a gritty service area instead. Somewhere a back entrance, and an idling car, awaits.

The man drops her hand as the door closes, accelerating as he barks orders to his team. His team, not hers. Alicia falls behind and then slows to a halt, frozen in place.

– So much delivered from so little, and questions accumulate. What drives this relationship? Who is this bastard? And what has he done to Alicia? Where do they … no, where does she go from here?

A Parting Twist. After an eternity of a few seconds, the man notices her absence. He returns, offering their first direct exchange. “Hey,” he breathes, leaning in. “You all right?” His tone is ambiguous, while her response is anything but.

Alicia’s slap, solid as a knock-out punch, leaves an instant mark. Though still dazed, steely resolve enters her teary eyes. She tugs her tweed top and lurches forward, only to find her escape thwarted. For there, beyond the double doors the aids have just exited, flashes erupt again, pelting the frosted glass. The scene closes with Alicia again reduced to paralysis, trapped between public pitchforks and the private hell of a shattered personal life.

– I doubt a single viewer changed channels after the opening. In book form, an idle browser would be similarly compelled. How could one not want to know what happens next? Whatever is to become of Alicia?

And that, my friends, is exactly the point. Because while the flow and intensity may vary, a powerful opening is a journey unto itself, offering glimpses of theme and character. Most importantly, it brings focus to the key emotional underpinnings that will carry the remainder of the tale. In the three minutes of screen time recounted here, akin to a novel’s first five pages, the protagonist hasn’t uttered a word. Yet the audience knows her or, rather, knows enough to join her cause. And that’s a sound basis for turning a fleeting infatuation into a lasting relationship.

Those were my takeaways, even as I continue to ponder which character is my story lead. And now I turn to you – What do you see as the essential elements of an opening scene, or chapter? Do you feel the demands vary based on genre? Does the opening of your current WIP captivate or intrigue? Does it hint at key underlying tensions? Does it offer sufficient insight to the nature of your protagonist, and his or her core relationships? If not, what might you do to elevate the moment? Or is another moment needed, a more effective entry not yet crafted? Please share. I look forward to hearing your thoughts and experiences.

About John J Kelley [1]

John J Kelley [2] crafts tales of individuals at a crossroads, exploring themes of growth, reconciliation and community. His debut novel, The Fallen Snow [3], about a young soldier’s homecoming at the close of WWI, received a Publishers Weekly starred review and earned an Honorable Mention nod at the 2012 Foreword Reviews Book-of-the-Year Awards. Born and raised in the Florida panhandle, John graduated from Virginia Tech and for a time served as a military officer. Today he lives with his partner in Washington, DC.