And Then You Walked In: What Character Introductions Teach About Narrative

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You never get a second chance to make a first impression.

Film is an immediate medium. It moves unaided by our comprehension; film, like life, keeps going whether you’re keeping up or not. Also like life, film is finite, it has a running time and an endpoint. As such, every second and every frame has their respective jobs to do, and they must be done in the most expedient and complete way possible if the film is to achieve its goals. Take the introduction of characters, for example. The first time we see someone new in a movie, they need to convey as much as they can about themselves as quickly and with as little exposition as possible. The way they talk, the way they dress, the way they attend or ignore other characters, the way other characters attend or ignore them, their body language, how they represent the world of the film, how they represent the themes of the film, or how they stand in contrast to either of these – these facets and more are all covered by a well-done character entrance.

Think about Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange, which opens with a very slow dolly zoom away from the face of Alex, who is staring right back at us, breaking the fourth wall from the first frame. Think about his eyes, how they narrow and bore into you; think about that sly, definitively wicked smile playing on his lips; think about the way he raises and slightly tips his glass of milk to you as the camera starts to pull back. He’s welcoming you to the film, to his story, but in a manner that tells you to be wary of both it and him.

In the following video from Beyond the Frame, entrances from A Clockwork Orange, Once Upon a Time in the West, Trainspotting, The Godfather, Shame and five other films are examined for how they influence and what they can teach us about narrative. Some are blatant, some are subtle, but all are successful in the ways they use character to connect the world of the film to the world of its audience.

Novelist, Screenwriter, Video Essayist