What’s This Got to Do With Anything?)
The protagonist approaches the dark and strange mansion, seeking shelter after her car has broken down on a lonely stretch of the highway. In the darkness she doesn't spot a crow lurking in the rafters until the bird swoops right over her head, cawing loudly! She screams in surprise, but a moment later scoffs at herself for being so jumpy. She pushes the door inward and it creaks loudly on hinges that haven't been used for years. She has a moment of hesitation, but then presses forward, into the mansion's darkened hall.
When I was a teenager the local television network would show an old monster movie or horror film every Friday. And not high-production classics, either, but the low-budget, small cast, horribly written, obviously fake effects, filmed in one location sort of movies that 40s and 50s horror cinema was overflowing with.
And all the time these movies would start with a scene like the one I described above. Even before the actual antagonist was unveiled, some strange and startling event would happen, something that had absolutely nothing to do with all the rest of the story, but which made it abundantly clear that the protagonists were entering a place of evil.
And this sense of dread foreboding occurs even in quality pieces of storytelling, too. Consider the very first lines from Edgar Allan Poe’s The Raven.
Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered, weak and weary, Over many a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore— ... Ah, distinctly I remember it was in the bleak December; And each separate dying ember wrought its ghost upon the floor.
What does it matter that this takes place at midnight, that it is a dreary night, or that it is in the middle of “bleak December?” Absolutely nothing. These details don’t directly tell us anything about the characters or plot. Everything that transpires could still have been done with all these factors left entirely unmentioned.
But no one would say that these little details are unimportant. Perhaps they have nothing to do with the broader narrative, but they have a great deal to do with setting the atmosphere and the reader’s expectations. They make us understand that we are to view all the following events in a grim and dreary light. Not only does this get us into the proper frame of mind, it also prevents us from misinterpreting later moments, such as this:
Then this ebony bird beguiling my sad fancy into smiling, By the grave and stern decorum of the countenance it wore, “Though thy crest be shorn and shaven, thou,” I said, “art sure no craven,”
When we first meet the titular raven our narrator greets him in a jovial manner, finding its small sternness comical. But we, the audience, do not make the same mistake. Because of the grim foreboding at the start of the story we know to be wary of this solemn specter. The character may mistake his guest, but we receive the story beats in the correct context.
But is it possible for an introductory scene to not only set the mood, but also deliver narrative or setup plot? Let’s consider the very first scene in the 1993 film Jurassic Park. We open on trees rustling in the dead of night, and a group of heavily armed workers staring unblinking at whatever it is that’s approaching.
A moment later the trees give way to a forklift carrying a large crate, which is lowered to a paddock. All the workers move to open the gate and let whatever is inside of the box transfer into its new home. But, of course, things don’t go according to plan, as the dinosaur inside bolts against the gate, causing the crate to shift away, creating an opening through which it grabs one of the workers. Everyone panics and starts zapping at the creature with their stun batons, but the man who was grabbed is killed before the thing is subdued.
There is only one character in this entire scene that appears later in the film, and his dialogue does not depend on us having seen the event. The story really only starts in earnest after this mood-setting piece is complete.
But that isn’t to say that this piece has nothing to do with the narrative. In fact it does. We are soon told that the accident caused the park’s investors to become anxious about the risk involved with the project, and that they have demanded for a team of specialists review the facility before it opens. This, of course, leads to our main characters being brought in to see the park before it officially opens. Thus this first scene is setting the mood, but it is also laying the groundwork for all the narrative.
Making a Shift)
The use of foreboding imagery can also be used to alert the audience that there is going to be a shift in tone. Maybe everything seems calm and easy now, but don’t expect things to stay that way for long. The opening shot of Alien is a slow pan over the command modules of a futuristic spaceship. Everything is calm, everything is quiet, but suddenly there is a flash of light and screech of noise as an incoming transmission breaks the silence.
It’s a startling moment, which might seem entirely unnecessary. The entire first act is a lengthy sequence where the crew follows standard procedure to investigate a distress call, and they are all extremely nonchalant about the whole affair. But because of that introductory startle, the audience knows that things are not going to remain this relaxed for long. They are anticipating the shift into horror even before the menace of the movie arrives.
And I’ll be going for this sort of effect with the first half of my new story on Wednesday. The piece is going to begin in a very grounded, very mundane place. But I want to prepare the reader for the supernatural events that come in the second half, so I’m going to craft a startling moment for my protagonist. A bird will swoop close overhead with a loud screech, a foreteller of dramatic changes yet to come.