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What Chicago taught me about writing a killer opening

Chicago is one of my favourite movies. It's a musical with a sensational storyline, a great backdrop and the cast are fantastic. It's got it all - murder, jazz, fame, scandal, corruption, the power (and manipulation) of the press, celebrity - you name it. It even has my all-time favourite actor, Dominic West, in it (for only a few moments but an important role nevertheless!).

While I love the entire movie, re-watching the opening recently reminded me some writing advice.

Land your reader right in the middle of the action.

Chicago does it beautifully. In only a few minutes, we have a great sense of the setting (the announcer at the Oynx Club welcoming patrons to Chicago's hottest show featuring the Kelly sisters). From this we also know this is a good act, but only Velma appears, coupled with her racing to stage and strange looks from those in show, we know something is very wrong. Something has happened to the other sister and Velma is only focused on the performance.

The number itself is sultry and sexy. It sets the tone for the movie - this ain't the Sound of Music or Mary Poppins. This is a dark musical.

We then see Roxie Hart, clutching her bag, completely focused on the act, a look of desperation in her eyes. She wants to be in Velma's place. It is clear this is her ambition, and reinforces the star-power of Velma and the glamour of these clubs.

As Fred Casely appears, she queries that she didn't get to meet his 'friend' and as he assures he all is sorted, we see her grab her behind - clearly he's interested in one thing and that ain't her career. As they race through the streets in a drunken lust, they return to her home, where she pushes over a photo of her wedding to another man, telling us she's married.

Back at the club, the song reaches it's height, coinciding with the Police arriving. As Velma shoots them a look of disgust, we know it's her they want.

We are immediately back with Roxie and Fred, some time having passed since they first met. She mentions it was the night Velma was arrested for killing her sister and husband, closing the loop on our suspicions over Velma. When Fred admits that he's no showbiz connections and used her, as an audience, we know how badly poor Roxie wanted that career and are not hugely surprised she would seek to kill him over it.

In only a few minutes, this movie has given the audience:

  • a good understanding of the setting, time and city

  • a clear indication of the tone of the film

  • the main characters including their occupations, marital status etc

  • the character's deepest desires

  • the character's weaknesses

  • clear motivations for their actions, up to including murder and adultery

  • a sensational set up for the rest of the story with lots of questions yet to be answered

And all against the back-drop of a high-energy song and dance number.

There's no prologue to explain jazz clubs were hot, sexy environments in the 1920s, no narration to 'tell' the audience Velma loves performing more than life itself or Roxie will do anything to be famous, no flashbacks to show Roxie lying to her husband or how Velma came to show business, no boring scene of Velma being arrested and questioned, and even, very little dialogue.

It is the ultimate in showing, not telling the audience and a great inspiration for writing killer opening scenes.

What's your favourite opening scene of a movie? Did it land you straight in the middle of the action? What mechanisms showed you, rather than told you, what was happening to build the tension and conflict?

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©2017 by Megan Mayfair.