People have forgotten how to tell a story. Stories don’t have a middle or an end anymore. They usually have a beginning that never stops beginning.
Spielberg’s quote they usually have a beginning that never stops beginning is appropriate coming from someone who created one of the best beginnings in film history with his blockbuster Jurassic Park. Say what you like about his method but the man knows how to tell his stories.
Jurassic Park’s beginning is one of the best because it does what a beginning is supposed to do—it begins and then gets out of the way. In the classic three-act structure (setup, confrontation and resolution), this film’s act 1 conveys an exceptional amount of information, not to mention a big dose of movie spectacle, in a pretty short amount of time.
Fresh off my visit to Fernbank’s dinosaur exhibits I decided to watch Spielberg’s dinosaurs again (I needed another dino fix). As old as the film is, each time I see it I’m always stunned by how concise it’s first act is. Jurassic Park begins with several major teases, introducing main characters, mood and future plot points intertwined so expertly that a viewer has no idea they are being setup with information for later. An audience is given just enough detail that when we see the first full dino reveal and we hear the line “Welcome to Jurassic Park” it is a true wow moment (a stunning achievement since everyone knows what the movie is about) that moves us into the second act.
When telling a story there is always a struggle to find that balance of establishing the ‘who what where when’ so that the ‘why’ becomes a question that must have an answer. Too little ‘who what where when’ and we don’t have an emotional need for ‘why,’ to much and we tune out and never make it that far. Storytellers of all kinds know how important the setup is, fully establishing detail and setting but they run the risk of going overboard and forgetting how much more important it is to actually tell the story they are telling.
Spielberg’s film finds just the right balance in its opening 20 minutes. An atmosphere of danger combined with an Australian game warden, shaky footing beneath a sleazy lawyer, industrial espionage at the hands of a disgruntled Newman, the old ways of unearthing the past vanishing before the eyes of two scientists on the verge of extinction, an eccentric millionaire with a translucent bit of amber on the end of his cane promising the experience of a lifetime, all leading up to the two front feet of a gigantic dinosaur slamming to the ground signaling that the story is no longer beginning, it has begun.
Anyone trying to engage a reader, a viewer, a tourist or a guest can learn alot from Jurassic Park. When your audience is awestruck by what is in front of them and begs, “How did you do this?” you can happily answer, “I’ll show you.” It is textbook act 1.