|She'll be back.|
When it comes to introducing your protagonist, there's a fine line to walk for any writer. Here are three things to keep in mind:
1. Your Character vs. the World.
The first introduction to a character is crucial, and it usually comes around the same time as our introduction to the world you've created. Some writers establish the world first. Some establish the character first. My advice is to establish both at once. Show the fishbowl along with the fish. How is your character at once a part of and at the same time separate from the world of your film? How do they see things? How do their friends/family/coworkers see them? Alan Ball's American Beauty script does a fantastic job of setting up Lester Burnham (Kevin Spacey) and the world of the film within the film's first five minutes. We not only have a good handle on how Lester perceives himself, but also how those around him perceive him. "Both my wife and daughter think I'm this gigantic loser. And they're right. I have lost something." He spends the rest of the film clawing to grab it back.
2. Avoid the Gratuitous.
Opening up on a masturbation scene will attract viewer attention like a lightning rod. That's good if you're going for attention, in the same way that opening on a gruesome murder is a good way to go for attention. However, consider the opening to any episode of Law and Order: there's an illegal act, which is oftentimes shocking, but the act itself is only as shocking as the context in which it appears. Why else do we spend the rest of the episode clamoring for justice? We care about those who have been wronged, and we want justice served.
Even in a film like Quentin Tarantino's Kill Bill: Volume One, the opening scene, a blood-spattered bride on a chapel floor, is full of character, story, and context. Check out the dialogue for that scene:
We have one shot, and it's a disturbing one, at that. It's dark, violent, and grabs our attention immediately. It's iconic. But it's more than a beaten woman, shot on a floor. We learn so many things about the woman and her assailant in this scene that, if we don't mind the violence, we can't help but tune in for the remaining minutes of volumes one and two. This scene sets up so much, but ultimately, it forces us to ask two questions:
A. Why does a man who commits such a sadistic act consider himself, instead, masochistic?
B. What's the deal with the baby?
The two films are about a woman who seeks revenge for her own attempted murder and the apparent murder of her unborn child. The first scene of the first film tells us everything we need to know. It grabs attention, tells us a lot about the characters, and moves the story forward. It's a lot to do, but you absolutely must do it.
3. Show Us Their Uniqueness and Specific Problem.
Your protagonist sticks out. We're following him/her as opposed to his/her friends, parents, teachers, and so on.
So why are we doing that? What makes your character notable? It needs to be more than, "they're the only one who masturbates in the school lavatory." What will make your character unique is indeed what they do, but also why they do it. Why does Lester Burnham pursue the affections of a cheerleader? Why does Tony Stark seek to keep his own company's weapons out of the hands of terrorists in Iron Man? Why does Rick Blaine seek to use the letters of transit as leverage in Casablanca?
Your character is larger than life: he or she is the very best at something or the very worst at something. This is why we're following this character as opposed to another. Furthermore, your character has two problems: the first being the internal, thematic dilemma - what your character needs to do to become a better person. Then, there's the external, plot issue - what your character must do to fix unfortunate external circumstances. How your specific character grapples with both of these creates your entire story.
Regardless of what your character fights internally and externally, you have to show these to your audience as quickly as possible. Not to jam it down their throats, but to create a need to know and most importantly, a need to care. Andrew Stanton of Pixar calls this the number one commandment of storytelling: make me care. Within the first 10 pages of your feature, if we don't care, you've lost us. Tarantino does it in 30 seconds in Kill Bill.
You can do it, too.