[Story Sells] How To Write Great Story Openers

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I’m slowly introducing my daughter to the Disney movies of my youth. But it’s tough to get my hands on them all because of the dratted Disney Vault.

You may know that Disney only sells their best movies some of the time … the rest of the years these movies are locked up in the “Disney Vault.”

(Talk about artificial scarcity! There’s a pure old-school salesmanship tactic, executed by a billion dollar brand. And it works.)

Anyway, right now Beauty and The Beast is locked inside the vault, which means I can’t order it online or buy it at Target. I did see a third party selling it for over a hundred bucks on Amazon. No thanks.

But I finally found a good used copy at Half Priced Book, after several months of checking. (The movie will exit the vault this September, but me no want to wait.)

And when I watched the movie with my daughter on a recent Friday evening, I was struck by the first two minutes, because it offers a good lesson on pithy storytelling.

Here’s a LINK.

You can see that this opening narration sets up the entire story. Short and sweet – took just about 2 minutes. In a nutshell, it uses 3 important elements to quickly whet our appetites for more:

1) It sets up the story: There’s a Main Character (The Beast) … a Clear Goal (win love) … and a Specific Obstacle (he’s a beast! No Photoshop to tweak his profile pic on Tinder either.)

2) The rules of magic. The magic is the curse … there’s also a magic rose and mirror. No more fantastic elements can be introduced. More on this later.

3) A little twist of pathos, or sympathetic emotion, in the last line: “For who could ever love a beast?”

More critically, this line sets up the rest of the story – Will the Beast find love?

You’ll find these same 3 elements in other “Story Openers.” Like those at the beginning of TV shows, where the producers need to quickly summarize the premise of a series for new viewers.

Here’s one of my fav’s, from the 80s cult classic Quantum Leap:

“Theorizing that one could time travel within his own lifetime, Dr. Sam Beckett stepped into the Quantum Leap accelerator and vanished … He woke to find himself trapped in the past, facing mirror images that were not his own, and driven by an unknown force to change history for the better. His only guide on this journey is Al, an observer from his own time, who appears in the form of a hologram that only Sam can see and hear. And so Dr. Beckett finds himself leaping from life to life, striving to put right what once went wrong and hoping each time that his next leap will be the leap home.”

Once again, we’ve got a character (Sam Becket) with a clear goal (Get home) facing a stiff obstacle (randomly leaps through time). We see the magic up front, and we also end on a little note of pathos:

“Hoping that this leap will be the leap home.”

(That last line still gives me little shivers.)

Why tell a Story Opener? For one thing, it helps you hone your story down to the most important parts.

If you have trouble condensing your tale, this is a good formula.

Second, this is also a good model for a lead to a sales letter. Include these 3 elements as the lead and you invite your reader to stay with you to the end.

So to recap, here’s the formula for a good “Story Opener”:

First, condense your story into the key character, his main goal, and his main obstacle.

Last, you end this with a twist of emotion that launches the rest of the story or pitch. Ask a question, or sum up the challenges the hero faces.

Ah … but what about that middle part? What do the “rules of magic” have to do with selling a real product?

After all, your product doesn’t run on pixie dust and unicorn farts.

Maybe not. But the mechanism of your product – its secret sauce – can be magic to the right prospect.

Especially if they’ve never heard it before.

Eat fat and still lose fat? (High fat, low carb diet.)

Double your income by ignoring 80% of your customers? (Perry Marshall’s 80/20 selling).

Use a simple joke formula to bond with your prospects? (The 60 Second Sales Hook.)

Seen in the right way, these are magic. They do things better, faster, or simply more strangely than you’d expect.

So it pays to preview these in the opening, even if you wait to unpack it later. What you’re doing is laying out the ground rules of your tale. Then you dive in deeper and make your case.

The MORAL: Tell a “Story Opener” to condense your story and hint at what’s to come.

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Scott McKinstry
Scott McKinstry
Scott McKinstry is a direct response copywriter who specializes in telling stories. You can contact Scott and learn more about using the power of stories in marketing at marketingwithstory.com.
Showing 8 comments
  • Kevin Rogers

    Excellent as always, Scott.

    I never watched Quantum Leap, but now I’m intrigued.

    Which makes me think of another great reason to craft dynamic story openers; to hook Netflix subscribers on binging.

    Thanks for another great piece.


    • Scott T McKinstry

      Thanks, Kevin. Good point — Netflix has really upped the game on grabbing attention. It’s now almost cost-less to switch between shows. (If a show bores after a few minutes, it’s toast. A story opener that intrigues could make me stay longer.)

  • Bruce Wesley Chenoweth

    Scott, you are on my “Always Read” list, and you never disappoint!

    Loved Quantum Leap and all the other time travel movies and shows. Thanks for the memories.

    Even more, I loved the time-stopping stories. Nothing sends my mischievous imagination soaring more than the idea of being able to freeze time, re-arrange the world without peril or interference , then crank it all up again while I kick back and watch everyone react to the changes.

    Add a young Pam Dauber to the equation, and my blood pressure goes off the charts …

  • Ashley Thomson

    Great tips. Thanks. This also helps attract readers scanning the first few lines of a blog post or src results. Thanks again. I loved QL when I was a kid too.

    • Scott T McKinstry

      Thanks, Ashley. I think my favorite QL episode was the two-parter when he leaped back to his own adolescent body. (“The Leap Home.”) That’s also the first time I heard Lennon’s song “Imagine.”

  • Jesse CdeBaca

    Also to be noted: the Urgency/Scarcity element for the Beast to lift the spell

    • Scott T McKinstry

      Good point, Jesse! The “last petal to fall” device is a great embodiment of scarcity.

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