How To Write An Intro Like Anthony Bourdain
Pundits described the late Anthony Bourdain as many things: Television Personality, Restaurateur, Adventurer. But to me he was, first and foremost, a writer.
It was Kitchen Confidential, his exposé on the New York food scene, that shot him into the public eye and ignited his journey from line cook to beloved Television host.
Bourdain’s writing was a staple of his popular television show Parts Unknown. His dry wit, keen observations, and descriptive prose animated the locations he visited. It’s why the show stood out in the crowded field of travel television.
There is no better place to see Bourdain’s style on display than in the show’s introduction. Some of the most memorable scenes occur before the credits rolled.
I want to share writing lessons from 5 opening sequences of Parts Unknown. While filmmaking techniques enhance these sequences, there is still a lot writers and content creators can learn from the choice of words, image, and structure.
Berlin: Lead With A Contradiction
“25 years later, after the wall fell, Berlin remains complicated and unfinished. Complicated by history and counter-history. The urban fabric resists all attempts to reorder it. Berlin fascinates. And people continue to be drawn to its darkness and its light.”
Anthony Bourdain frequently began episodes by pointing out contradictions. Opposing economic, historical, and cultural forces in the countries he visited.
Perhaps because he was a bit of a contradiction himself. A man who could be both foul mouthed and hardheaded, as well as soulful and kind.
Perhaps because he was a seasoned traveler and knew the world was full of contradictions. Good and bad qualities contained in a single border.
Or perhaps because he understood inconsistencies fascinate us.
Our brain craves order. We pine for patterns that make the world clean and predictable. When two seemingly opposing forces collide, we work overtime to reconcile the information.
This makes contradictions a compelling device to lead with. They create tension. We want to see how these conflicting ideas can co-exist, so we keep consuming.
The Congo: Jump Right To The Action
After 9 days of threats of imprisonment. Confiscation of footage. And what was the most difficult, yet amazing trip of my life, the last thing that stands between us and our flight home, is the reason we came. The Congo River itself. You learn quickly that in Congo things change at a moment’s notice. Welcome to the Jungle.
While Parts Unknown was a documentary style show it contained a story embedded in each episode. The story could be the incomplete or unraveling history of a nation. Or it could be the story of how Bourdain and his crew filmed a particular episode.
The script is from Parts Unknown: Congo. Unfortunately, I could not find a (legal) way to show you the introduction, so the quote above and the description below will have to do.
We begin as an amazed and exhausted Anthony Bourdain chronicles his voyage in the Congo. He peppers his account with lurid details: confiscated footage and threats of imprisonment. It caps off with a final obstacle between the crew and their safety: The Congo River.
This scene would be the climax of a linear narrative. Yet Bourdain begins the episode with it. We’re thrust in the action at the most tense moment. And it works!
There is no golden rule that a story must unfold chronology. In fact, some of the best works of literature and cinema grip their audience by beginning in the middle of the action. Think Slaughterhouse-Five, Citizen Kane, and Pulp Fiction.
Non-linear story telling entices because it creates an open loop in the audience’s head. They’re shown a scene of the story (often an exciting one), but don’t receive closure. They must now travel back in time with you to discover the missing pieces of the story and move forward to get a final resolution.
Greek Islands: Tease The Imagination
I was hesitant to include this video from the Greek Islands. It’s the only introduction on the list that doesn’t feature narration. But the clip tantalized me. After seeing it, I felt compelled to watch on.
Something about its crawling tempo and sparse images. It says a lot, while saying nothing at all. It demonstrates that what grabs someone’s attention is not necessarily what you include, but what you omit.
The human mind is more expansive than a high tech camera lens. When a creator cuts out details, the audience uses their imagination to fill in the gap. This is something Bourdain understood: include just enough details to tease your audience.
This works wonders for a travel show where the viewer has likely never been to the location on the screen. They probably know little about it. But the introduction wets their appetite. It makes them wonder about the exotic land. It shows just enough to get their attention, but leaves them wanting more.
Montana: Evoke The Senses
“Some people must live in great spaces. Where the sky goes on forever. Where everyone must bend to the land. Where to hunt, to fish, to sleep under that big sky aren’t activities but a way of life.”
Bourdain was both a writer and film buff. He’s spoken openly about demanding impeccable standards from his directors. He wanted his show to feel cinematic.
Cinema itself has a distinct advantage over other types of art. It’s multidisciplinary. Photography, music, writing, and editing all working as one.
Take the clip above about Montana. It pairs Bourdain’s narration with stunning visuals and a stirring score. Together they transport the audience. We feel as if we’ve woken up in an alien land.
As writers, we are not so lucky. All we have is ink, pen, and page. However, we can still stimulate the senses with the tools at our disposal.
Bourdain’s words alone have a cinematic quality. The imagery of “skies that go on forever” and “bending to the land” paint a picture of the boundless Montana landscape. It entrances us. It makes us want to go where he does.
Hong Kong: Pay Homage To What You Love
“Chapter 1: to fall in love with Asia is one thing. To fall in love in Asia is another. Both have happened to me. The star fairy powered at night. The lights of Hong Kong behind me. It’s a gift, the dream, and a curse. The best thing, the happiest thing, yet also the loneliest thing in the world.”
Parts Unknown was a love letter. A love letter to food, to culture, to people. It was also a love letter to the eclectic taste of its host. The way art, film, and literature he loved shaped the places he visited.
As Bourdain himself says:
“All of us, when we travel, look at the places we go, the things we see through different eyes. And how we see them is shaped by our previous lives: The books we’ve read, the films we’ve seen, the baggage we carry”
Bourdain wore his influences on his sleeve. He fearlessly shared the baggage and art that shaped his life. This often took the form of homages to his personal heroes. The Hong Kong episode quoted above was an homage to Filmmaker Wong Kar-Wai, one of Bourdain’s favorite directors.
This piece was my homage to Anthony Bourdain. A small tribute to the unassailably cool host of (in my opinion) the best travel show of all time. And someone who wasn’t recognized enough for his writing.
This is a long winded way of saying: lead and write about what you love. Share it. Elaborate on it. Celebrate it with other fans. Champion it to the unfamiliar.
Let what’s singular about your journey guide what you create.