Lessons in Storytelling from TV and Film: First Episodes #AuthorToolboxBlogHop

Lessons TV Film First Episodes

Welcome to my new series for 2018, part of the Author Toolbox Blog Hop hosted by Raimey Gallant. The hop is a monthly event where authors share resources and lessons they’ve learned about writing. To browse other posts in the hop, click the picture below, or here

ATB

There are hundreds of sites covering what we can learn about storytelling from reading. My favourite is Better Novel Project’s Master Outline. There’s not so much about what writers can learn from TV. This will be the subject of my next few Author Toolbox posts.

Watching TV can’t teach you the basics of writing, (you won’t learn how to structure a sentence or write great descriptions), but it can teach us a lot about starting a story, pacing, plot, structure, character development and dialogue.

In this post I’ll talk about first episodes, and what they can teach us about creating awesome first chapters.

The first episode of a TV series is like the first chapter of a book. The characters must be engaging, the story interesting, and there must be a reason for the viewer to stick around for more. Get it right and you have a dedicated viewer. Get it wrong and they switch off never to return, or in the case of books add it to their ‘DNF,’ pile.*

*DNF = Did not finish. We all have books we just couldn’t finish. Share yours below!

My victims (shows):

Whilst writing this post I watched a lot of first episodes. Some I’d seem before, some I hadn’t, and some I’ll never watch again! Some were so good I was halfway through a series before I knew it, and Netflix was asking me if I was still watching.* 

*I was, I have no willpower.

The first episodes I chose were: The Flash, Altered Carbon, Arrow, Prison Break, Merlin, Sherlock, Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood & The Punisher.

ATB TV shows.jpg

There will be spoilers for the first episodes of all these!

So what stood out in these first episodes, and how can we apply it to our writing?

The Flash: Write a killer opening line.

I’ve seen the first episode of ‘The Flash’ season one at least five times. It does a lot of things well, but one of the best things is the opening lines:

‘To understand what I’m about to tell you, you need to do something first. You need to believe in the impossible. Can you do that? Good.’

What’s great about these lines? They ask questions of the audience. They mention the impossible. It leaves us intrigued. Wondering what’s coming next. It gives the viewer something to care about. Who is this character, and what’s so impossible about what he has to say?

tornado in central city
Turns out people who can create tornadoes and super-speed are pretty impossible!

First lines should hook the reader and make them want to know more. They should ask questions, introduce an important character, or a mystery that needs to be solved. You only have a few seconds to catch a readers attention, so think carefully about those opening lines!

Altered Carbon: Make the reader care about your characters.

Altered Carbon sounded amazing: A man’s consciousness, a disgraced soldier in a past life, is downloaded into a new body after centuries of imprisonment to solve a murder. But I was so disappointed I nearly didn’t make it through the first episode.

The reason? I didn’t care about the main character. He had few redeeming qualities. He was detached and didn’t react to his new environment, which seemed unrealistic as it was his first time on Earth and society must have evolved in the 250 years he was imprisoned. My love of stories relies on connecting with the characters, so I won’t be watching the rest of the series.

The takeaway? Make your characters well rounded, interesting, and give the reader a reason to care about them or relate to them early on.* If you save the good stuff for later, the reader may have lost interest by then. Most of us have families, all of us have fears. Unstoppable characters without fear are no fun. Characters who don’t care about anything are boring.

*Not everyone will like your characters. It’s subjective, and ultimately you should aim to write characters you love for people with a similar mindset to yourself!

Arrow: Beware the info dump.

The main character in Arrow, Oliver Queen, spends a lot of time by himself in the first episode, and the viewer hears his thoughts during these scenes. (The island they found me on was called Lian Yu. I came back a changed man…) As a result the episode felt slow and disjointed, because we’re bombarded with information as Oliver thinks and broods.

oliver broods and thinks.jpg

The series only came alive for me when Felicity and John Diggle joined Oliver’s team. They added an outside perspective, which let dialogue and action reveal information more naturally.

Avoid large information dumps in your writing. Try to reveal information in the natural flow of dialogue or through action. If you have a character who uses magic, explore how it works by having a character who’s never seen it before ask questions.

Prison Break: Give your characters a goal readers can get behind.

I loved season one of Prison Break. The first episode begins with the main character, Michael Schofield, getting a tattoo finished. Back at his flat, he disposes of research and a hard drive and robs a bank. Michael goes quietly, is arrested with a smile, and is sent to prison.

He’s not a violent man, so at first his actions are a mystery. His character motivation is revealed later in the episode: His brother’s been sentenced to death for a crime he didn’t commit, and Michael intends to break him out of prison from the inside.

If you give your characters a motivation readers can relate to, like love for a family member, they’ll love your characters all the more for it. But don’t wait too long to reveal your character’s goal. The first chapter is a great place to set up what drives your character.

Merlin: Bring your characters to life.

When Merlin first sees Arthur in episode one, Arthur is tormenting a servant. Merlin doesn’t know who Arthur is, and he doesn’t care. All he sees is a bully who needs to be stopped. He’s thrown in the dungeons for his trouble, because Arthur is the prince.

merlin and arthur meet
Arthur finds it hilarious Merlin wants to fight. Merlin could defeat Arthur easily with magic, if it weren’t punishable by death!

The next time Merlin sees Arthur they fight again, Merlin using his magic (in secret), and Arthur using his fighting skills. The tension between them culminates when Merlin saves Arthur’s life, and the King ‘rewards’ Merlin with a position as Arthur’s new manservant. It’s the start of what becomes a fond relationship between the two.

Bring your characters to life. Let your reader engage with them by having them relate to each other or conflict with each other. Snappy dialogue can introduce characters better than chunks of text, and it can reveal much about their heart and intentions.

Sherlock: Pace your story well.

Sherlock begins with snapshots from the life of a bored, suicidal John Watson, who was invalided home from Afghanistan and is struggling to find meaning in his life. Then he meets Sherlock, who rushes around London solving crimes as if life is one big adventure.

When John meets Sherlock he comes alive, and the contrast is startling. It quickly engages the viewer, as the story is brought to life through the characters experiences of dull vs exciting.

john and sherlock
From ‘Nothing ever happens to me,’ to giggling at a crime scene. These guys are so inappropriate at times, but I still love them!

When you start a story with an ordinary snapshot of life and introduce your characters into exciting situations, your reader experiences them coming to life and wants to see more of their adventures. Using contrast is a great way to pace your story and keep it interesting.

Fullmetal Alchemist. Brotherhood: Add essential information seamlessly.

Fullmetal Alchemist provides information in conversations and during action. In a fight with the Freezing Alchemist the main character, Edward Elric, uses alchemy without drawing a circle, a rare ability. That, and Ed’s metal arm, allows the Freezing Alchemist to recognise him as the famous young alchemist, Fullmetal, and the viewer learns a little about the main character.

When Ed reports to his commanding officer, Mustang, after the Freezing Alchemist escapes, more information about the enemy is revealed when Mustang tells Ed what they’re dealing with.

fullmetal alchemist military briefing to reveal information.jpg
I adore this show and these characters, even though it breaks my heart every time.

Having someone with more knowledge update a character who knows less about a situation, or having someone recognise a character from their skills or appearance are great ways to reveal information about characters and situations.

Marvel’s The Punisher: Building tension doesn’t always involve action.

Castle’s Punisher was a character in Daredevil (another Marvel show) who killed those who murdered his family. The series opens after this with Frank working on a building site. He’s tormented by his colleagues for working all the time (he ignores them, but you can feel the tension building) and tormented by nightmares of his family when he does sleep.

Then a new worker joins the team. He’s nice to Frank, but after a botched robbery with the other workers they try to kill him. Frank murders the other workers and saves the new kid. He’s a nice guy with extreme methods. The slow build of tension was perfect, and I had to see more.

You don’t always need an action scene on the first page to build tension. Sometimes the best tension simmers quietly beneath the surface and explodes at the end of the chapter. Whatever you write, be sure to build tension and give readers a reason to keep turning the pages!

Summary: How can we apply this to first chapters?

First chapters are crucial to engage readers. They must:

  • Have killer opening lines.
  • Give the reader a reason to care about or be interested in your characters.
  • Build tension.
  • Be well paced to avoid boredom.
  • Raise questions readers want to know the answers to: To keep them reading.
  • Bring characters to life.
  • Impart information naturally. (Beware the info-dump!)
  • Give your characters a goal readers can get behind.

In an age of television, fast paced movies, and shorter attention spans, writers need to capture readers attention faster than ever before. If we don’t they may not make it past the first chapter.

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Thanks for reading!

I had a lot of fun writing this post, because I got to re-watch and talk about some of my favourite shows 🙂 In future posts I’ll cover what we can learn from TV/Film about characters, dialogue, plotting a story, pacing, and how setting influences our writing.

What do you think? What’s your favourite first episode/chapter of a TV series, anime, book or film? Have you ever stopped watching a TV show after the first episode, or put a book down based on the first chapter? Let me know in the comments!

54 comments

  1. I love this article, and totally agree! TV shows and movies offer great examples of good (and bad) storytelling, character arcs, etc. and what to do and what to avoid when coming up with a story of one’s own. I can’t wait to read your next article on using TV/Film to create better writing.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Great summary. I was just thinking about this while watching The Walking Dead. That show does most of what you describe, including ending each episode/chapter with a cliffhanger. I’ll have to pay even more attention to it as a storytelling guide. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  3. What a creative post! I am really intrigued now by a couple of these new series. Thank you. And excellent points on first lines, characters, and those character arc changes 🙂 Happy Author Toolbox blog hop day 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I love this post. Watching TV, especially movies, has actually helped me a lot with writing, mainly with writing action scenes. I studied similar scenes in movies and wrote the scene for my story as if it was a movie playing out in my mind. It really works. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  5. I’ll admit that I didn’t like the main character of Altered Carbon that much, especially at first, but I was so in love with the worldbuilding that I didn’t care. The show definitely got a lot better as it went on, too.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Yes! Someone else who looks at books in relation to television! I tend to think of a novel as a miniseries, five or six episodes worth of content with the pacing appropriately, but I think you make a fair point about the first chapter and a first episode having a lot in common, in pacing as well as concept.

    Also it has never occurred to me to watch just first episodes, and it’s brilliant, and I’m going to do that soon, and then probably be filled with deep regret and a very long Netflix cue.

    Liked by 1 person

    • That’s a great way to think of a novel 😀
      Thanks 🙂 It was a lot of fun watching first episodes, although most of the time I didn’t stop there and I’m halfway through two series now! Netflix should come with a warning…

      Like

  7. Love this! I enjoy binge watching Netflix too. I use it as part of my writing process, analyzing what makes certain shows such good stories. 🙂 Never thought about the first chapter/first show comparison before. Thanks for sharing!

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Awesome post about using television shows to help your writing! I like the one about info dumps on Arrow because we want the reader to keep turning pages (or keep watching the show), so it’s important to introduce details in a meaningful manner.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. As someone who loves to watch TV shows (to procrastinate on her writing *coff*) this is a great way to use shows to help with writing. Now I can say I AM writing when I’m loafing about watching TV–it’s research! 😉 Thanks!

    Liked by 1 person

  10. I really wanted to like Altered Carbon, but the first episode was such an info drop, and I never got to care about anything. I’m still in love with Sherlock. It’s a rewatch for me. Great article, Louise! I’ll add it on Facebook next month.

    Liked by 1 person

  11. I participate in a weekly meme called First Line Fridays where bloggers share the first line of the book they’re currently reading. It shows the power of a killer first line – some are snores, and some are get-me-to-Amazon-ASAP-to-buy-this-book.

    Now to work on that first line, and the other seven points … Great post!

    Liked by 1 person

  12. I love this article. I frequently give advice to my writing partner to watch some shows with purpose to help set up her scenes. Great examples as well. The only one I hadn’t seen was Altered Carbon and it is (maybe was) on my to-watch list.
    Currently, I am trying to pick apart why a particular show (Haikyu) was so compelling I spent more time than I intended binge-watching the whole thing. The topic/ premise was something I find completely boring (volleyball). It has to be in the story- characters, pacing, etc. It was rewatchable as well. (Discovered when watching it to pick it apart.) I know in large part it is the characters and conflict between them. However, I am still trying to figure out if the storytelling technique they use can be translated to the page so I can use it in my future writing.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks 🙂 It was awesome fun to write.
      I love it when a show takes you by surprise like that. I’m not that interested in volleyball either, but I might give Haikyu a try: I love great characters, so much that I’ll often overlook story topic or even plot! It’s great when you can figure out storytelling techniques to use in writing. Good luck figuring it out 🙂

      Like

  13. I really liked this article. One thing I’ve done on occasion is listen to director or screenwriter commentaries on films adapted from books. Sometimes, when explaining why they changed something, it helps me note what slows down a particular story.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks 🙂 It’s a fun experiment. Part two will be up on Tuesday, about characters, although it’s proving harder than I thought it would be to write!

      Thanks for the nomination too. There are so many good quotes it’s going to be a tough one to do 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

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