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:
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!