I have a day off work today, and as usual I don’t quite know what to do with myself. I ran some errands and did some shopping this morning. Cleaned the kitchen and the catbox. Got the trash out. I’ve been trying to write, of course, but my mind’s not on it. Too much craziness going on in town, and now it’s snowing, too.
I’ve been trying to watch television. There are a number of series that I have called up on Netflix, but I haven’t been able to sit through the pilots. Part of it, of course, is that I am distracted. I’m waiting to see if I get called into work to shovel snow, or if someone is going to decide to burn my house down.
It got me thinking, though, about the pilot of a TV series, the first chapter of a novel, or the opening of a film.
Beginnings are an invitation to a voyage. The writer or composer or filmmaker is asking me to take a journey with her or him. Once I’m on board and we have some miles behind us I have something invested in the work. The creator of the work has gotten me this far and I’m willing to do some work to keep going.
Before I start on this trip, though, I want to know some things, and I’m not very patient about getting the answers. There’s a fairly small window while we’re still sitting at the dock and I’m making up my mind whether or not to jump ship.
Inside a dozen pages or a dozen minutes I have to know who is going to be travelling with me, what kind of scenery we’re going to be seeing, what kind of vehicle we’re taking, the sorts of adventures we’re likely to encounter, and that the pilot knows where she or he is going.
That sounds like a tall order, and I suppose it is. Writing is hard. It can be done, though.
Who is going to be travelling with me? Introduce me to your characters and give me a reason to want to go places with them. Tell me enough about them to want to know more. Convince me that they are going to be interesting companions and won’t spend the whole trip complaining or boring me. You never get a second chance to make a first impression.
What kind of scenery are we going to be seeing? Where are we? When are we? What kind of world is this? How much is familiar and how much is new to me? Make me want to look out the window. Show me that the world around us is real and interesting. You don’t have to build a whole new planet for me, just leave me feeling that there is more than I can see through the window, and that there could be surprises around any corner.
What kind of vehicle are we taking? Victorian steam engine, composite polymer hang glider, Byzantine cataphract? There are advantages and disadvantages to each. I want to get a feel for the pacing and tone of the work. If you open in media res with a combat scene you creating an expectation in me, likewise if the piece opens with the hero engaged in long monologue about the nature of good and evil. Genre conventions are part of what I am calling “vehicle” here, but how the author incorporates those conventions into her or his individual style is also very important.
What sorts of adventures are we likely to encounter? This goes back to the old “Man vs. Nature”, “Man vs. Man”, “Man vs. Himself”, “Man vs God”, and “Spy vs Spy” lineup. In broad outline, what kind of conflicts drive the story? Is there a hero and a villain, or are the characters more ambiguous? Like my comments about the “vehicle”, the adventures are part of what is called genre, but even within genres there are different kinds of conflicts. And you don’t have to stick to just one conflict–there’s no reason that your protagonists can’t have to fight off giant alligators and at the same time worry about the traitor in their midst. But inside the first chapter/episode I want to at least get a glimpse of the rapids in the stream ahead.
Does the pilot know where she or he is going? Obviously, I don’t want to know where we’re going–what’s the fun in that? But I do want to know that the author knows. Give me a feeling that the character(s) have a definite goal–even if that goal is simply to be left alone or just survive the night. Goals can come and go–the hero may decide that he would rather forgive the villain than destroy her. That doesn’t matter. What matters is a sense that this story is going someplace, not just sitting at the station.
Again, this is a lot to cram into a few thousand words, but I think these are all important areas to engage your readers. The opening of a story is negotiating a contract, and you have to let your audience know that you have stock on hand and a willingness to deliver.