Well it’s that time of year again – the winter premieres of all the shows that didn’t make the fall cut start to roll out. With our Netflix queue stacking up, current shows to catch up on by the dozen and Facebook feeds to follow, we the new age consumer simply don’t have the time to watch every pilot. So which ones do we watch?? Or better yet, when we attempt to watch them all, how long do you give it to win us over? These days, the average watcher gives it to the end of the teaser or cold open, which usually coincides with the titles sequence or the first commercial break (if it’s on an ad-supported network). I know, it’s brutal and unfair. But with so many great shows to consume and such busy lives to lead, people today unfortunately can’t afford to give an entire hour to hook them in, let alone 3-4 episodes. In light of the competitive market out there, we have to hook are audience within the first ten minutes of our show and you as a writer MUST keep this in mind when putting words to page. Just as much as TV viewers don’t have more than ten minutes to get hooked on a show, a network executive doesn’t have the time to get to the end of your script before he/she is hooked. You must engage the reader within the first ten pages and create a well-crafted opening that conveys the tone of your unique world, defines your protagonist in both action and dialogue, and establishes a fascinating sense of direction within your series. By page ten, your goal is to give your story a sense of mystery, urgency and/or predicament. To sum it up, give your reader a sense of the world, protagonist and stakes… THAT’S IT… no more info. One mistake writers often make is that they think they have to introduce all the main characters within the first 1-2 acts – not necessary. You run the risk of losing your reader with too many characters. Establish your protagonist and his/her stakes as quickly as possibly and try to make your scenes as captivating as possible. The most important objective within the first few pages is to give the reader a reason to care about your protagonist in this place and this time. In TV, the beginning of a script is referred to as a “Cold Open” or “Teaser,” because we are thrown into the action of the story, our interest is piqued, and we are left with a wanting for more. Usually, “Cold Open” applies to 30-minute sitcoms and “Teaser” is used by one-hour dramas. Let’s focus on dramas for now and look at four memorable opening sequences:
THE GOOD WIFE: We open on the image of a husband and wife’s hands joined. In a tracking shot, we follow their hands as they enter a room filled with news photographers. Their hands separate as flash-bulbs explode, leading us to a press conference where the husband defends allegations of impropriety and the wife bristles at the thought of his affair. This “Teaser” ends with the wife slapping the husband and walking away from him. The partnership has dissolved and she is and she is now utterly alone. We now realize that this isn’t a show about a corrupt politician (we’ve seen this cliche many times already). It’s a show about his wife. What does she do now? How will she start over?
DOWNTON ABBEY: We follow the servants of the manor in an unbroken steadicam shot. As they do their jobs, we tour the opulent rooms of the mansion, perfectly establishing the time period and aristocratic tone. Meanwhile, we cross-cut to a teletype machine receiving a dramatic message and the morning paper spreading the news throughout the house. We will soon find out that The Titanic has just sunk, killing the rightful heir to the Abbey. This is the catalyst that kicks the first season into motion.
THE WALKING DEAD: We meet our hero, Sheriff Rick Grimes, as he searches for gasoline amidst what looks to be a post-apocalyptic wasteland. We don’t yet know why he seems to be the only living person around; he seems just as confused as we are. It’s a familiar dramatic scenario, so we’re looking to see what sets this story apart from the cliché-ridden hosts of its genre brethren. When Rick spots a little girl from behind and calls out to her, she turns around to reveal she’s a zombie. She shuffles toward him, hungry for flesh, and Rick is forced to pull his gun and take his first zombie casualty – we immediately understand that this is a show about the terrible decisions made to maintain one’s humanity when society breaks down. This will be the emotional throughline of the series.
BREAKING BAD: Pilot begins with a crazy scene where we meet Walter White (introduced as “Underwear Man” in Vince Gilligan’s teleplay) as he drives an RV like a bat out of hell — after he crashes it in the desert, he gets out and records a first-person message into a video camera to his family, Skyler and Walter, Jr. “No matter how it may look, I only had you in my heart,” Walter says. He then pulls out a gun and tries to take his own life, but fails. When he hears the sound of approaching sirens, he points the gun in that direction, seemingly readying himself for a firefight with police. We won’t see the outcome of this sequence until much later in the episode. By opening on this mysterious yet obviously dangerous and high stakes sequence, Vince Gilligan not only sucks us in with a killer Central Dramatic Question (Why is this dude in his underwear about to start shooting cops?) but he also establishes that this is a crime story, not just a domestic drama, and the stakes are life and death.
As seen on Scriptmag.com