You know what the most common advice to aspiring writers is? I don’t actually know, it’s probably “just write and stop talking about the eventual movie deal already of your unwritten novel already”.
That makes a rough intro. Hm. Ok, fine, what’s the most important line in a story?
The first line, obviously. I’d bet fake money that every writer you asked would give you the same answer. However, it’s more than just the first line– I can’t recall the first line of any of my favorite novels, except for maybe The Gunslinger. I’m going to say that it’s really all about ‘the first few minutes’.
The first few minutes is a nebulous time. It can be anywhere from the first line of a book, to all of chapter 1, from the teaser of an episode on network TV, to the entire first episode, from the level after the tutorial, to the first thirty minutes of a particularly slow movie. (Aside: You probably should get going if it’s taking that long). It’s that tricky time when the reader/viewer/player sets up their expectations about the world that your story resides in.
I’ll use Dreamkeepers as an example. Dreamkeepers is a graphic novel series and the reason why I didn’t get a post out last week. It currently consists of three books (still ongoing), with new books getting published when the creators feel like they’re ready, and not a moment before.
Also, aside: the first two novels are on the Internet for free, and I think they are worth your time. The Prelude, a (still ongoing) webcomic that is set before the first novel, is also worth your time because it has children acting like children and they aren’t super annoying. How Dave and Liz managed that is a post for another time, I think.
Back to the first few minutes, or the first few pages, in this case. Go over to the website, real quick. Don’t click anything, just look at the first page and come back here.
Back? Great. What kind of website are you expecting to see? We got a raccoon-esque creature, who is probably a protagonist, with a big smile on his face. Lots of bright colors, seems pretty cheery. By the time you click another link, the tone has already been set. You can’t take back that bright, cheery picture. Changing the tone too drastically without cause will generate emotional whiplash, and we don’t even know his name. (Or, to be honest, his gender. But its a he. And his name is Mace.) To change tone at this point would be subverting it– something like a trick opening. You haven’t even been on the website for a minute, and already we’re talking about expectations, what you want out of the website, etc.
This makes a ton of sense– you’ll notice that the website is the primary portal to The Prelude. What does the first page of The Prelude look like?
Bright blue, beaches, chillin’ in hammocks and a bit of slapstick humor. The Prelude is a pretty lighthearted web comic, tone wise. There is a very important distinction here– The Prelude still deals with some serious material, even adult material. There are darker moments in the comic– the tone doesn’t always have to be bright, happy to go lucky wonderfulness. However, we expect happy endings. Definitely nothing overtly graphic. Probably not even a mention of rape, or racism, or slavery or… the list goes on. There is a limit as to how dark we are willing to let The Prelude be before questioning the ‘new direction’ of the comic, and there are topics that I never expect The Prelude to cover.
But what about the main attraction? The Dreamkeepers graphic novels themselves? Well, what does the first page look like?
Oh. That’s… different. This isn’t going to be the same type of story, is it? I mean, maybe it’ll get subverted and then we’ll establish a lighter tone–
Oh. Guess not. This is three pages in, so we’ve still got a long time before we’ve hit the first few minutes mark, and it is very, very obvious that Dreamkeepers is much, much, much darker than the Prelude. We’ve already seen graphic murder, so almost everything dark is on the table for Dreamkeepers. That being said, now, the other side of the spectrum is off limits. Silly, cartoonish solutions, (very) happy endings… Dreamkeepers can’t go to the realm of say, Mickey Mouse, Bugs Bunny or Space Jam. There is a limit to how bright Dreamkeepers can be.
That being said, Dreamkeepers still employs a bit of slapstick humor and makes jokes. There are bright moments in the comic, it’s not oppressive. However, the first few pages set up other things as well.
What we see first is the most important, we tend to remember it better. For The Prelude, it’s very, very clear that Mace is a protagonist. We’ve got a website title page and a first page of a comic to back it up. Mace is established as important. Also, a chunk of Mace’s character is set in stone. Mace doesn’t care much for school, and is also pretty young. He’s the kind of kid that’ll play hooky, and probably pulls lighthearted pranks. Mace can grow and change over the course of the comic, but that growth and change must be explained by plot and make sense.
There is a page missing from the excerpt of The Dreamkeepers graphic novel that I’m showing here, but I think it’s obvious that the event going on, is kinda a big deal. Things are going down. By book 3, it’s rather apparent that this might be the most important event that has happened in the past three books. It’s going to stick out in your mind.
You better believe graphic novels are not the only form of entertainment to do this. I can pull examples from novels, to movies, to music, to TV…
Oh. You want examples. Bring it.
Babylon 5, a sci-fi TV series that everyone really should watch, spends its first season getting its legs under it. Season 1 of Babylon 5 is not very indicative of the rest of the show in some respects– it’s more campy than later seasons, and the lightest season overall when it comes to tone. However, you know what Midnight on the Firing Line is about? A surprise attack on a research station, which is just one action on a grander scale. We get, in the very first episode, the fact that Babylon 5 is bigger than this station. Even if that sense of scope isn’t really developed until later, the first few minutes promise it. It will come.
Game of Thrones (and, by extension, A Song of Ice and Fire) kills off more main characters than there are flavors of ice cream, and if the Internet is any indication, every time is somehow more surprising and awful than the last. Yet, what are the first few minutes about? Some poor sods getting murdered in a forest, by forces far greater than them.
That’s essentially the entire show/book series, with more murder locations.
Harry Potter opens us with wizards moving a young boy in secret, with JK Rowling showing a mastery of making up words that can only be rivaled by Steven King. This event is due to something bigger than everyone involved, there are hints and expectations of the grand scope the series will eventually embody. But, it’s quirky too– wizards are almost like us, but not quite. The vibrant magical world that Rowling has constructed is poking at the edges, a world you know young Harry will eventually be thrust into. It’s personal as well, with little bits of emotional drama sparkling through the sheer enormity of what has occurred on that night, and a lot of Harry Potter is personal drama.
A whole lot. Like, all the boring parts of book 4.
Why start the book series there? Harry doesn’t remember any of this– why not start him at age 11? Hell, the very next chapter does that fast forward anyway. Because the first few minutes are the most important. If we do start the book at chapter 2, Hagrid’s revel to Harry seems super random, and we’d probably end up siding with the Dursley’s, or something.
“How does any of this relate to Disney?” you ask. Quick check– can you hum the first song from Pocahontas? It happens in the first five minutes of the movie. No. No you can’t, because you don’t remember the first fifteen minutes.
Everything I wrote about the first chapter of Harry Potter? From memory, and I’ll goddamn bet real money that Hagrid sheds a tear at Harry’s departure, and the entire wizarding world is celebrating the death of Lord Voldamort, and McGonagall is sternly against Harry being sent to this particular family (Also, she doesn’t understand how Harry survived). I haven’t read book 1 in so long that I can’t actually remember the act reading it. I remember it contents perfectly fine.
Quick, what are the first fifteen minutes about for Home on the Range? I don’t fucking know. Famine, maybe? Can’t be right… cow snatching? First few minutes of Lion King? Circle of Life! Great song, maybe even the best song in that entire movie. First fifteen minutes of Hunchback? The jester tells his story about Frollo murdering some gypsies, right? I think the song is called The Bells of Notre Dame?
Catching the pattern yet? We’re still in the quick fire round. What’s the most memorable thing about Hunchback? That it has the darkest Disney villian ever. What’s the theme of the Lion King? That we all need to find our destiny and take our place. Scope of the Lion King? Pretty large, like the entire savannah large. That’s pretty much at least a small country. Scope of Circle of Life? Pretty much the same thing. Antagonist of The Hunchback? The priest that killed the family and tried to kill the boy, and locked him in a goddamn tower. Protagonist? Hazier. The misshapen boy locked in the tower? It’s a good guess, we don’t really know.
The first few minutes set up the entire world that your story will reside in.
Now, this isn’t an absolute rule. Nothing, when talking about creativity or story telling, ever is. The Little Mermaid does not, in fact, start with the downward sweeping ocean shot with Allen Menken being all Allen Menken. That where it should have started. It, in fact, starts with some bullshit where prince Eric is on a ship for some reason? Probably being chastised about not marrying anyone yet, but I don’t remember that part of the movie at all. I think there is even a song that I couldn’t whistle for you to save my life.
I still really like The Little Mermaid.
For an example on the other side, Breaking Bad has a great first few minutes. I was totally sold on Breaking Bad fifteen minutes in, the gritty drug dealing world of New Mexico seemed awesome. I spent four hours (four entire hours!) watching the first four episodes of season 1– despite the fact that I didn’t even enjoy it– based on that promise alone. By the end of those four hours I realized I hated every single character and kinda just wanted to set fire to all of New Mexico.
The first few minutes are powerful. It wasn’t until I thought about it that I realized how powerful.