Those First Five Minutes

I may have mentioned what a fellowship is before. It’s like a class you have to apply to get into, where writers help you improve your talents and by the end you’re likely to get a job offer. Your application is a piece of writing, usually something called a spec script.

A friend of mine sent me a link to the Sundance Episodic Storytelling Lab, a kind of fellowship with a slightly different application. For the first round I have to send in a pitch document and the first five pages of an original pilot. Which means I don’t have to write a story in any voice other than my own.

I have a couple of pilots I’ve started, but only really one that I’ve finished. But the thing is, it takes a few pages to get started. If I could turn in the first fifteen, I would feel comfortable, but in the first five pages not much happens. Here, I’ll break it down.

  1. In a patch of woods, a woman appears out of nowhere, hurt and scared. She performs some magic to heal her wounds and walks out of the woods to the back fence of a suburban house.
  2. In a room in the house, the main character wakes up and gets ready for work.
  3. She goes to the kitchen and has a forced conversation expositing her job. They also argue about sandwiches.
  4. She rides to work with her brother-in-law.
  5. She does her customer service job.

It’s literally at the bottom of the fifth page that the co-lead of the pilot arrives. The big event that sells what the series is doesn’t come until page eight! This means I have to do some restructuring to my first act to improve the pilot. This may not be a bad thing, since the script is currently sixty-two pages long, so speeding up that first act could be very beneficial. If Zombie Walter Kronkite needs to appear on page five, then so be it.

But all of this got me thinking about how important the first five pages, which translate into the first five minutes, of a pilot can be. Think about how all the great TV series start. There is always a tease, a hook, that’s designed to make you stick around for the rest of the show. That hook can be introducing the central mystery, introducing the central character in a compelling manner, or the world and mythology. Let me give you some examples, just ’cause.

Battlestar Galactaca opens with a man going to an outpost in deep space for a scheduled meeting with a Cylon representative. Helpful onscreen text gives you a rundown of the history of the humans and Cylons. And just when you have a grasp of what the rules are, Tricia Helfer walks in, makes out with the guy, and a giant Cylon ship annihilates the space station. Everything is about to change.

Blindspot opens with a police officer finding an abandoned duffle bag in Times Square. Next thing you know, the whole place is abandoned and an FBI bomb tech is going over to the bag. Except it opens on its own and a naked and excessively tatooed Jamie Alexander crawls out with no idea how she got there or who she is. That’s not just a great introduction to a series, that’s the best moment Blindspot has and ever will achieve. It peaked very early.

Buffy the Vampire Slayer starts by turning tropes against you. Two teenagers, a boy and a girl, break into the school at night. The boy wants to scare her so that she’ll get all hot and bothered and hold on to him tighter. Then she turns around with a demonic face and bites into his neck. From that point on you know the show won’t be playing by the rules.

Chuck, which you will discover over time is my favorite show, starts with a kick-ass action scene showing off the hightened reality of spycraft the series will be living in. It then jumps to two nerds hiding from a party where they don’t fit in. You get your desert first, and then the character stuff comes in once you’re already comfortable.

Fringe starts with an entire airplane full of people dieing.

Lost opens on the aftermath of a plane crash.

Veronica Mars starts with its titular character right in the thick of it. Full on noir mode.

This is the kind of writing that gets a reader to keep going, and despite the time traveling woman in the woods, I have to do more. It’s where the writer comes on to the scene and shows what they are best at.

What am I best at? Dialogue? I used to think so, but then I realized I only write how my friends and I talk, which is nothing like how normal humans speak. Description? Maybe. I can get a little heavy handed implying visuals to the reader though, and that can be a negative. Action? Probably. But even I know I need to improve in that aspect.

Maybe I’m my worst critic. Hell, I know I’m my worst critic. But that doesn’t change the fact that, when I told my sister about the first five pages being the application, she made a crack about not having the characters talk about sandwiches.

And then she remembered that’s exactly what I wrote.

– JP

PS, when they said write what you know I took that as a sign to write complete insanity.

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