Monday, September 19, 2011

You have 10 minutes to make me care about your writing

I can usually decide if I'm going to buy or finish a book by page 10 (usually sooner).

I'm not Robert McKee, Larry Brody or any other awesome storyteller who can instantly recognise excellent characterisation, pacing, plotting and theme.

It just comes down to one simple question.

"What's in it for me?"

When I was a teen, I was supposed to have a date at the movies, watching Jurassic Park. I say supposed to because my date preferred walking around the shopping mall, discussing his gym regime and making me poke his biceps to prove that they were, I gather, bigger than the average Joe's.

This experience taught me two very valuable lessons. One, never date a guy who values the gym over Jurassic Park. And two, if you make me show up expecting dinosaurs, then you'd better make darn sure there is a noisy death by wobbly box or an impressively scary dinosaur claw within the first ten minutes, or you can go poke your own muscles all you want... by yourself.

Now, before you accuse me of being a bit unfair, I don't think this is an unreasonable expectation from your target audience. We live in the age of Google brain, competing tablets, thousands upon thousands of apps, YouTube, web series, online comics, podcasts and an explosion of self-published authors who are easily competing with the big boys (and gals). There are alternative entertainment options everywhere.

So you need to deliver on the promise you enticed me with. You may have captured my attention with a great logline, a fantastic book blurb, or even a gorgeous book cover. It's up to you to "clinch the deal".

"But so much cool stuff is gonna happen at the end!" you might enthuse.


But that's not why I stuck around. Neither is the "great romance" you have planned, the massive action sequences, or the stellar mindgames you've storyboarded for your characters. None of this matters at the beginning. In the beginning, you just need to give me a big enough taste of the promise so that I engage in the behaviour you want: buy your book, read it, love it, and stick around for the next one.

First impressions count

My brain lives in TV land, so I'm going to throw some choice examples from the TV show, Castle, to illustrate. And while I do that, just remember two simple rules:
  • Arrive late, leave early
  • Show, don't tell
These two fit together like rama lama lama ke ding a de dinga a dong, and you'll notice great examples of this rule in any good TV pilot.


Castle 1x01 "Flowers for your grave"

The general gist of the premise (yeah, I’m making it up, I have no idea where official premises live)
Super-famous mystery writer, Richard Castle, is suffering from writer's block. When a life imitates art and a murderer starts mimicking the killings in his books, Castle realises with the help of tough, homicide detective Kate Beckett, that curing writer’s block might just be deadly.

In the first act, is there a:

Mystery writer? Check.

Detective? Check.

Murder? Check.

Is he famous? Oh yeah. He's the rock star of mystery writers. He's signing girl boobies! But he's supported by his dramatic mother and a well-adjusted "uber-responsible" daughter who illustrate that - while he looks like he could be the stereotypical cad - he's actually more grounded than he appears.

Is she tough? Hell yeah. She has male underlings and they didn't sass her once! You know what that tells me? She's good at her job, like dah-yem good. Oh come on. I don’t suffer from insane troll logic. How many procedurals or movies have you seen that display a woman's "toughness" by having some dude insult her sexuality, just so she can beat him up/down/at his own game? By making it a non-issue, the writers of Castle have immediately elevated her to the "best person for the job".

Holy crap. Look at that! They fulfilled the promise of the premise within the first act.

Whatcha talkin' 'bout Willis? The mystery hasn't been solved and they haven't even teamed up yet. How on earth did they fulfil a promise?


There’s not much that today’s audiences haven’t seen. They’ve seen every trick in the book, so you get to use that to your advantage. Show us who your characters are. Trust your audience to fill in the blanks.

We don't need to see them acting as a team in the first act to know that they will become one. Even if we'd never paid any attention to the premise before flicking on the TV, we can see what this show is promising.

Both characters already have distinctive personalities and approaches. Within the space of ten minutes, this has shaped the tone of the series. He's a bit cooky; she's no nonsense. This sets the tone as lighter and less self-serious than a gloomy CSI or Law & Order-type procedural, but her brusque efficiency leaves the option open for darker approach than, say, Murder She Wrote or Diagnosis Murder.

Focusing on Castle and Beckett individually from the get go, visually illustrates that these two characters are going to be partners in screen-time, even if, in the beginning of the episode, they haven't even met. Splitting their narrative has made it easier to pair them up as equals. The caveat is that they needed to have teamed up by the end of the episode. There would have been no payoff for following two separate stories (she's looking for a murderer; he's trying to get over writer's block) if they hadn't.

Thankfully, she knows his books, so there's no long convoluted plot to team them up, so we can just get on with it. And by it, I mean telling a good story that doesn't leave the audience frustrated or negatively surprised.

What if

Imagine if your first meeting of Richard (within the first act) was in the morgue, as he slipped an underpaid attendant a hundred dollar note so he could see a dead body as "inspiration". What's your impression of him now? Would you believe he's well-connected, funny or grounded enough to team up with Beckett? How do you think that would change the Beckett-Castle dynamic? How does it change the tone?
So what is the first 10% of your story promising? And have you delivered it by the time your audience reaches the end?

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