Today I wanted to talk about introductions as, in all honesty, these are by far the most important part of any story you write. Even if your ending is terrible, if people have made it as far as the final few chapters or the last episode then they will probably still suffer through, just to see how it ends. Really, nothing matters if your viewer does not keep watching. And if they are watching, the beginning is when you have the most audience attention. If I am watching a show on Netflix for instance, those first few moments are when I am most guaranteed to be paying full attention. After that, who knows – I may be grabbing a snack, I may be drawing, I could be checking my phone. For this reason, the introduction is also a great place to put critical information.
I started thinking about introductions because I just watched Lupin the Third: Castle of Cagliostro, which had one of the most striking and effective introductions I have ever seen. At first I was confused, thinking I had somehow skipped ahead. The very first shot is of our two main thieves descending on two money badges, attached to rope, robbing a casino. The casino then lights up and armed thugs chase out the two protagonists. There was no establishing shot, no opening credits or title cards. All this – the establishment of the characters, what is happening – all that I just described happens in ten seconds.
But this first sequence, consisting of two shots, does not feel rushed, despite the speed at which the information is being delivered to us. This is because the shots are so incredibly efficient. Seeing two men scaling the side of a wall with money bags is instantly self explanatory, and the comical size of the moneybags and the shit eating grins of the thieves tells us so much about the tone of the movie.
Also, the shot is split exactly in half: one half is occupied by the thieves descending on the wire, the other by the side of the building and a single window. As soon as the thieves are out of sight, the music that is playing is replaced by the sounds of alarms, as the window turns on. The very next shot is a wide of a building, as the lights all turn on, then the bright neon sign that says casino. The light turning on in the first shot instantly connects us to the lights in the second shot, giving us a sense of continuity.
Then, two thieves run into the foreground, followed by some thugs behind them. Nothing profound is happening here, per say, nothing instantly showy. But this is a very difficult thing to do – to introduce an action all in ten seconds, telling the audience what is happening and who it is happening to, all in the span of two shots.
To test this, try paying attention every time you watch a new show or movie. What do you know in the first ten seconds or so? Do you know who the main character is, what they are doing, or what the obstacles are? To be clear, there is no one right way to write a book or show or movie. A slow introduction is not a bad one, not at all. Take The Shining, a movie that starts with scenery of a car driving through the mountains, for well over two minutes. We don’t know who the characters are, what they’re doing, or what the movie is going to be about, but the way the shots sweep over the landscape is somehow so terrifying and atmospheric that it drags you in.
Part of the reason this opening works is exactly because it withholds information – we wonder who is in the car, or where they are going. For a less effective opening to the horror genre, I wanted to look at the Netflix original The Haunting of Hill House.
The opening starts with a pan down on an old mansion converted in mist, as the narrator declares “No live organism can continue to live sanely under conditions of absolute reality.” They then go on to describe the house, as we get shots of the interior, of dimly lit halls and the spooky sculptures that decorate it. This monologue lasts a minute, after which we’ve learned nothing – met no characters, been introduced to no plot. All that we can possibly discern is that this house is haunted, and that is literally in the title.
The show could have started without this “spooky” introduction, and probably would have been more compelling for it. And yes, the same is technically true of The Shining, but the introduction to The Shining is so striking because the scenery is gorgeous, the day bright and the mountainside lush. Normally this would not be a spooky scene. But the ominous music and the way that it’s shot provide the feeling of unease and even doom.
Meanwhile, a haunted house is cliche. The audience is being told that this place is sinister, both literally by a voice over and figuratively by the thick mist and over the top gothic decorations. But that’s all we’re being told. The monologue is just some phislopcial musings and descriptions of the house. Now, this same monologue appeared in the original Haunting movie, but in the movie it appeared at the end. After a great tragedy, we hear the voice of a character we just witnessed perish calmly describing the walls and the floors of the house. This monologue is terrifying because of the context, because we know who is saying it and because it actually stands in contrast with what we’ve just witnessed. It’s calm and dispassionate and objective, after great hysteria and tragedy. But in the show, because it’s the very first thing we hear, it has far less meaning, since there is nothing to connect it to.
In short, we’re a minute into the show and we know almost nothing, whereas, in the first ten seconds of Lupin, we know the who, the what, and the where. Then, by the minute mark of Lupin, our titular protagonist has escaped the casino security, whose vehicles were tampered with ahead of time, and made off with his cash. The next scene takes place in the aftermath, where Lupin and his accomplice are driving down the highway in a car comically overstuffed with cash, celebrating their haul, when Lupin notices that the bills are fake. They’re a special kind of counterfeit that has is so well made it fooled a state run casino. And with that, they happily toss all the fake money out of the car and head off to get to the bottom of the counterfeits, which are apparently made in a place called Cagliostro.
We are now two minutes into the movie, and we know a few things. First, we know what the movie will be about. We also know that Lupin is a master thief, but that he does not neseaeioy care about money itself. Yes, the money is counterfeit, but it’s good enough a fake to still be worth something, and yet he tosses it out while laughing to himself. That fact that his accomplice does not even object tells us something about their relationship as well.
This second minute of the movie, before the credits roll in proper, reinforces the who, while introducing a new when and what. Two minutes in, and everything is set up. Meanwhile, the first sequence for Hill House takes up seven minutes total.
And how does it spend those seven minutes? The overall arch of events is that a brother hears his sister crying, goes to her room, and says it’s alright to be scared – that even he gets scared. The father comes in and tells the daughter that the scary “bent neck lady,” is gone and leaves the room. He checks in on his other daughter, who is sleep-talking across the hall, only to notice that the door he had just shut behind him is open. He closes it again, then returns to bed where his wife is waiting. Meanwhile, we see his youngest daughter is now trying to sleep, as a ghostly woman can be seen hovering overhead.
My issue is not necessarily with the events themselves, though not much happens in these seven minutes. The biggest issue I have is with the details of what’s happening here. The father and brother are both perfectly kind to the scared girl – “Your big brother scared her (the bent neck lady) off,” says the dad. “Big brothers are good like that.” The issue is that any chance for conflict is missed. The girl calms down quickly, and there’s never a real debate over whether the bent neck lady was there. The dad does not even check for her. What if the dad tries looking around and is checking drawers when he finds one is locked? It’s a simple conflict, and a simple question – what’s in the drawer? But at least it’s something.
Or what if the brother were a little less understanding? What if he says that there is no bent neck lady, and his sister insists that there is? Or what if she wants to go sleep in her parent’s bed and the dad won’t let her? Again, the issue is this scene has no conflict whatsoever. What’s worse, I don’t feel I learn much at all about these characters. I get that the dad is a “good dad,” that the brother is a “good brother,” and that the sister is scared, but that doesn’t really tell me much about their fundamental character.
Or, instead of changing events, the scene could have simply been shot differently. The way these events are framed does not lend much information. For instance, as the dad leaves in the scene, we see him walk across the room and close the door behind him. Instead, why not cut to a shot of him and the door, as he closes it, then linger on the shot just a moment as he leaves off screen, so that we are subconsciously made to remember that door. That way, when he returns and sees it open, it has more impact.
Or, rather than have a shot of the entire hall, why not have a closer shot of the dad as he leaves his eldest daughter’s room. We can then see him turn and look at something. What is he looking at, and why does he look concerned? Then we get a shot of the open door. The way it’s shot originally, the possible tension of the moment is greatly diminished.
In short, after two Minutes of Lupin the third I could tell you a fair bit about Lupin – that he’s a skilled thief, a goofball, knowledgeable, plans well in advance, and while he loves to steal, he cares less about treasure itself. For him the thrill is in the adventure. And he is bound to his associates by something deeper than mere mutual greed.
As for Hill House, all I can really say about the character I see the most is that he seems like a good dad. But the generic, TV kind of good dad. I don’t know what he wants, what he likes, or what his goals and challenges will be over the course of the show. And this is after seven minutes, compared to Lupin’s mere two.
But the biggest issue is that there is so little conflict or suspense in the first seven minutes of Hill House. So little action. An opening should both inform and entertain, even more so than the rest of the show. This is why many shows, like Breaking Bad, start in the middle of things, so that the first thing we see is especially exciting.
Starts are huge, and I think I’ll be close reading a few more over the next couple of weeks. In the meantime, I’ve just enjoyed the exercise of asking myself in the first ten seconds, minute, and two minutes of a show – what do I know, and how engaged am I?