Being ever on the cusp of trends, I recently started watching Breaking Bad.
The first episode of Breaking Bad begins with a beautiful shot of a blue sky. A pair of khaki pants falls into frame, with a brown belt around the waist. They flutter across the picture with no explanation. Then we cut to an old, beat up RV swerving across the road, then cut to an interior shot in which a man wearing nothing but his underwear and a respirator mask hunches over the wheel. In the passenger seat is another man, sitting motionless and also wearing a respirator. In the back of the RV are two more men on the floor, either unconscious or dead, while an unidentified liquid sloshes with the frantic steering.
What’s going on here? I have no idea. I don’t know who these men are, I don’t know why one of them is only wearing underwear, and I’m still trying to figure out why there was a pair of pants falling out of the sky. I know next to nothing, and yet… I’m hooked.
When we then go back three weeks and start to get to know the main character, we find a bland high school chemistry teacher with a pregnant wife and kid and a persistent cough. He’s not interesting – except that you know he’s the guy who ends up driving that RV in his underwear. As a viewer, I sat through the next twenty minutes or so of dry exposition, and I sat there entranced because I had to know why those pants fell out of the sky. As a writer, I was stunned and delighted at the audacity of that opening.
The more I write, the more I understand the importance of “The Hook,” that first scene, paragraph, that first vitally important sentence. I strive to achieve the brilliance of Stephen King’s “The man in black fled across the desert and the gunslinger followed,” as the opening line of The Gunslinger. But Breaking Bad set a new standard for me. Get the hook in first. Don’t worry about setting up background, character, setting, any of that. Grab your audience right out of the gate and make him want – no, need – to know what’s going on.
Lesson Two, Season Two – Don’t lie to your audience
Season Two started with a white ball floating in a pool – a pool which the viewer will recognize as the main character’s. It bobs and floats and rotates until you can see that it is a plastic eye. Then the camera descends into the pool to find a bright pink stuffed toy missing an eye. Over the course of many episodes of that season, we come to discover that something catastrophic has happened. We see men in coveralls and respirators gathering items – including a pair of glasses like the ones the main character wears – into bags labeled “evidence.” At another point, we see them zipping up a pair of body bags. We see the main character’s car with a shattered windshield. And again and again we saw that pink stuffed toy missing an eye. The writers are promising us that something bad happened to the main character and his family, and we develop the expectation that this something bad will happen, most likely, in the season finale.
So, I spent the entirety of season two trying to figure out what it was. Rival drug lords bombed the house seemed the most likely, until the main character’s wife discovered fraudulent bookkeeping at her job. Maybe her boss – who’s been giving off the creep vibe since we first met him – tried to kill her. Then there’s a storyline with the younger main character who becomes involved with a recovering druggie and whose father is very protective. Maybe her father did it? I watched for that pink toy with an obsession. Every shot of the nursery was paused so I could study the toys in the background. There was a shot of a lovely mural on the wall of the druggie girlfriend’s room that included a pink teddy bear, which I took as confirmation that the father* attacked the house. Later, when the main character appeared in a bright pink sweater (a most unusual costume choice for that character), I began trying to figure out ways that he was somehow the same as the soaked stuffed toy. Hell, the main character installed a new water heater, and I wondered if that’s all it was – the water heater blew up!
In the end, it was all a lie. There was no attack on the main character’s house. It wasn’t bombed, there was no retaliation by other drug lords, it had nothing to do with the bookkeeping. It was an accident that simply occurred in the vicinity of the main character’s house.
I felt betrayed. They’d lied to me for an entire season. They’d led me to believe that the house had blown up, that characters I cared about had died, that the main character was the subject of an investigation. They promised us a big, dramatic plot point and they delivered an accident.
The result of that? In an instant, my feelings about that entire season changed – I felt like I just opened one of those envelopes that promises that you’ve won “$10,000 a week for life!!!” only to discover that it’s just another subscription service trying to sell you magazines. In an instant, my feelings about that season changed from excitement to disappointment.
*Yes, the druggie’s father was responsible, but he didn’t “attack” anything. It was an accident.
Ready to learn from Season Three
From Season One I learned to hook your audience fast and then give the line a good yank to set the hook deep. If you have your reader well and truly hooked, they will gladly sit through boring back-story just to find out why the hell those pants fell out of the sky.
From Season Two I learned not to lie to your audience. If you promise them a big finish, you had better deliver it, or that sense of betrayal will damage your relationship with that audience. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve already started season 3 (No spoilers in the comments!), but when it began with an interesting hook – an older man crawling through the dust while other people ignored him – I watched with skepticism. I had learned not to trust.