How To Start Something

This is a post about writing, and about startin’ somethin’.

I wouldn’t consider myself a writing guru, but talking about the craft of writing is one of my four favorite things to talk about. My other three favorite things are stories, music and Vikings.

(after having been publicly shamed in no less than two comments, i have since capitalized every instance of vikings except this one)

I recall the first time I actually fell in love with Vikings. I had told my German teacher that I used to be a huge fan of pirates. I would read about them and write stories about them, and dream about being back in the days of swashbuckling. Then the Pirates of the Caribbean movies came out, and all of a sudden overweight people who worked at McDonald’s were getting skulls and crossbones tattooed on their shoulders, and I felt sort of robbed.

It wasn’t like I was a pirate pariah beforehand. I was never beaten up for liking pirates. I just felt like… I don’t know. It was just annoying.

“Pirates are okay,” Dr. Ferguson told me, “but Vikings are better. They’re basically pirates but with a crazy religion and way more violence.”

Well, well, well.

If your interested in books about Vikings, I would highly suggest reading the phenomenal Saxon Tales by Bernard Cornwell.

This is all beside the point.

I wouldn’t consider myself a writing guru, but I recently watched two movies, and the beginnings couldn’t have been more different, and so I wanted to write about it.

The movies were Labyrinth and Singham. They are, strangely enough, more similar than you might think.

Everything has to start somewhere, and it’s your job to pick how.

When you talk about acting, you’re supposed to say “I really like the choice she made” when referring to someone’s performance. That’s because acting is about making choices. Writing is about making choices, too. Nothing is unintentional in a film. Even less is unintentional in a book, because someone chose literally every word on the page.

So when you wanna be startin’ something, when you gotta be startin’ somethin’ you need to make some choices. Both Singham and Labyrinth made choices, and what’s really, really interesting is that they couldn’t have been more similar and yet, at the exact same time, more different.

When you’re planning the beginning of the story, your job is the same job you have when you break out a board game for your friends to play: you need to make sure all of the pieces are on the board. Some games are really complicated, though. They’ve got a lot of pieces, but you really want to play, so you need to make sure you get all the pieces down as quickly as possible, or your friends are going to get bored and go do drugs or something instead.

You don’t have to be thorough. In fact, you need to be as brief as possible. If you tell to much, you use up all your ammunition for later in the story. Character secrets are like bullets, and you only have so many. You can’t come out blasting, you have to bide your time. Wait for the perfect shot, and then you’ll blow your audience away.

So the trick is to be fast, and let people know what’s going on.

In the first ten minutes or so of Singham, we meet an evil mobster who makes a good cop in Goa kill himself from shame. It’s clear the mobster is an asshole, and then we come to this song:

And now, all of a sudden, you know everything you need to know about Singham, the main character. He’s a man. He does manly things. He’s religious. He helps the week. He’s super strong. He has the ferocity of a tiger, and he never spares evil doers. He’s dashing as fuck, and can wear the hell out of a denim shirt. He’s Singham, and he’s going to beat the shit out of some people in this movie.

This is how Labyrinth starts:

And boom, we know (almost) everything we need to know about the main character. Anything else we need to know happens mere moments later, when she runs home and we learn she has a baby brother who she always has to watch and she hates so much that she wishes the Goblin King would come steal him away.

Both films put their pieces on the board super fast.

Then Signham… Singham just fucking drops the ball.

Don’t get me wrong. The movie rules. It has fight scenes like this:

That’s just some good, clean fun. The whipping is… a little disturbing, but, I mean, come on, the dude called out Singham. Insulted his future wife! What did he THINK was going to happen?

This fight happens after maybe twenty minutes in, where we’ve learned even more about Signham: he’s the head cop of some village and guards the villagers with his life. They respect him and shit.

Then the tale spirals out of control with a forty minute long love story that has nothing to do with the main plot at all. It’s not a bad love story, but there’s a big problem.

What’s this love story doing in the movie we just watched two clips from?

Here’s the beginning to one of the greatest cinema masterpieces of all time:

You might think this beginning is stupid, and you’d be right. But it’s also perfect, because it lets you know that Arnold Schwarzenegger can carry a fucking tree, he can pet deer and they won’t run away, and he loves his daughter more than anything. This sets up the plot of the movie (his daughter gets kidnapped) and the tone of the movie (Arnold is a tank that kills everything and it’s insane) perfectly.

What happens in the rest of Commando? Arnold kills everything keeping him away from his daughter.

What happens in the rest of Labyrinth? Jennifer Connely goes to a magic land and rescues her brother from the goblin king.

What happens in the rest of Singham? We have a forty-minute long love story and then get back to the plot we all came here to see.

So now we’ll talk about beginnings.

You’re job as a writer is to let us know everything we need to know as fast as possible, and then deliver us an amazing thing based on those things you just let us know. Arnold loves his daughter? Good. She better get fucking murdered or kidnapped. Jennifer loves this weird old book? Good. She better learn that she lives in the real world. She hates her brother for no reason? She better learn not to hate him. Singham is a tough action man? He better do tough action things.

Watch your favorite movie or TV show. All the stuff you need to know show up in. oh, about the first quarter of it. Any fun surprises or twists happen later, and if they are done correctly, they play off or use things that were brought up in the first act.

So why did I decide to do this?

I read a lot of stuff on wordpress. I talk with friends about a lot of writing projects. Beginnings are hard. They’re hard to nail, and so when I see something that does it really well, like Labyrinth or (parts) of Singham, I just want to share it.

Lastly, someone, and it could have been Albert Einstein, but it probably wasn’t, once said that if you can’t explain something well then you don’t truly understand it. Therefore, if you learn how to explain something well, then you will understand it.

So this post has a twofold purpose:

  1. Hopefully it will help some of you start something.
  2. Hopefully it will help me be a better writer.

Oh, and one more thing: Hopefully it makes someone watch Singham, Labyrinth or Commando.

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