Ahh, the ever-popular teaser. And no, I’m not talking about that chick in tenth grade English who turned out to have a boyfriend the entire time you were her pro-bono tutor. I’m talking about the first sequence in a TV episode, often the pilot, that grabs your attention and keeps you watching until the closing credits. Also known as the “cold open” (or the “prologue” if you write novels).
Prologues in fiction writing are generally frowned upon, but it seems they’re almost ubiquitous in the TV world. Especially if you, like me, are writing a TV drama that has a unique world with it’s own rules AND introduces a lot more questions than it answers in the first episode.
However, there are so many AWESOME ways to write a teaser, and so many potential options that would lead into my story, I’m feeling a little stuck.
That’s where you, Dear Reader, come in. Everyone has opinions, especially about shows you love, so I’m leaving this very important question to you. And since I’m only 1.5% tech savvy (and, alas, online surveys are not in that 1.5%), it’s going to be a manual survey.
All you have to do is comment with your preference (A, B, C, etc). Bonus points if you write something about WHY you prefer that type of cold open or give an EXAMPLE that I could watch/read. Bonus points are redeemable for a shout-out on my author Facebook page or being mentioned in a Tweet. Please let me know if you do not want either of those things. If you are interested, give me your twitter handle (and follow me) or like me on Facebook so I can do the honors.
What is your favorite type of teaser or one that stuck with you the most? Some examples are:
- The teaser about things to come later in the same episode. A famous example is the scene in the Breaking Bad pilot, which has Walter White riding down a desert highway in an RV wearing only tighty whities and a gas mask. The scene ends abruptly and the next scene picks up well BEFORE that scene. The rest of the pilot shows us how Walter White got to the point that he was driving down a desert highway in an RV wearing only tighty whities and a gas mask…and then FINISHES the scene (because we’ve been watching to find out what happens the whole hour). Awesome cold open, but maybe a little overused at this point?
- The teaser about things to come later in the season. Very similar to A. How To Get Away With Murder does this, but in an interesting way. The same opening scene gets called back several times throughout the first episode, along with other scenes, and I get the sense this will happen all throughout season 1. This is a FLASH FORWARD to things that we know will be explained by season’s end. It also introduces an OBJECT (the trophy) that starts to become its own character, because every time we see that trophy during the main story, it feels extremely important and our eyes/ears perk up.
- The cold open/voice-over that hints at drama to come in the season. This particular voice-over establishes that what we are watching (the main story) has taken place in the past. The episodes all have a sprinkling of this voice-over until finally all is known at the end and we discover what we thought we knew is not the whole story. This is a great way to utilize an unreliable narrator without making your audience feel lied to (e.g. Bloodline).
- The cold open with a scene of the bad guy/girl being bad, therefore establishing the tone of the show as well as the nature of the antagonist without necessarily diving right into the story. This is a great way to utilize that first screen time for your villain.
- A scene in real-time with the main story but with seemingly unrelated characters and/or location. We know there has to be a connection and therefore are really engaged in the story from the get-go, trying to put the pieces together.
- An emotional scene that immediately draws in the audience, creates lots of questions/curiosity, and carries the promise that all will be understood at a later time.
- A flashback that helps set up the backstory or promises that more will be explained as we go along.
- A genre-specific teaser where someone (possibly someone not important to the story) makes a discovery, is killed, etc. These are common in episodic crime shows (e.g. CSI and the like).
- Other (please explain)
One thing I alluded to above but want to reiterate is this:
TV audiences want to figure out the puzzle. We expect to have to work for it. We’ll pay closer attention if we are looking for a clue, or an Easter egg. However, we writers need to be sure to pay off any loaded guns we include in our scripts. There’s nothing more frustrating than watching something with a question in mind and never getting the answer.
I got some of the teaser info from Pilar Alessandra’s book, The Coffee Break Screenwriter. Good stuff. Other good info on teasers can be found on the No Film School website and the Paper Team podcast.