Dozens of books, posts, websites, and whatnot will tell you what to do with those opening moments of a work. You’ve got to make sure those precious words are leaving an impression, introducing your character, getting the plot going and a hundred other little things. The task is daunting, and can produce existential terror if you sit and think too hard about it. That would have been my problem this last week and when the fear of never producing constructed a writer’s block, I decided to look for outside inspiration to break it down.
I started by thinking about what media I’m liking at the moment. Now, Hamilton‘s a fantastic musical, but a book can’t really start with a long exposition of a character’s history these days. (Okay, yes, there is the idea that in writing ‘If you do it well enough you can do anything,’ but I certainly don’t have the expertise for that kind of opening). Knowing that Hamilton‘s writer Miranda is a huge West Wing fan and being one myself, I put the pilot episode on for the upteenth repeat to see how they handled their beginning. And, quite frankly, a lot of that writing advice finally clicked into place in my brain.
West Wing is available via Netflix, so if you’ve got a moment and a subscription, watch through the first few minutes. I’m going to break down some of the scenes here, so if you don’t want to be spoiled on the story, here’s your warning.
Okay, still with me? West Wing starts in a bar with a reporter pressing for information from another man, who we quickly learn is Sam. Their conversation reveals a staggering amount of information in just a few lines. We learn that Josh might lose his job, that Sam isn’t the kind of guy to blab to the press, that he’s friends with Josh, and that Sam’s not incredibly great at figuring out clues from women (“I think she’s looking at me. I can never tell when they’re looking at me.”)
From there, we’re introduced to other characters in quick succession and there’s two obvious commonalities. The characters are starting their mornings, and everyone is interrupted by POTUS–leading to the conclusion that everyone in this story works for the White House. In every one of these tiny scenes, we see character quirks, strengths, and flaws. Leo is ready for work, but he’s obsessed about the crossword getting an answer wrong. CJ is obviously dedicated to taking care of herself, but she’s crappy at trying to flirt. Josh has slept on his desk (probably worried about his job), but he still answers the pager’s beeping right away. Toby is surly with the air flight attendant, but his frustration is understandable even if his behavior’s not polite.
Those few brief scenes give us everything that the plethora of writing books advise. Each character is in mid-action, no one’s waking up to greet the dawn (well, except for Josh, but he’s not exactly greeting anything), there’s movement, minor tensions, and the bigger tensions (Will Josh keep his job? What’s the President like?) The show follows up with all those questions and continues to explore the characterization and the world setting.
Basically, West Wing is a fun ride, and if you’re looking closely, there’s a lot you can pick up on writing. Are there other shows/books/media that do that for you? Feel free to share in the comments 🙂