We’ve all heard it before. A common phrase uttered to us Netflix series doubters by eager viewers, keen to share the latest series they’ve been binging and why it’s unequivocally the best.
“Just get through the first few episodes. After that I promise you, it gets really good!”
You might hear that and think, well, if I need to watch 3 hours of something before it actually gets good, then that’s just wasted time. Why wouldn’t I watch something that was good right from the very beginning? Surely I should be spending my time watching something that’s going to get to the action right off the bat, instead of trudging through filler just to get to the good stuff.
Well, that often uttered phrase of ‘just get through the first few episodes,’ might be a better way of judging a good series from a bad one than you think.
The art of the first act
In television, books, movies, and stories in general, we see the three acts as beginning, middle, and end. Brian McDonald however, and Hemingway before him, see the three acts differently. Instead choosing to define them as: proposal, argument, and conclusion.
The reason this is important speaks to the core of what the purpose of a good story is: to communicate a message — to teach us a lesson about survival.
The best stories work because of this. They communicate a powerful message, a survival message that can be argued, and that we can come to a conclusion about in the end. Brian McDonald calls this the ‘armature’, in his book Invisible Ink. But you can also think of it as ‘the survival message’.
Some great examples of this are:
Peter Pan — A story about a girl called Wendy, who follows a boy who doesn’t want to grow up, but who in the end chooses to stay at home and leave neverland behind. The survival message here is: it is ok to grow up.
The Wizard of Oz — A story about a girl called Dorothy, who wishes for something more interesting than her boring life, only to realise that she had everything she ever needed at home already. The survival message here is: you may already have what you are looking for.
The reason this is important, is because the proposal, the first act, of any story, is where you set up this message. It tells us two important things: what question will this story ask, and what conflict is going to help us answer it.
The hero’s journey
Along with the three acts, every story needs to have at least one hero, the protagonist.
Joseph Campbell posed to us in his exploration of story structure in ancient mythology, that in fact, every hero’s journey follows the same blueprint, the same structure and series of events. And that these events are what makes the story satisfying.
The hero’s journey, at a very basic level, is circular.
It starts us off with the hero in their home, existing in day to day life, where we see their everyday activities, emotions, behaviours and ideas about the world.
Next, the hero is forced to travel to the unknown world, where they face the main conflict, are guided through what they need to learn, and finally, overcome that conflict themselves.
Lastly, the hero returns to their home having changed, and having realised what they needed to know all along. Having learned the survival message.
The reason this is important is because this structure mirrors the three acts. But also more importantly: the story does not work if the proposal (the hero in their day to day lives), and the communication of the survival message, is not present right at the beginning.
This is why the first few episodes of a show, or even series in some cases, are incredibly important. They set up the proposal, the survival message, and help us understand the starting point for our hero.
The problem with modern storytelling
In the fast-paced, digital-first world we live in, attention spans are shorter, and we have less and less time for things (or we perceive that we do).
This has led to a lot of storytellers, writers and directors cutting the proposal, and removing that first crucial act almost entirely, in favour of jumping right to the conflict.
This means excitement happens straight away, but often it also means we have no reason to care about it. Why should we care about the conflict when we have no idea why it might be hard for the hero, or why it might be difficult. It completely removes any context for the main bulk of the story.
The other impact, is that it gives us no reference point from which to judge change. There is no baseline, no starting point, we simply have a character who we know nothing about, experiencing something that we have no context for.
A great example of setting up the story correctly is Schitt’s Creek, which does an excellent job of establishing the first act.
At the beginning of Schitt’s Creek, and for almost an entire season, we see a family who are used to wealth and fame, being horrendous to the people of the town, being horrible to one another, and being generally stuck up and ignorant.
But that season, for a show that people might say ‘it gets good after the first season,’ is in fact the entire reason why it is good in the first place.
That first season gives us context, so that when we see them change, it feels so much more satisfying. If we saw someone giving to charity, sure that would feel nice, BUT, if we see someone giving to charity who we know used to be selfish, hoard their money, and never help anyone, it would feel so much more satisfying. We can feel the impact of their change because we know where they came from, and how they have grown. And we feel that growth with them.
Better to judge by the first act
The first act is incredibly important to storytelling.
“If you have a problem with the third act, the real problem is in the first act.” — Billy Wilder
So next time someone tells you it gets better after season 1, or the first few chapters, or the first 10 minutes, understand why that phrase is such a good indicator of a great series, book, or movie.
It was great because of the first part. So spend the time in the first act, follow the advice of your friends: to just get through those first few episodes, or season, and you’ll often be rewarded for it immensely.