You have 5-20 minutes max to establish at least six essential things:
- Their skills (so that we’ll trust them to solve the problem)
- Their unique perspective on life (so we’ll know why you chose this hero)
- A moment of badass-ery (so that we’ll like them)
- A moment of vulnerability (so that we’ll care about them)
- What they want (so that we’ll identify with their journey)
- What their problem is (so that the story can begin)
But wait, aren’t some of those the same thing? Sometimes these moments can be combined (maybe a moment of badass-ery can also establish their skills, or maybe their want and their problem are the same thing) but not necessarily: in many, many movies these six things are established separately, so don’t assume that one will take care of the other. But there’s also good news, there’s some things that don’t have to be established in the first act:
- Their backstory
- Their dark secrets
- Their inner needs.
All of these things can come out later. This brings us back to our question from yesterday: Why does it help to know what type of hero you have? Different heroes have different groundwork that has to be laid in the first twenty minutes. Here are four examples:
- Fish Out of Water (Coogan’s Bluff, In the Heat of the Night, etc.): These movies can begin in different ways-- In the first example, we see how good Clint is at home, in the second we start with Sidney already arriving in unfamiliar territory, but in all cases we need to know right away how good and cocky they usually are, but see that those skills won’t necessarily translate to a new setting. We also need to see pretty quickly that they’re unwelcome and they know it.
- Well-Trained Rookie (Silence of the Lambs, Buffy, etc.): The question you need to answer right away is this-- If they’re not very good yet then why do we trust them to be our hero and not, say, their boss, who actually knows what he’s talking about? Is there a value to their newness that makes them a more interesting hero? You need to make us trust them even while you’re establishing that they don’t trust themselves yet.
- The Rogue (Robin Hood, Zorro, etc): A rogue’s life is dominated by his outsize reputation. Everybody reacts immediately to a name likes Captain Jack Sparrow or Aragorn. We need to see in which ways in they live up to their famous name and the ways in which they don’t. Here's what you don’t have to establish right away: why they’re out of the job. That can come out later for a big reveal.
- The Exile (John McClaine, Shane): These are Rogues who have given up and moved on into unknown lands: they’re acutely aware of their lack of reputation in their new home, although the audience should quickly see that the new town is badly underestimating the hero. We see that their badass-ery is their secret, for now. They expect respect but no longer get it. Here again, you don’t have to establish right away what mistakes have set them to wandering. We’ll find out when we need to know.