How Not to Start Your Story
Lessons from the Pilot Episode of Altered Carbon
I went into Netflix‘s cyberpunk extravaganza, Altered Carbon, as blind as I could. I knew only two things: “it’s a sci-fi murder mystery“, and “a lot of people like it.” These things were enough to make me watch the first episode.
Suffice to say I was a little disappointed. Sure, I’m basing this on the first episode alone. Sure, I can see that the series has a lot of potential. BUT there was something missing.
It got me thinking about beginnings. To me, this is the most challenging part of writing stories – anyone can do an ending, but the start… Like they say: You only get one chance at a first impression.
Here’s what not to do at the start of your story:
[Spoiler Warning for the First Episode]
Start with a bang…or twenty!
Altered Carbon explodes out of the gates. We are given a scene: two people in a futuristic hotel. This is inter-cut with flashes of Joel Kinnaman floating in the water. After quite a lot of shooting, shouting, and Deus Ex-esque-seeing-through-wall-powers, we learn that this is Takeshi’s (the protagonist, Kinnaman) previous life. He wakes up from his 250 year incarceration in a new body.
Thereafter we get some exposition about how people exist as “stacks” (computerized consciousnesses) and use bodies as “sleeves”. [So far, so interesting.] With that out of the way, the narrative races through CG-cityscapes reminiscent of Blade Runner or the live-action Ghost in the Shell. On the way we learn that Takeshi is the silent, bad-ass type who isn’t too curious about this unfamiliar world. We also learn that his driver is a bad-ass cop who isn’t one to follow the rules. [This began to worry me – stereotypes already?] There are some revelations presented along the way, but without context this washed over me somewhat.
Add a lot of acontextual information
Along the way we are given a lot of information. The narrative pauses in such a way that it seems to say: “Look at this tree thing, it is important, look at how important it is“. Don’t get me wrong, I am all for mystery (it is what I love most in fiction aside from character), but this show presents such things (the magic tree, the notebook, the hero’s past, etc.) in a way that we feel we’ve missed something. It’s almost like starting a series from the eighth episode: who is he? why is this important? what’s this about?
Normally these kinds of questions equal compelling storytelling, but here it feels as if the characters are already in on the joke, we just missed it.
Get distracted by the ‘Cool Stuff’
You get the feeling that the narrative gets ‘distracted’. There are some great sci-fi ideas in here, but they are picked up, momentarily admired, and then discarded like a toddler choosing a toy. This lack of focus becomes overwhelming and places the ‘spectacle’ in the way of plot and character.
The ‘murder’ of a so-called immortal, is interesting in itself. Why not focus on that? Instead, this occupies a few minutes of the episode’s run-time. This, too, makes it hard to care. It also makes details hard to remember.
Leave them with all the (wrong) questions
You should leave the audience with questions. If they have questions, it means that they are thinking of your work – this is what you want. What you don’t want, is them asking “why didn’t they just…?” This means that they’ve spotted plot holes or (worse) don’t grasp the motivations (the whys) of the universe you’ve plunged them into.
The first episode of Altered Carbon is guilty of both.
For instance, in the second half it is mentioned that the ‘murder’ is the bad-ass detective’s case, yet she seemed unaware of it when she took Takeshi to his super penthouse. Is this a plot hole or is it a case of her not caring?
Also, why does the immortal rich guy have a son? Why bother with children when you have enough money to rebuild yourself after death?
Did Takeshi care about the woman in the hotel? Didn’t seem like it. He seems to care about his sister and the woman that started the uprising/rebellion/war/riot (it’s unclear), yet he takes the job from his enemy anyway.
There are many instances of this. They mostly centre on unclear character motivations. We don’t need to know everything at once, we just need to know why characters (especially the protagonist) does what he does.
How to fix it (Opinion)
Personally, I would have slowed the pace somewhat. If the narrative presented us with simple to understand scenarios that helped us build our knowledge of the world, it would have been less overwhelming.
For example: they could have started with Kinnaman waking up from being “on ice” and exploited the amnesia angle (this is mentioned in their orientation briefing). Without the clutter of the shootout before, the audience would have a status quo to build upon. This would also leave the audience and Takeshi wondering what he was imprisoned for (better than just saying “He like killed lots of people, look how bad-ass he is”).
Furthermore, more focus could have been given to the homicide case itself. Instead of overwhelming the audience with as much of the world as they could fit into the space of a few minutes, the world could have been dished out a bit at a time. For instance, each lead could force them to visit another part of the universe.
I feel that the “Reluctant Bad-Ass” (a.k.a Geralt, Riddick, Deckard, Solo, McClane, etc.) is overused at this stage. We all know that he’s going to take the case anyway. Why bother with the death wish preamble?
It’s hard to care about a character if his/her mental processes are a complete mystery. So far it’s not entirely clear what he wants (revenge? to die? drugs? to go back to prison? what?).
You SHOULD make what your character wants clear as soon as you can. You can do it in the very first scene. Even if you don’t show their ultimate goal, just show us what he/she wants now. This kindles the embers of empathy.
After all, inspiring empathy is what stories are best at.
It is entirely possible that the rest of the series solves these issues. However, this cluttered first episode teaches us a lot about how not to start.
What do you think? What were your impressions of this episode? Have you seen the whole series?
Please let me know in the comments below.