Our TV show was aired Monday nights at prime time. Every Tuesday morning, I would sit on the deck of the 8.20 boat from Kadikoy to Karakoy (Asia to Europe) with a pit in my stomach, refreshing my phone screen every five minutes to see the last night’s ratings.
By the time I got to the office in Galata, everyonein my screenwriting group would know our ranking. If we were the 1st on the rating list, we would feel relieved and have a productive meeting for the upcoming episode. If we were the 36th — terrible news — it meant that the show could be canceled at any minute. We would have a short meeting and go out to have some raki.
But the production company would send us the actual data later in the day: minute-by-minute ratings and shares. It was a large spreadsheet showing the viewing statistics of each TV channel at each minute. Our ranking didn’t essentially matter. How many people watched the show every minute, did.
We could see the numbers (out of a sample group) who turned their TVs on that night. Our channel’s percentage would sometimes go up to 20 or 25 percent. Then it would suddenly drop to 3 percent at a commercial break. The numbers would scatter around like a school of fish, and each TV channel would try to catch them like sharks. It was a relentless competition. Then our audience would slowly come back together to watch the rest of our show.
Sometimes, they wouldn’t come back to us. They would get hooked by some other show displaying an astounding mystery or suspense they couldn’t help watching, wondering if there would be a murder or a gunfight.
At other times, our audience wouldn’t leave at all. The majority would stay even on the commercial break, and still, new people would join in. In these cases, the audience would be completely hooked. They wouldn’t want to miss a minute because they would know that the main character was so close to learning “the truth.” Or the main couple seemed like they could kiss, finally.
In the end, the traditional TV channels’ main goal was to show their commercials to as many people as possible. That was how they made money. It was harsh to realize this, but our shows were merely larger fishnets to catch the audience and deliver them the commercial messages.
We were screenwriters, not data analysts. For us, reading the flow of numbers on the minute-by-minute ratings was a little bit like fortune-telling by looking at coffee grounds.
— “Hmm, they didn’t like this new character because the number dropped right after he appeared.”
— “But what if they left because the soccer game started on the other channel?”
— “We should write more scenes for the evil dude. They love him, look!”
It was hard to tell if our audience liked one character or storyline by looking at these numbers. But one tendency was evident: if we could hook the audience well from the start, our ratings would be OK most of the time — unless we were exceptionally dull. Main lesson: hook the audience from the start.
This is true for all kinds of stories. While we wouldn’t want to write a novel by thinking “what would my audience want” every second, the opening is always crucial. Readers abandon books around the 17th page by average. That doesn’t mean they won’t ever leave a book if they read past that, but the beginning is where the readers decide if they want to read your story. You might have an astonishing second act or an exciting final that brings everything so nicely together. But if the readers don’t survive until then, what’s the point? If so, how do we hook the audience right from the start?
Even before beginning to read or watch your story, the audience wants to know what it is about. Make sure to appeal to them at this level first. You need to be able to summarize your story in one sentence. If you cannot express your story’s essence in one meaningful sentence, chances are your audience will find it confusing and won’t be interested.
Of course, being able to express it in a sentence is not enough. That sentence should be appealing enough to persuade your audience to trust your story with their time. A compelling premise contains an interesting character, a unique situation, and some irony. It is simple, understandable, and intriguing at the same time. A great premise makes you think, “This is so simple; why didn’t anyone think of this before?”
It is original and fresh, but also familiar. When we write a story, we naturally want it to be unique and original. We aspire to express our individual creativity. But at the same time, we want our audience to connect with our story, to find something from themselves in it.
The reality is, audiences get hooked to similar stories over and over again. They “want the same, but different.” Of course, we need to find new twists, variations and add our unique voices and angles. But there is nothing wrong with telling a familiar story, as long as it has a fresh perspective and a powerful conflict.
I remember one of my friends saying, “We should start every episode with a crisis! The audience should scream, Oh My God! What are they going to do NOW?” This could be good advice in the relentless competition of Turkish TV, but that doesn’t mean starting with a scream works every time.
The main problem is that the real “crisis” of a story happens towards the end. The tension you build in the beginning should grow at every stage, and the stakes should rise as you approach the resolution. If you use all your bullets in the beginning, you risk the actual crisis falling flat. However, if you believe that your real crisis is powerful enough to top that, by all means, start with a crisis.
In Finding Nemo, at the very beginning, clownfish Marlin loses his wife and million eggs when a barracuda attacks them. Then he watches his only son Nemo being taken by a scuba diver. We feel Marlin’s crisis as he tries to follow the motorboat, which seems like an impossible task for a tiny clownfish. How will the story top these at the real crisis point? When it’s time for the actual crisis, Marlin sees Nemo floating upside down in a plastic bag: he is dead (of course, he is not).
While writing TV shows, one question we asked all the time was, “Did she/he suffer enough?” One of our earliest shows, a revenge story, was successful enough to last for two years as initially planned. However, the ratings didn’t start as high as they could be. The TV channel did research and found that our audience didn’t root for our main character as we’d assumed.
The character’s family was murdered in front of her eyes when she was three. A childless couple adopted her and raised her in a different city, far away. When she found out about her roots, she recalled the murders. As the writers, we believed her backstory was more than enough to justify her revenge. Yet it wasn’t. A significant chunk of the sample group didn’t identify with her need for justice and said, “She should just drop the revenge thing and be happy with the guy.” For our story to work, the audience needed to see and feel more of how she suffered. Therefore we added gruesome flashbacks as well as more injustice and suffering in her present story. The numbers grew.
No matter how many murders, gunfights, or car chases you write, it won’t grab anyone without emotion. Ensuring the audience root for your main character is the most important investment you can make for your story. The protagonist is the audience’s avatar in the story world. People can consume the story and feel the feelings when they can put themselves in the main character’s shoes. When they don’t care about the main character, they don’t care if they will reach their goal or not. Thus, they don’t get invested in the story.
Blake Snyder’s book Save the Cat’s title is about this concept. To help the audience identify with the main character, Holywood writers use a little Save-the-Cat scene in the movies’ first few minutes. In this scene, the character does something heroic as little as literally saving a cat, like Bob in The Incredibles. The character gets humiliated by someone like Gru in Despicable Me or suffers trauma like Marlin, so we feel for him and take his side.
All stories are about transformation. We want to see how characters change throughout a story. Even though we showed the audience the main character’s backstory in our revenge show, we failed to show them how much she suffered. Our “before” was weak: we portrayed her as a bright, successful young woman with no issues other than her obsession with revenge. As a result, our audience didn’t root for her when she made mistakes. They didn’t anticipate her transformation. When we showed her suffering, people finally got curious to see how she would fix the problem — meet her need for justice.
In Save the Cat, Blake Snyder calls it stasis=death. In the beginning, we witness the main character live in such a situation that it is evident to the audience he can’t continue living like that. He has to change.
In Finding Nemo, before the diver captures Nemo, we see how Marlin lives in fear. We have already seen that his wife and their million eggs, except Nemo, were eaten by a barracuda. His fear is totally justif