Tuesday, 8 April 2014


...started a few nights back. I had a rare hour or two on my own and a half bottle of wine. The Walking Dead – my go-to entertainment if it’s late and I’m alone – is losing its appeal a bit. Season One started with a rush of promise but Shane took the vibrancy and energy with him when he shuffled offstage and The Governor’s no kind of replacement.

No, the early stages of this particular story were the best, I’m thinking.

That’s where #firsttwentyminutes started – me thinking about early stages of stories. Here’s the maths. An average movie’s, say, 120 minutes. The first twenty are roughly the 20% point. Time isn’t something I’ve got very much of, so twenty’s the point where I’ll happily bail out if its not killer. (Recent victims – Dragon Tattoo, re-make of Dragon Tattoo, Golden Compass, Hobbit, Sherlock 2, new Star Trek 2, that thing about a boat in a storm with Robert Redford.) 

Equally though, twenty’s the point where you know you’re totally aligned with the world of the story, the motivation of the characters, the direction of travel, the mood and theme – and you’re going to follow it all the way to the end.

I thought to myself: if I watched the #firsttwentyminutes of three films I really 
like, I might learn something.

So I did… and I did. Here’s what happened:

An iconic opening reminiscent of The Walking Dead. I’ve blogged about it before here but what really struck me was this: the story-proper begins bang on twenty minutes. To the second, I mean. It goes like this: we get the activists raiding the animal-testing facility, the grotesque apes hammering at the glass of their cages, the beasts released, the initial infection, the go-to-black, then those phenomenal shots of Cillian Murphy wandering a silent and empty London in his hospital pj’s. Twenty minutes clocks up, and he steps into a church. His adventure begins.

(ii) The Ghost
This was uncanny. Again: it’s to the damn second. There’s a lovely opening scene on a ferry. An abandoned car is towed away after the ferry docks at Vineyard Haven. The body of its driver is washed up on a nearby beach. Cut to London: Ewan McGregor chats with his agent about a potentially exciting new job – ghosting the ex-PM’s memoirs. He gets the gig, flies out to New York and travels out to Martha’s Vineyard, the scene of the ferry-death. He steps out of the back of a cab after a punishing 16-hour journey, ready to start his new assignment. His adventure begins; twenty minutes, on the nose.

Three in a row. In the first twenty, we get an introduction to an ex-priest living on a farm surrounded by acres of deep corn fields. Strange stuff is happening and his kids are attuned to it. Water tastes odd. The dog’s going bonkers. There’s something out in the fields, and we soon learn it’s responsible for the appearance of a massive crop-circle. The cops come to investigate. “Don’t call me ‘Father’”, says Mel Gibson, a man with a tragic past. The following night there’s another intruder on the farm – unidentified. Crop circles are turning up all over the world, according to the TV news. Cops return. Refer to Mel Gibson’s character by his first name. The adventure begins – twenty minutes exactly.

Insert conclusion here, eh? The first thing I did once this all came together was work out the equivalent for a YA novel of approximately 76,000 words. 

It’s the 12,000 mark. 

If you want – and I do, given my inability to plot a book that actually works – a rough rule of thumb, everything’s gotta be sorted by 12,000; the protagonist, their motivation and flaws, the mood and atmosphere, tone, world. It’s the place where ‘the adventure begins’. That’s roughly the end of Chapter Six if you write in Fletcher-sized sections.

I’ve just re-read book 2, The Nightwardens, up to the end of Chapter Six. The news is… mixed.

Someone pass me the wine.