You’ve got to hook your audience from the beginning, is one of the most common pieces of writing advice out there. Your first paragraph, the first 5 minutes of a show or movie, page one of your comics story, that’s all you get before your audience makes a decision about whether or not to continue to engage with your creative project. For the most part, this is true—except when it isn’t.
There are many lists of great first lines in literature, from Charles Dickens, to Ralph Ellison, to William Gibson, and agents, by and large, ask for the first few pages of a novel—and only the first few pages—as part of the standard pitch packet. It’s a tried and true strategy that’s worked from Homer’s epics through the modern Bond movie formula…
…And then there’s WandaVision.
WandaVison began with a two-episode premier that viewers found confusing and slow. Many of my friends—especially those who were not familiar with the source comics—told me that they were “completely lost” after watching that first hour of the Disney+ television program. And yet, they kept watching. Now, the show’s viewership is so large that it’s threatening The Mandalorian as the most popular show on the streaming service, and reaction to the series—and to the slow-burn build—as been overwhelmingly positive.
Why did the audience stay? According to conventional wisdom with which I opened this blog, they should not have. Sure, some die-hard comics readers would have (they always do, even when they don’t like a program if only to have something about-which to complain), but that doesn’t account for the massive general audience.
I believe that the reason everyone stayed is trust. People stuck with the show because they believed in Marvel and the Marvel Cinematic Universe. After two-dozen movies, which brought comics characters into the mainstream like never before, the audience was willing to sit through the slow burn of the first few episodes because they trusted that the payoff was going to come. People like my wife, who hadn’t read a comic in over 20 years, liked the Scarlet Witch and wanted to find out what was going on with her, and trusted that, if her story fit into the storytelling universe that they loved, it was bound to be good. They stuck with the show, and they, thus far, have been rewarded.
It would be foolhardy to start a creative universe with a program like WandaVision. Even if it was good, there wouldn’t be enough people who would stick with it if it proved to be difficult to access. It was a smart move to open with a fairly conventional super hero movie like Iron Man. Once trust has been established, however, it frees the creative team to try different storytelling methods.
This concept is not unique to WandaVision. James Joyce’s work, for example follows a similar pattern. Dubliners and A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, while critically acclaimed, are much more conventional than Ulysses (to say nothing of Finnegan’s Wake).
As writers, we should all hope to, eventually, build the kind of trust with our readers that would free us to try different storytelling styles and to pace the action as we see fit. Until then, we should all continue to search for that perfect first line.