First chapters and pilot episodes – how to hook with story (Roswell Reboot)
I’m doing two things tonight: giving feedback on sample chapter submissions from new writers and watching the new Roswell Reboot (New Mexico).
I’ve been focused on lot on craft recently, and trying to figure out what makes the difference between a good first chapter – a project and writer worth investing in – and one that just doesn’t hold my attention.
Mostly, I’ve decided it’s all about conflict and sympathy: before anything happens, you have to make readers care about your main character – but just enough; then you hit them with some big action and conflict.
Pilot episodes do this really well, so in this article I’ll break down the new Roswell reboot.
The episode starts with a minor conflict that establishes the scene and setting; a very short prologue introducing the premise (people say Roswell is full of aliens, protagonist thinks it’s just a small boring town).
Liz (main character) is coming home; gets stopped by the police and ICE; launches onto a tirade before recognizing the cop as her high school sweetheart Max. They let her go.
She immediately relieves her dad – who is an undocumented immigrant running a diner – of his work shift and dons a waitress outfit, complete with dangling alien antenna, but not before ridiculing a podcaster talking about how aliens are taking over America.
This establishes: she’s a smartass who doesn’t believe the hype, and she’s likable because she takes care of her elderly relatives. She also mentions she’s worried about him because of his immigrant status (something to lose, something she cares about).
She closes the restaurant, puts her favorite song on the jukebox, and starts dancing like nobody’s watching – of course the cute cop from before immediately stops by to watch, so she can be embarrassed.
He mentions how sorry he is about her dead sister (intrigue/sympathy – more on this later). She fills him in on backstory – research funding got cancelled so she’s back in town. They almost have a moment, he goes to leave, she offers him a milkshake, but then takes a sip out of it, bringing them close together, gazing into each other’s eyes in palpable romantic suspense.
But suddenly… A shoot out!
Pew pew, drive by shooting, she gets shot, Max uses his supernatural powers to save her, draining his energy. The lights outside explode (whenever you have a cool scene, make it PHYSICAL by showing lots of things happening – it’s not enough for him to save her easily, he has to grunt and make faces, and the lights go out, and the lightbulbs explode: even if this is just costing Max physical pain, it needs to be represented by a change in the physical environment as well, because we can’t “see” internal processes like the wound getting healed or Max using his powers, it needs to be reflected visibly). The ensuing blackout is also a noticeable event that will effect the town at large.
This is actually enough for a chapter one: we’ve established multiple points of sympathy with the main character.
- cares for someone else
- persecuted/oppressed status
- brave/rebellious, stands up against authority
- defends the innocent
- tragic past or history
- has lost someone close to them
- romantic intrigue/possible love interest
- quick backstory that hints at impressive skillset or intelligence
But before readers lose interest, an inciting incident (big twist or surprise, central to the story’s main premise.
We could end chapter one here. For a pilot episode, we need more… so the story continues. The next few steps would probably be saved till chapter two, but already readers will be asking WHAT JUST HAPPENED?
Liz isn’t sure what just happened. She tells her dad they should leave town because everyone hates them for no reason; he drops a bit more backstory – her sister got high and killed two innocent girls in a car crash (possible conspiracy, real story to be revealed later I’m sure).
Max, our second main character and love interest, chases the shooter but collapses because he’s weakened after saving Liz. He telepathically calls his sister to save him. Meanwhile his deadbeat alien brother is already in lockup, using his powers to fly the keys off the desk. That brings all three of them together at the police station to argue and fight.
They’ve been keeping this alien thing a secret for 20 years, but Max just risked it all to save a girl. This is important because it shows what’s at stake: they have lives now, and if they get found out they’ll be dissected. Big conflict, and it all depends on Liz – who is off at the hospital getting a full checkup, from her attractive doctor friend Kyle.
Now readers are hooked: can the aliens count on Liz or will she destroy everything? Sources of conflict:
- Max and siblings fighting
- Max and Liz (she wants truth, he has to protect secret)
- Liz and father (she wants to move, he likes the town)
- Liz and town (they just remember how her dead sister killed two other girls).
- Liz and hot doctor guy (she’s acting weird, but won’t tell him what really happened).
- Dead-beat brother (Michael) has to move trailer when the land gets bought by military; runin with new character Alex – old friend and military vet back, lost a leg in Afghanistan. He’s hiding alien tech in his trailer (risk of discovery).
- She visits sister’s grave but it’s been vandalized.
Next scene: Liz confronts Alex and opens up about her family: mother is mentally ill, and so was her sister, she thinks that’s why she got into drugs. After what happened at the diner, she’s worried she might be going crazy too (deepens sympathy for protagonist, also her search for answers heightens conflict).
Alex is ABOUT to say something like “you’re not crazy,” but Michael is listening in and he causes a distraction by blowing up some care windows.
New character: local bartender and old friend, who also does psychic readings on the side. Liz gets blown off at first, after a casually racist observer makes a snide comment about going back to her own country.
Isabel (the alien sister) is planning the 10 year high school reunion – upcoming event, trying to keep the normal appearance. Gives her a reason to be at Alex’s house so he can tell her he plans to tell Liz the truth; they fight, he yells, “I’m not asking permission!” (escalating conflict).
Isabel says, “You can’t ever be with her, even if you tell her the truth, there’s too much she can’t ever know. Fall in love with someone else, anyone else.”
Tragic romance/star crossed romance. It’s not just aliens + humans. Alex, specifically, can’t be with Liz – probably because of whatever happened with her sister. He’d always have to lie to her, even if she knows what he is. Added layers of conflict and tension.
But he’s also in love with her. He’s been in love with her for 10 years. Falling in love with someone else is impossible. Meanwhile, while Alex is smitten, we need to make sure to fuck up the relationship beyond repair by putting her with another guy.
Liz thinks Alex isn’t into her, because he’s so cool and reserved. Her friend Maria recommends “random sex, different guy” – planting the seed, and immediately outside, she runs into hot doctor friend Kyle, which leads straight to a makeout session.
But Kyle sees something weird on her chest and asks what happened. So she jumps out of the car and runs to a mirror, to discover a glowing alien handprint on her skin.
Now she knows she’s NOT crazy, but there’s also one more person who could expose the alien secret. Escalating tension, more external and internal conflict, a widening circle of involved characters.
Back to podcast guy, who’s now talking the coming aliens who will rape, murder and “steal our jobs” (fear and xenophobia).
Max is about to tell Liz everything and ask her to keep the secret (which he does) but it’s too late because Kyle already called in the military. He gets initiated into “Project Shepherd.” (Threat #1).
In the next scene, Michael is telling Isabel she needs to prepare to wipe Liz’s memory and send her packing, something only she can do. (Threat #2).
“Just like you did 10 years ago.” (Big reveal about backstory.)
Now that we’ve established the dangers and threats… we get a nice romantic scene, and SO close to a first kiss, but he pulls back because he’s a gentleman, and thinks she may just be feeling his feelings, and doesn’t want to take advantage while she’s under the influence.
High school reunion: all the characters together, highlighting the tension. Kyle is initiated by the military general; military general’s newly returned injured-veteran son has a secret romantic history with Michael (making him gay); Liz and Alex show up together but everybody gossips and points to Liz because ‘her sister murdered two people’…
They’re about to leave but then her best friend Maria (who is black, because we need POC representation in the core cast – also kudos to CW for making Liz latina unlike the white-washed first installation of Roswell) plays her song, so they stay.
We get a creepy scene of Alex stalking Liz through a window in highschool, but it’s meant to show how deeply he loves her. We get a flash of the core conflicts: Michael’s romance with general’s son; Kyle and general hunting aliens; and the big secret that Alex is still keeping from Liz, about what really happened with her sister – “she can never know about that.”
So we’ve set up a diverse cast of characters, overflowing with tension and conflict, and this was all done in the first episode. In a book, this would be the first several chapters, probably about 25% of the way in. But now that we’ve set the stage, we can just let all these conflicts keep playing over several books in a series.
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