Telegraphing

Some of you have no doubt heard the phrase "telegraphing a punch" or "telegraphing the punchline" - both of which are generally interpreted as bad things. Basically when you "telegraph" something, you are indicating beforehand that something will happen. Punches and punchlines are both things that should be a surprise in order to be effective, but not everything is that way.


There are three elements of books, movies, and games that I'm thinking of right now, elements that make a promise to your audience. When that promise is broken, your audience is disappointed, and a disappointed audience is often the audience that will not promote your story - in fact, they'll probably have bad things to say about it. Since that's not the goal we were aiming for, it's best not to break those promises. So, let's dig in.


The first element is your cover art.

I'm approaching this backwards, since your cover art is usually the last thing you worry about during production, but bear with me. I volunteer at a local thrift store, and one of my jobs is to sort through the books and movies people have donated and put them on the shelf in some manner of organized mess - usually by genre. If you have ever sorted through a pile of books by genre, you'll learn quickly that there's a very obvious pattern to the cover art.

Dominant colors purple, pink, or yellow, pictures of flowers, pearls, or half-naked men. Definitely a romance.

Blues, greys, or reds, pictures of masks, shattered glass, or guns. Probably a murder mystery.

Black or grey, probably a city nightscape, bonus points for blood spatter. Thriller.

Neutral colors like gold, tan, white, or brown, picture of household items, person fully clothed, or plant life. Very likely general fiction.


There's a code to these images, and the majority of your audience will be able to read the code even if they've never thought about it in those terms. So if you pick up a desert-yellow book with a picture of a cowboy on the front, you're probably expecting a Western. If you open the book and the main character is in a space station, there's a dissonance as that promise is broken. Now, maybe that book is still a very good read, but it's like getting a mouthful of poi when you were expecting chocolate pudding. It can be extremely off-putting, even if you like poi.


The second element is the title.

There's a movie on my shelf titled Ever After. It's one of my favorites, and I watch it frequently when I'm not feeling well. Aside from the cover art (depicting a couple that looks like they're about to kiss) the phrase "ever after" evokes the line used to close most fairy tales "And they lived happily ever after." This immediately tells the audience that the movie is (1) based on a fairy tale and (2) is probably a romance.


This isn't foolproof by any stretch of the imagination. It's a useful tool, and when it's used well, it can indicate what to expect to the viewer or reader or player before they even read the description on the back. And whether or not they admit it, there are still plenty of us that skim along the shelf until they see an interesting title or cover. I am 100% guilty of this. I use the cover art code and the title to judge what a book or movie is about long before I read the summary or crack it open to indulge in our third element:


The Opening Scene

This is also called an "establishing shot," because even more than the other two elements, this tool is used to introduce you not only to the expectation of genre and content, but also to the story itself.

This is your first scene, sometimes it's a prologue, usually it's a shorter scene than the rest of the ensemble you've put together, or at least trending toward the shorter end of the spectrum. It's your hook, and you need to get your audience sucked in and invested in the characters or the world or the experience that you're selling.


Now, I'll never claim to be a video game expert, or even a gamer in general, but off the top of my head I can think of two opening scenes that really stuck with me. The first is Final Fantasy X, the last FF game I ever played. There's hardly any dialogue in the scene, and you spend most of that time looking at the characters in sad poses and seeing destruction in the distance. It makes the promise - this is a post-apocalyptic story with themes of sorrow, loss, and destruction. (There's also the hand on the sholder bit - promising some kind of romance.)

Another example would be the Wii version of Super Paper Mario (one of my favorite games, and the only one I've actually finished in the last decade). It is, true to the Mario franchise, a light-hearted and cartoonish adventure, with an emphasis on slightly higher stakes.


Now if you were to, say, make an opening scene for Super Paper Mario with the feel of the opening from FFX... well, first, I would applaud your ability to somehow meld those two styles effectively, and then I would throw away the game I just bought, because it made a promise it didn't keep. In your opening scene, you're establishing the characters, the world, and the theme of your story. If your opening scene is in a crypt with a madman, then you can reasonably expect some heavy themes of death and madness. But if you got past the madman in a crypt scene and spent the rest of the story indulging in a power fantasy and fighting cyborg dragons, then there's a problem. You've prefaced an action/adventure with a horror/thriller promise, and there's that dissonance we were talking about earlier.


You have to be aware of what promises you're making to your audience in order to keep them effectively. This is more of that "planning ahead" nonsense I've talked about before, and sometimes it's super gross but it's more than worthwhile if it makes your story into a cohesive whole, rather than a collection of interesting scenes with some cool dialogue thrown in.


So my question, for myself as well as for you Inklings, is this:

What promise are you making with the title, opening scene, and (if applicable) cover art of your story? And; does your story keep that promise?

#WritingTechniques #WritingTips #Audience #Introduction

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