Be it the first chapter to a novel, or the opening scene of a screenplay, writing a good opening to a story is tough. What can Mr. Robot teach us about setting up a compelling narrative?
Any advice given is based on observations from works I enjoy and is not intended to be taken as the end-all-be-all solution to everyone’s writing woes. I do not give advice that I myself don’t follow or haven’t found useful at some point. Please remember that writing is an ongoing learning experience and I’m not flawless.
The pilot opens with narration from our main character, Elliot Alderson – who starts by breaking the fourth wall. He calls us his ‘friend’ and tells us that a group of people are secretly running the world, and that they’re following him.
This opening hook gets our interest.
We then see Elliot on the subway, being watched by two men. Elliot explains to the viewer that he’s being followed because of something he did last night.
We’re intrigued: What did Elliot do last night? Questions keep our interest after the hook.
Before we’re left wondering too long, we cut to the night before. Elliot is sitting in a coffee shop when the owner, Ron, walks in and takes a seat. Elliot timidly approaches him.
While engrossed in the mystery, a few clues about Elliot’s character are dropped: His timid approach toward Ron tells us he’s socially awkward (this is before he admits outright that he has social anxiety.)
This awkwardness adds a little tension and confusion, while also gaining our sympathy.
With a polite smile, he tells Ron that he knows Ron’s real name is Rohit. Elliot has an issue with boundaries – or, at least, he likes to spy on people. Understandably cautious, Ron asks if he can help Elliot with anything. Elliot ignores the question and compliments the shop’s Wi-Fi, and we learn that Elliot is very good with technology, something that will become important later.
Right now we’re feeling what Ron is feeling – why is Elliot doing this and what does he want with Ron? More questions!
And then Elliot says that he’s hacked Ron.
This reveal ups the tension.
All our own fears about hacking are brought to light, as Elliot explains how he knows about Ron’s private website. Ron tells Elliot to leave and threatens to call the police – at which point we get the second twist of this scene:
Ron’s website hosts child pornography.
This twist completely changes the context of the scene.
Suddenly, we’re not on Ron’s side anymore and Elliot’s motivation for targeting him becomes clear. Elliot is a criminal, yes, but he’s a criminal with a worthy cause, a sort of modern Robin Hood with a keyboard instead of a bow and arrow.
Ron tries to endear himself to Elliot. Their conversation reveals some backstory that is vital to the series: Elliot’s father died from leukaemia due to a radiation leak at the company he worked at.
When Ron begins to break down, Elliot tries to comfort him and says he doesn’t have to worry anymore. Ron accuses him of trying to blackmail him and refuses to pay. Then he threatens Elliot, reminding him that he, too, broke the law.
Then we get a third twist which brings us to the climax:
Elliot has already sent an anonymous tip to the police. One final time, Ron tries to get out of the situation, now saying he’ll pay. To which Elliot replies “I don’t give a shit about money” as the police burst in.
Annnnd roll title!
In summary, what works about this opening?
- Strong Hook
- Character Development
- Twist 1
- Rising Tension
- Twist 2
- Stakes and Motivation Revealed
- Twist 3
I argue that the backstory wasn’t necessary. It’s revealed more naturally later in the series, and there’s enough going on here to keep our interest.
Have you seen Mr. Robot? What other shows have good openings and would you recommend them?