On Writing – White Collar’s First Scene

In the list of TV series I like, White Collar holds an important place. The delightful chemistry between the main characters, the witty dialogues and the funny intrigues are as charming as the actors are handsome. But, contrary to the analyses I’ve done of 24 and Lost Girl, I’m not going to talk about what I like or dislike in this show. Instead, I’m going to take a very, very close look at the pilot’s first scene.
Because it’s one of the best first scenes I have ever watched and I tip my hat to Jeff Eastin for writing it – yes, hat, like Neil’s favorite accessory.

White Collar Promo Picture

WHITE COLLAR -- Pictured (l-r): Willie Garson as Mozzie, Matt Bomer as Neal Caffrey, Tim DeKay as Peter Burke, Tiffani Thiessen as Elizabeth Burke -- USA Network Photo: Nigel Parry

The pilot starts with a close-up of a bearded chin. Scissors trim it. A blue eye and some bangs are reflected in a broken mirror. A bang resonates in the distance, causing the head to quickly turn before the trimming resumes. Hair fall in a toilet’s tank. Close-up on the trimming scissors again, revealing a hint of bright orange fabric. Close-up on a hand holding an old razor and fingers testing its sharpness. Close-up on a chiseled jaw being shaved.
Another bang. Another look over the shoulder.
Another flash of bright orange fabric as the man splashes water on his shaved face and slicks his hair back with a bit more water. Behind him, we see the washed out blue door of the bathroom stall. He pulls a plastic bag out of the tank. Close-up on his hands opening the bag. Then his serious face.
An American shot shows him pulling on a navy blue shirt with an insignia on each shoulders, his orange jumpsuit around his waist. A bell rings as he pulls up the matching navy blue pants.
He sighs.
Cue music.
The man exits the bathroom, looks around, slicks his hair back and rounds the corner of the hallway.
Pan across a room of men in orange jumpsuits, hammering various pieces of machinery. Guards in uniforms matching the man’s new look watch them. The man walks through the room. No one looks at him twice. He walks along a row of bars next to a line of prisoners going in the opposite direction. He rounds the guards watching them. He pulls a key card out of his pocket and swipes it in a lock.
Buzzing sound.
He pushes the door open. Another hand grabs it.
Beat as the man and a guard lock their gazes.
The guard holds the door open with a smile. The man half-confidently smiles back, passes a security camera and heads out.
Close-up on the man’s face, barb wires in the background.
He sighs as text slide on screen. “Name: Neal Caffrey. Convicted: Bond Forgery. Suspected: [Several frauds appear one after the other].”

I didn’t need the text. At all. Sure I learned his name but by then I knew exactly who he was, that I would love him and the whole series along with it. Two minutes and I was completely hooked.
Two minutes.
Or, in novelist’s terms, the above retelling of the scene is 335 words long, our first page.

Why does it work so well? Because it doesn’t tell anything but it shows and implies a whole lot!

Let’s see what we know about Neil Caffrey before the text even appears.

He’s a felon. The orange jumpsuit says it loud and clear but the rest of the scene also tells us he’s a conman. I mean, he cons his way out of jail!
He’s witty. We know exactly how he played his way out of jail; he let his hair grow so people wouldn’t remember his face, then drastically altered his appearance by secretly shaving.
He’s resourceful.  At this point, we don’t know whether or not he has friends but we know that somehow, he managed to get a guard’s uniform and key card in a toilet’s tank.
He’s daring; he attempts to escape prison.
He’s proud and confident; he does it with his spine straight and his head held high.
He’s a force to be reckoned with; he succeeds.

Oh! And he’s a charmer. Second guy on the left. Need I say more?

We also know that the series is going to be strong on irony/sarcasm, witty, full of surprises and a general joy ride.

However, what is even more crucial, though it’s very subtle, is how we, spectators, are already getting involved. The scene makes all the information I listed readily available without actually telling us. We have to “figure it out” – which gets us involved – and we feel smart when we do – which rewards us for our involvement. This mechanism makes us want to figure the whole thing out, all the whys and hows behind that scene.
And so we watch the whole thing.
And then the second episode.

The opening scene of White Collar is a prime example of the value of showing instead of telling. It also teaches us that we can count of the readers/spectators to piece simple things together and enjoy doing it, which makes the story even more powerful for them.
The lesson I draw from this: “Make every detail count. And the unsaid too.”

About Aheïla

Somewhere in Quebec City, Aheïla works as a Game Design Director by day and writes by night. Known for her blue hair, unyielding dynamism and tasty cooking (quails, anyone?), she’s convinced “prose is the new crack”. She satisfies her addiction daily on The Writeaholic’s Blog and weekly on Games' Bustles View all posts by Aheïla

3 responses to “On Writing – White Collar’s First Scene

  • lvcabbie

    This is one of but a few series on USA Network that I readily follow. The writers continually throw in new twists and tidbits about the characters and I find it fun to watch.
    Also, the FBI agent’s wife is perfect and their pair’s reactions are refreshing as opposed to others on the boob tube.

    I’ve also found some good new series on TNT.

  • ralfast

    As a fan of the series I concur with your judgement. 😀

  • Jenn

    That was a great! I haven’t seen the show, but now I want to!

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