The conventional wisdom is that fictional stories need to appeal to their audience right after they begin, lest the audience get bored and wander off. That’s why so many action stories start off with an action scene, romance stories with a lovey-dovey scene, mysteries with something that hints toward the mystery. Grab ’em quick before they lose interest, that’s the ticket!
There are two reasons. First is context. This reason is plainly evident in the two episodes of Youjo Senki, because it’s a story that requires some explanation to get going (slain salaryman, reincarnation, new world, etc—it’s no cookie-cutter setup). Without that context, all the action in the first episode is noise and light without meaning. In contrast, once we get that context, the action in the second episode is MUCH more engaging (though some of that can be put down to the strength of the scene alone, AKA Tanya outnumbered and outgunned, etc). Context helps establish the stakes and tells us why all this action matters. Without that, it’s noise.
Second has to do with the time-lapse between the attention-grabbing intro and the meat of the story. Contrast the action intro
scene episode in Youjo Senki with the action intro scene at the beginning of The Dark Knight, or even my own Wage Slave Rebellion. In both cases, there’s minimal lag between the intro scene and the rest of the story—a scene transition, nothing more. That makes continuing the natural, easy, “default” decision to make, and thus makes it more likely that readers/viewers will continue onto the meat of the story.
In contrast, with serial fiction like episodic TV, the end of an episode is an opportunity to decide: Do I watch another? It’s a potential stopping point, which means that’s when you need to capture the audience’s attention by. That would be an argument for the context-less action intro episode if it actually did its job, but without context, it does not.
This doesn’t mean episode-length TV series or other serial fiction (comics, serial novels) can’t begin with attention-grabbing intro scenes. They just need to be fit to the medium’s size. Take Tengen Toppa Gurren Lagann, whose action intro scene lasts all of a minute and a half. I didn’t internalize it well the first time I saw it, but that didn’t matter, because the rest of the episode stood on its own. It grabbed my attention, but the episode sold it to me.
The key, I think, is that in a TV series the action intro must be fit to the episode’s run-time, not the series’ run-time. Most people will make their decision about whether to continue after they watch the first episode. Use the action intro to help get them through the episode, and the episode to buy yourself another episode. Then keep doing the latter until your story is told. Done.
Which means that adaptations of long-form content into episodic content—such as Youjo Senki’s novels being adapted into an episodic anime—need to beware of copying the source too closely. Fans of the original will always prefer that, but they have the context that new viewers will still need. That means that if a novel has a 23-minute (when adapted) action intro scene, it might need to be rejiggered for the new medium.
(Though, most action intro scenes are much shorter—The Dark Knight’s was about five minutes—and apparently Youjo Senki’s first book didn’t start out like the anime did. So there’s that to consider as well.)
One final thought: though action intro scenes can be effective, I don’t think they’re necessary. I think many people underestimate how interesting the nuts and bolts of a story can be. “Where will this lead?” is a powerful feeling, and humans are curious beasts. As long as your lead-up isn’t boring, most will stick around, for a while at least.As always, thank you for using my Amazon Affiliate link (info).