Starting a story with a bang—and when not to

January 18, 2017

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!

Youjo Senki started with an episode of action, and it sucked. The second episode, which had less action, would have been a much better starting point. Why?

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.

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By Stephen W. Gee

Author of Wage Slave Rebellion, Freelance Heroics, and about two good blog posts out of a hundred.

3 Comments

  1. Reply

    Steven

    This was interesting. I absolutely agree that nuts and bolts world building or character development can play the “hook” as well as straight action (depending somewhat upon genre).

    “Context helps establish the stakes and tells us why all this action matters.”

    I agree, but I feel like you left a lot implied but unsaid on this point. What context in particular? My background is in game design and tabletop role-playing rather than writing or TV, so I’m curious how well my basics of tradecraft line up with your approach.

    In game design the conventional wisdom holds that you have only the first 5min to hook the player (no clue what that works out to in page count). That includes all the essential details of who the avatar is, what the goal is, and the avatar’s primary means of working toward that goal. The interesting bit is that any one of those elements could be the answer to “why care?”, and if it’s compelling enough the other elements can be minimally addressed.

    Why it works that way is immersion. For anything with a narrative to work, the player needs to at least partially identify with their avatar. The stronger the identification, the more likely they will play through to the end.

    So how is identification achieved? There’s 3 go-to methods for the hook: appearance, expertise, and emotion. Each of these gets applied with an eye toward whether you want to speak to the player’s actual reality or idealized reality.

    Appearance toward reality tends to include cultural touchstones the player will share, like a particular fashion aesthetic or style of music; appearance toward the ideal instead emphasizes what the player values: usually some version of attractiveness, athleticism, and resilience. Expertise toward the reality applies a skill or quality the player has in a way that produces impressive results; expertise toward the ideal gives the player an easy way to do something impressive that is normally outside their capabilities. Emotion toward the reality tends to emphasize the little joys of discovery and steady improvement; emotion toward the ideal tends to instead offer an outlet for suppressed feelings (predominantly anger and dominance, though some genres feature attraction, grief, anxiety, or others).

    So with all that in mind, action openers are pretty neutral on appearance, excel at demonstrating expertise, but can be very hit or miss on communicating and inspiring emotion, which is where I think the failure usually lies. A person reading a book or watching a screen usually isn’t already feeling an emotion relevant to the action scene when it starts, so unless the audience is specifically seeking that emotional experience one of the other hooks needs to work first.

    I.E. a very effective anime trope for this is the sleeper waking to an alarm and rushing to get somewhere; it immediately establishes some focus on appearance as the protagonist dresses for the day, generates the shared emotional state of anxiety, then can transition smoothly into a display of expertise as the character races about. The negative example might be an in media res Kung Fu fight scene done wrong; everything is moving too fast for details of appearance to register, it’s unclear what emotion the characters are feeling and why, and there’s no ready sense of how relatively skilled the protagonist is.

    1. Reply

      Stephen W. Gee

      Five minutes to hook the reader is still a good rule to thumb. It also further backs up what Youjo Senki did wrong—its action opener was too long. The Dark Knight’s opening scene was five minutes long, and Wage Slave Rebellion’s was probably somewhere around that. For Tengen Toppa Gurren Lagann, it was only TWO minutes. A 23 minute long action opener is just too damn long.

      Your three go-to hooking methods are good, and I like the wrinkle with them either speaking to reality or idealized reality. I’m going to tuck that away in my writing notes. It also provides an example as to why some of these other opening scenes worked. Take Wage Slave Rebellion’s. It likely provides an appearance toward reality for many people, i.e. the job that the person hates (though that really hits home in further scenes). I originally referred to it as an action opener, but the truth is that there’s very little action. What action there is, though, establishes that Mazik isn’t a normal salesman—that’s expertise toward the ideal. Emotion is also probably to the ideal, in this case of frustration, though it’s not so much outlet as commiseration, so maybe that doesn’t quite square.

      Either way, while the framework doesn’t line up perfectly for non-interactive fiction like TV or books, it’s a nice little tool kit that can help. Thanks for the info!

      1. Reply

        Steven

        You’re welcome. 😁 I’m glad to be of use.

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