If you had a reader sitting in front of you right now, which of the following would you use to open your story with?
1. A nagging worry or anxiety about something that the protagonist was concerned about
2. A larger concern that threatened to disturb the protagonist’s life
3. An even more serious concern which caused your protagonist pain and possibly serious injury
4. A life-and-death situation which placed your protagonist in real and imminent danger
Your answer will determine more or less the kind of story you are likely to end up telling.
Most stories - by far the bulk of fiction, whatever form it takes, prose, plays or screenplays - follow the sequence above.
That might surprise you: you might have been expecting the answer to be ‘Start with the life-and-death situation to increase tension to the max right at the beginning.’ Some stories do exactly that, but there is a price to be paid for it.
Luke Skywalker, when we first meet him in Star Wars: A New Hope, has a nagging anxiety about getting away from daily mundane chores to train as a pilot in the academy. This is then magnified after his uncle and aunt are slain by the Empire into a drive to escape. He is plunged into an adventure in which he is at risk of pain in the heart of the Empire’s Death Star, then goes on to a life-and-death situation which places him in real and imminent danger in the film’s climactic scene.
Frodo Baggins is at first concerned about annoying neighbours before being introduced to the larger concern of what to do with the One Ring. This leads him into many places in which he experiences pain and serious injury, before ending up in Mordor and in continual danger of death.
Harry Potter begins his adventures with an anxiety about his adoptive family, followed by the discovery of his real heritage which disturbs his life. His ensuing escapades place him many times in the path of pain and possibly serious injury before everything culminates in a highly dangerous life-and-death situation.
Other examples will spring to mind. There are countless stories which follow this pattern almost exactly and, as a result, succeed in gripping the attention of the reader and producing a deeper emotional effect. Why? Because they parallel the position the reader is in: he or she is faced, as they commence the story, with some niggling fear or concern in their real lives which makes it easier for them to readily identify with the protagonist when he or she is first introduced. Having held the reader’s hand in this way, the pathway is clear to slowly increase the odds through the story until the gripping finale grabs all the attention you need.
What about those tales which commence differently? What if you start a story with a life-and-death situation which places your protagonist in real and imminent danger?
Well, things had better get even more serious soon. Stories of this kind rely heavily on a highly templated protagonist, by which I mean a character who it is assumed that the reader will quickly accept as the viewpoint to follow, regardless of how closely he or she identifies with that character. For example, most James Bond films begin with the hero placed in a highly dangerous situation - but the audience is familiar enough with the brand to know what is expected and never feels that there is any serious risk to Bond’s life. Consequently, the experience produced by such stories is shallower, more formulaic, more predictable. Watching a James Bond film resembles enjoying a good cup of coffee - one anticipates the flavour and expects the ‘zing’, but one’s emotional life is hardly changed.
A great novel on the other hand, though it follows the exact pattern of events above, can touch a reader deeply enough to change his or her perspective on the world.