Listening to: My Dear Frodo – Howard Shore (The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey)
Spoilers follow for: The Horse and His Boy, Inception, Fire Emblem Awakening, and the film version of The Fellowship of the Ring.
In my opinion, the beginning of any story is one of the most important parts. The tone and style of the beginning will set a precedent for the rest of the story. Subverting the expectations of the audience can be an effective tactic, but the general tactic is to use the very beginning of a story as both a high point and a hook into the rest of the story. If the audience is not sold on the opening, they are less likely to finish the story–especially in the cases of longer media such as books or video games.
For instance, one of my favorite audiobooks when I was younger was the Focus on the Family Radio Theater adaptation of C.S. Lewis’s The Horse and His Boy. Those who have read the book know that it starts off fairly slowly, spending quite some time introducing the everyday life of the protagonist, Shasta, before he makes his escape with the talking horse Bree. As far as exposition goes this is fairly normal, but the audiobook adaptation wants to make very clear from the beginning that this is a story packed with action. Accordingly, the adaptation begins with a flashback which shows a child being carried away from a great battle between a nobleman and an undisclosed opponent. In addition to establishing the story as a swashbuckling epic rife with intrigue, it also foreshadows one of the major plot twists of the book, through a single, simple scene under a minute in duration.
In other cases, the scene can be taken from a later point in the work. This technique, known as in medias res (“in the middle of the story”), is used in many works, from Greek drama to modern film. A fairly recent example is the film Inception, which opens with a scene from near the end. Cobb, the protagonist, washes up on a beach and is taken into custody by uniformed soldiers. Taken before their leader Saito, he begins an explanation, which quickly segues into the actual beginning of the story. The chronological beginning provides most of the action, while showing a much younger Saito alongside an unchanged Cobb. This helps to establish the odd, dreamlike chronology of the film while also providing a precedent for the sort of action sequences that will recur throughout.
A much more dramatic version of in medias res opens up Fire Emblem: Awakening. The first chapter, titled “Premonition: Invisible Ties” shows the valiant Prince Chrom and his faithful tactician Robin locked in battle with the evil sorcerer, Validar. Those familiar with the series will recognize Validar as the main focus villain of the game: the series tradition of preceding the final boss with a conniving dark mage holds true, as usual. The real shock of the opening, however, comes after the battle is over: Robin, apparently suffering from some sort of fit, stabs and kills Chrom. Only then does the game itself start, beginning with Chrom and Robin’s original meeting and progressing from there. While this sort of revelation would likely be shocking in the context of the game as a whole, putting it in a premonition at the beginning lends even the pastoral early chapters a sense of foreboding.
As a final example, compare the film adaptation of The Fellowship of the Ring with its source material. There is a clear difference in how they begin. The film, lacking Tolkien’s lengthy preface to give a general idea of the world or how the Ring came to be, uses Tolkien’s myth arc as the hook to draw the audience into the movie. The film is very clear from the start that this movie is an epic fantasy: there are warring armies in shining armor dueling the forces of darkness, an epic showdown with the Dark Lord himself, and a frightening demonstration of the Ring’s corrupting influence. This handily demonstrates everything that a layman needs to know about The Lord of the Rings: it’s grand in scope, sprawling in setting, and steeped in rich backstory. Even when the scene shifts to the peaceful Shire and covers the first leg of Frodo’s journey, it is interspersed with Gandalf’s travels to Minas Tirith and Isengard to gather information about the Ring.
Tolkien himself prefers a more subtle method of storytelling: if you begin at the first chapter of the book rather than the Preface, the information is revealed gradually. Bilbo’s ownership of the Ring is hinted at rather than outright stated, told through the eyes of third-hand sources or cryptically hinted at in conversations. When Gandalf mysteriously fails to show up at the beginning of Frodo’s journey, it’s cause for curiosity but not alarm: we haven’t been told what he’s up to, and wizards are meant to be mysterious anyway. Lastly, without the establishing shots of Black Riders spurring their horses forth from evil towers or cutting down innocent gatekeepers, they remain a mystery: perhaps just a group of oddly dressed solicitors, trying to track down Mr. Baggins to inform him that he has won the Mordor Lottery.
No moral of the story or special ending message this week. I’m considering doing more posts on story structure in the future, so let me know what you think in the comments below. Until next week!