I have a confession to make: I’m a closet anime fan. For those not in the know, anime is a style of Japanese animation popular among nerds like myself. Most of it is too strange for my taste, or too inappropriate (I’m kind of a prude sometimes), but periodically great shows catch my eye, or at least intrigue me enough to watch the first few episodes. One such show was Fullmetal Alchemist.
The strange animation is something you get used to after awhile. I no longer find it distracting, but I suppose I’m not picky if the story is good.
I’ve been meaning to watch this show for awhile, since it seems to have such an enormous fan following. It’s been on my to-do list for ages, with hundreds of books that I intend to read— eventually. A side note— I’m actually afraid to use the ‘Want to Read’ function on Goodreads, because the sheer number would probably overwhelm me, and I would drown in a pile of books, never to be seen again.
Don’t worry, Sheska. We sympathize.
Last fall, in a moment of boredom, I decided to watch the first episode to see what the hype was all about. Since I’ve started writing, I can’t watch beginnings normally anymore. I overanalyze them and drive my family members nuts, because I’m trying to figure out what makes them work, or in many cases, not work. Admittedly, this has made me a horrible person to watch movies with, because I end up voicing my thoughts aloud. I would make such a great Riff-Trax narrator (Another random note– Riff Trax is by the same people who used to do Mystery Science Theater. They basically make tracks to make fun of entire movies. It is the only acceptable way to watch any bad movie– and laugh for hours). Apparently I am incapable of staying on-topic.
So this beginning thing. The first few minutes of any movie or TV show. The first few pages of a book. Most writers refer to this as the ‘hook’ of the novel.
This is the part that draws the viewer or reader in. This is the part where we decide if we want to invest in the story or not. This is the part that makes us care in some way.
It is probably the hardest to get right, but the most important. I’ve already re-written my beginning at least 5 times, and that number will likely increase when I start editing. But Fullmetal Alchemist nailed this opening. And boy, do I mean it.
The basic premise of the story is that two young brothers sacrifice everything to bring their mother back from the dead using Alchemy, a way of recomposing the structure of matter. The show opens with a definition of alchemy and the statement, ‘Man cannot gain anything without giving something in return. To obtain, something of equal value must be lost. In those days, we really believed that to be the world’s one, and only, truth.’
This statement becomes iconic as the brothers continue to sacrifice and suffer in order to get their original bodies back. The first episode opens with the brothers, only 10 and 11-years-old, in the midst of the horrible sin that began their entire journey.
Not their best idea in the world. But they do learn.
I can hardly do the opening justice, but the point is this: the show opens with a bang, and does several things correctly. As a writer, I always find myself noting these things when a story does it right. This is always as an aside in my mind, since if a story is opening well, I’m normally squealing like a small child at my computer screen.
Fullmetal Alchemist did what I feel like all good openings need to do:
1. Begin with characters in action.
No one cares what the weather is. No one cares about backstory at this point. Maybe your character is an ex-marine who used to juggle while riding unicycles and attending presidential dances while part of the secret service.
No one cares.
The most important thing, character wise, is to start a story with a character in action. Any action won’t cut it. If I open a book to a guy dodging bullets, I won’t care unless you give me a reason to. As writers, we have to make this opening action personal and revealing. We have to learn something about the character— enough to entice us to continue reading. This must be done with a scene. No amount of exposition, no matter how well-written, can do this for you.
In Fullmetal Alchemist, we find the brothers in the middle of trying to bring back their mother with alchemy. This reveals several things about Ed and Al immediately: their occupation (alchemists), their love for their mother, and their tragic flaw that will drive them through the entire series.
All of that in the space of 3 minutes. I checked. And that leads me to the second point:
2. Load this action with conflict.
Our job as writers is to mire our characters so deep in muck that we can’t even see a way out of it. While the very beginning doesn’t need to overshadow the rest of the conflict in the book, we need to see the character struggling with something, even if it’s inward.
Conflict is engrossing. Conflict is why we read. And conflict reveals character in real life, and in fiction. Conflict makes us care.
We want to know how Ed and Al are going to get out of the mess they’ve made when Ed loses limbs and Al disappears (again, in the space of 3 minutes). Suddenly we care deeply about these characters, so when the show moves on a few years and gives us a few laughs at the brothers’ expense, we continue to watch. We want to see the events that led them to be so desperate in the opening act. We want to see how they recovered from something so life-changing. We want to see them grow.
3. Hold backstory off as long as possible.
Backstory is tricky. Most characters have one, and while it is a fundamental part of who they are, as writers we have to hold it back until the time is right— until the reader is going crazy trying to figure out how they got to this point, and why.
A good backstory reveals the reason behind a character’s actions. It shows us why they hate spiders, or water, or in this case, why one brother is made entirely of a suit of armor. A good backstory won’t just cause the reader to empathize— it will convince even a skeptical reader to stick with the book.
Fullmetal Alchemist opens with a tiny but monumentally important scene from the brothers’ past, but leaves us hanging at the worst moment. It sets up a cliffhanger for the first several episodes of the series, and completely pulls the viewer through what otherwise might be considered a few weak episodes.
When the full backstory finally is revealed, it is so anticipated that the emotions run high, and consequently, we are sealed in for the rest of the story. If the opening scene makes us pay attention, the correct kind of emotional backstory later forces us to commit for the rest of the tale. With all of the elements in place, the reader or the viewer, in this case, is in for the rest of the ride.
4. Stakes must matter.
A good beginning chooses stakes that matter— stakes that are unquestionably strong and undeniably empathetic. A reader is constantly asking why they should care, and strong stakes give them that answer. That being said, the stakes don’t need to be necessarily world-changing. But they do have to be for the protagonist.
As the story moves into the middle, we have to be thoroughly convinced that the protagonist’s goal is something so fundamentally important to their mental, physical, or emotional well-being that they can’t go back to the stage they began at. It has to make us care again, or the story falls flat.
After such an emotionally-wrenching opening, we are both empathetic of and astounded by Ed and Al. We want them to get their normal bodies back. Their goal is not only understandable, but after so much sacrifice and suffering, we feel that they deserve it, and we continue to root for them for 50 some-odd episodes. And this sets up the tension and drive for the entire story.
This list is hardly inexhaustible, but I feel like Fullmetal Alchemist really knocked it out of the park. That being said, Brotherhood (another take on the same story) didn’t do quite as good of a job with this portion of the story. However, its overall plotline was much smoother. But that’s a story for another post.
This series has a great story, and Brotherhood has an even better one. Highly recommended for anyone who enjoys a good story.
What do you think makes a great beginning? Feel free to share your thoughts below. With or without nerdy examples. 😉