Your Origin Story Sucks Monkey Taint
Writers, you might have heard this piece of advice, but just in case you haven’t, I’ll give it to you for free: start the story as late as possible. Which is to say, don’t begin at the beginning.
Lately, though, stories — and this most particularly applies to film — have made a bad habit of jumping head first into the pool with origin stories, or taking good stories and prequelizing them.
This, with some exception, is a weak move. It’s crap sauce. You want to know why? Oh, I’ll feed you, baby birds. Just you wait.
I’m not saying that it’s bad that you have an origin story. I’m saying it’s bad that you’re starting at the beginning. You should know a character’s beginnings. Just don’t start there. This isn’t a board game. Do not put all the pieces on the first square.
A Story Is An Equation: Solve For X
Listen, math can bite me, and I say that only because I’m not really that good at it. I mean, I can add a few numbers and when drunk I can even recite my multiplication tables, but beyond that, you might as well just give me crayons and a helmet. But math is important, and concocting a good story really is a kind of math.
Here’s an equation: 2 + 2 = 4. It’s succinct. But it’s not that interesting. We already know that equation, and even if we didn’t already know it, you just told it to us. You spoiled the magic trick.
But X +2 = 4 is different. The X-factor is a giant question mark. Okay, here it’s not a particularly troubling question mark, and anybody with half-a-rat’s-brain will plug in the right number, but the point is, for a moment, X serves as a mystery. We solve for X. We have now made the equation interesting.
Beginning at the beginning makes the origin story an already completed equation.
The Origin Story Is The Enemy Of Mystery
When we are introduced as reader or viewer to a character, we should be curious about him. We come in and he’s running from somebody. He’s panicked. He kicks open a door and starts going through a file cabinet, looking desperately for something. Why is he running? What is he so desperate to find? This is an equation, with many variables — to know more about the character, we have to solve for X.
But imagine that we begin the story instead with the character in his youth. We see his family life. We learn how he gets in trouble with the mob, and he gets caught up in some racketeering gig, or maybe he finds out he’s adopted and has to discover information about his true parents. This approach — beginning at the beginning — is not entirely devoid of mystery, because some questions still drive the narrative. But it is not the best platform for mystery, either. It fills in way too many variables from the get-go. It does our work for us. It answers questions even before they’re asked.
Obviously, the comic book movie is a keen example of overusing the origin story. Look at Batman Begins, then look at The Dark Knight. I’ll suggest that most of you will posit that the latter is the better film. One reason for this, I’ll offer, is because it’s not an origin story. It begins in the middle. We don’t begin with Li’l Brucey Wayne tumbling into a well. We don’t even start with the Joker’s origins. Yes, his origins are revealed to a degree, but it’s done as a part of the later narrative. We begin that story with far more variables sitting open.
Every Story Is A Mystery Story
I don’t mean that every story is of the mystery genre, but I do mean that every story — er, excuse me, every good story — is a mystery tale. It’s about having questions and solving them.
Really, every story is watered down to that bare principle. If you don’t want to know what happens next, or what happened before, or who the character is, or why the character does what he does, then you won’t continue reading or watching (and if you do, you’ll do so out of boredom and commitment over actual narrative impulsion). Questions drive your narrative–they are the accelerator. Answers slow the narrative–they are the brakes. That’s not to say you can’t provide answers. You have to, or the audience becomes frustrated (and further, you have to end somewhere). But every answer should only lead to one or more questions, at least until the third act.
Don’t ever assume your story is more important than this most critical element: keep the audience invested. You’re a drug dealer, doling out choice packets of the good stuff. Don’t give them too much, or they’ll be satisfied. Yours is not a job of satisfaction.
I’ve seen Christopher Moore a few times now. Got to go out and get drinks with him in Charleston, and ended up at another book signing of his for my bachelor party (yes, I am a huge nerd, shut up; we did see strippers eventually, so hush). We also went to a dog fight and I think snorted coke and bought hookers… long story*. Anyway. He offered a very interesting piece of advice, which I’ll paraphrase here because I have a brain like a sieve: if you get people to read to the end of page one, you’ve got them to the end of page two. If you get them to the end of page five, you’ve got them to the end of page 10. You get them through the first chapter, then they’ll read to the end of the third. And so on, and so forth.
It is your job to keep giving them reasons to read. Or watch. Or be invested in your creation. If you give away all the goods early, if you forfeit your entire supply of sweet crack and tasty meth, you’ve given away your thunder, which means you’ve handed off your only real power as a writer.
You Don’t Give Away The Ending…
… so why give away the beginning? The beginning is just as critical a part as the ending. You wouldn’t want to blow your load and reveal the ending before it’s time, so don’t reveal the beginning before it’s time. Too often, we assume that a story is Point A to Point Z. It’s not. It starts at Point M, goes in sequence to Point R, then takes us back to Point A to Point C, then back to Point S, and so forth. A good story highlights the questions as they need to be asked. A good story posits many variables in the equation.
Two good examples: Watchmen, and Lost. Watchmen‘s present takes place in what you could imagine as the “third act” of the overall story of these twisted superheroes. They’re already past their prime. We start just as the story has already crested the top of the rollercoaster’s final hill. This isn’t to say we don’t come to understand the past of each character, or even their origin stories. We do. But those are empty variables at first; they are questions, not answers.
Lost starts with the plane crash and the crazy island. It does not begin with the origin of the island, nor does it start at the genesis of each character’s journey. This journey has been ongoing. The island is already in a very late phase. Lost continues to dole out the delicious black tar heroin through every episode, giving us just enough to come back for more. It’s a giant tit-tickle. A big ol’ clit-tease. As it should be.
Besides, Your Origin Story Is Boring
Origin stories are a dime a dozen. The “true” beginning of a character is rarely that interesting, because only so many potential origins exist. It’s like Life Itself — in a way, all life begins as a single-cell organism. At that point, the creature isn’t that fascinating to behold.
It’s what the creature does with the choices it makes, what it becomes from that origin point, that’s interesting. I’m a farm-boy from Pennsylvania. My origins are not unlike the origins of others. But what unfolds from that point is a Beautiful and Unique Snowflake, despite what Tyler Durden will tell you. That’s the case for everybody. Everybody’s journey, everybody’s choices–that’s the interesting part.
It’s why most would agree that the original Star Wars trilogy is a stronger series than the prequel trilogy. The prequel gives us stuff we already knew or suspected. It is more often a recitation of confirmed answers than a potent dose of driving questions. In my estimation, the real crux of the prequels are the third film, Revenge of the Sith, which is arguably where the story could’ve began. If you really take out the first two movies of the prequel, does it matter? Sure, the third film would see some rewriting, but most of what happens in the first two films is filler. It’s the way a fast food hamburger is mostly just garbage. The way a bag of potato chips is more “air” than “snack.” We are given the intimation of value; it is an illusion.
So, Spider-Man gets bitten by a radioactive spider. Who cares? We knew that already. Even if we didn’t, we could’ve made it up and been satisfied. “He got jizzed on by a space-faring race of silkworms, I think,” or, “I dunno, I guess he’s a mutant.” Doesn’t change what’s cool about the character, which is the choices he makes. Now, again, his origin story is ultimately a part of who he is, sarcasm aside; but why start there? Why is Spider-Man 2 a stronger story than the first? Because the first is that tired wankjob origin story, giving it to us because, presumably, fans demanded it.
Your Audience Is Wrong
Really. Don’t do what your audience wants. In fact, try to do the opposite. This is how suspense exists, and suspense is really just unanswered questions slapping you in the face. The audience thinks it knows what it wants, but it’s almost uniformly wrong. Give the audience what it wants, and it cannot be surprised. In a very real way, your job as a writer is to punish the audience. It isn’t nice to dole out too-little packets of crunchy crackrock. That’s not kind. But you’re a writer. It’s not your job to be nice; it’s your job to be interesting.
What Have We Learned?
You are not a writer. You are a drug dealer. You are not a dancing monkey.
You should always know a character’s origins. You should know the beginning. You just shouldn’t start there.
Every story is an equation. The variables in that equation are questions. Questions are good. Mystery is key.
Spider-Man is the product of alien silkworm semen.
I think that’s all. Aaaand, that’s the bell. Go to lunch. Will you go to lunch? Go to lunch.
* this is not even remotely true.