It’s a dangerous business, Frodo, going out your door. You step onto the road, and if you don’t keep your feet, there’s no knowing where you might be swept off to.
BILBO BAGGINS (Attr.)
Hello, and welcome to Hints, the newest miniseries to come out of Mr. Horne’s Book of Secrets.
Because let’s face it: writing is hard, and “advice” is poisonous. As a writer, you don’t want people telling you how to write YOUR story, but as someone who is just getting started, you wouldn’t mind if someone gave you a hint.
And that’s why we’re here.
“Hints: because you only need a little help.”
Let’s Get Started
Hint #1 is “Start Simple”, and the quote at the start of this post is a prime example.
Consider Tolkien’s works, for a moment:
Now, you may be thinking that Tolkien’s stories are extremely dense and complex, with centuries of lore woven into the narratives. And you would be correct.
However, you will also notice that Tolkien’s stories don’t begin that way. In fact, they all start out innocuously:
- The Hobbit begins with the protagonist getting a visit from strangers, then pressed into work for them as a burglar.
- The Lord of the Rings begins with a birthday party where the guest of honor surprises the audience by announcing he is leaving town forever.
In both cases, the story begins without a lot of frills and lace. It starts with an ordinary event (a visit from strangers or a birthday party) then introduces one tension-inducing element (the strangers want to hire their host in the capacity of a professional thief, the birthday party ends with an eternal goodbye). There is nothing terribly complicated about either of these setups.
And yes, I now The Silmarillion bucks this trend by being unfathomably complex, even in the first chapters. But then, there is a reason that The Silmarillion does not have the mass appeal that the other books do, and sells much fewer copies.
The “Start Simple” formula has such a high rate of success that it can carry a whole franchise on its own.
But, if I were to highlight one specific example that illustrates the importance of this tactic, I would not choose a book series, or a TV series, or any motion picture ever made. I would instead direct you to the realm of video games.
What Final Fantasy Teaches Us about Starting Simple
The Final Fantasy series is celebrating its 30th anniversary this year, but not everyone is happy with the direction the series has taken, particularly lately. Some people prefer the old battle mechanics. Others can’t accept how much the music has changed, ever since Nobuo Uematsu stepped down as the series’s exclusive composer.
But perhaps the loudest complaint is about how mangled the storylines have become. There is a certain quality found in the earlier entries that seems to be missing from the later ones. What is this quality? The simple start, of course.
Let’s examine the beginnings of a few games in the series, starting with the third entry:
Final Fantasy III
The game has a complex and nuanced story by the end of it, but the beginning is simple as can be:
- Some children fall down a hole and find a magic crystal.
It’s easy to get into, which is why so many people get drawn into it.
Final Fantasy IV
Another story that ends with a lot of complicated details, but begins with a simple premise:
- After a harsh demotion, a soldier is charged with delivering a gift to a nearby village.
No confusion here.
Final Fantasy V
Once again, we get a simple opening with a very low bar of entry for the inexperienced reader, or rather, player:
- The king is missing. His daughter gathers a group of misfit adventurers to go find him.
Everything so far has been straightforward. People love these games, and have loved them since childhood. And it is easy for even children to get into them, because they do not put up hurdles that people have to climb over.
But that trend ends here. As much I love the next entry in the series, and prefer it to all others, I have to admit that this is where the complexity problem began.
Final Fantasy VI
The story begins with a few plot points being fed to you all at once:
- Three soldiers riding magic-powered mechs are attacking a village.
- Because the village houses a magical creature called an “Esper”.
- Because espers were important during a 1000-years-gone war.
- Because that war was the last time that magic was in the world.
Granted, it’s not terribly complicated. And if future entries in the series had maintained just this level of complexity, everything would still be fine. However, the success of Final Fantasy VI emboldened it’s creators to go so far down the rabbit hole that they became lost, as evidenced in…
Final Fantasy VII
Which has a convoluted beginning, to put it lightly:
- A group of eco-terrorists attacks a power plant and rigs it to explode.
- Because the corporation that owns the power plant is actually a totalitarian state that oppresses the local populace.
- And because one of their operatives is a kind of special-forces operative who used to work for the evil corporation but now resents it.
- Because he is trying to impress his not-a-girlfriend.
- Because she doesn’t like that the evil corporation is destroying the environment.
Not the most streamlined opening, is it? And it circles around itself quite a bit, as well.
Yet even with these missteps, the series pressed on in its quest to complicate things.
Final Fantasy VIII
Get a load of this one:
- Two boys are fighting.
- Because they are both mercenaries in training and are rivals.
- Because there is a special organization in this world that trains such mercenaries from a young age, and they compel their trainees to store magical creatures inside their own bodies.
- Because there are also native magic users in this world, called sorceresses, and every time one of them rises to political power, the world gets thrown into war, so the mercenaries need to approximate the power of the sorceresses by bonding themselves to these magical creatures.
It’s really not more complicated than anything you would find in the earlier games—or rather, at the end of the earlier games. But as far as beginnings go, it’s more than a little esoteric.
Highs and Lows
I could give more examples. Final Fantasy IX and Final Fantasy X try to buck this trend by simplifying their starts. But by the time Final Fantasy XIII rolls around, the player gets bogged down in hundreds of pages of lore, even in the opening moments.
As for your own beginnings, I won’t give you any advice on what you’re doing wrong or specifically tell you how to make it better. I will however, point you toward the greatest stories—the ones that will always be remembered—and ask you to examine how they begin. How much background do they give you before plot actually starts to happen? And does that help them or hurt them?
Come to your own conclusions.
[This week’s tagline: “Where people come…to cheat.”]
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