Hubby and I are big fans of Leverage. Timothy Hutton is marvelous. Christian Kane is…delicious. And really, it’s everything I love about The Count of Monte Cristo in an hour long episode in which the bad guys always get their comeuppance in the end. What’s not to like?
Last night we were watching the latest episode on DVR and it opened, as it often does, near the end of the action of the episode, in a dramatic moment that’s designed to make you go WHAT? Then it flashed back to previously to recount all the events up to that pivotal moment.
This is something that TV and movies do often, often to great effect. And I think it usually works in that media. But it’s something that rarely works in books and is usually seen as a cop out. I know I don’t like it when I read it.
So why does it work in a visual media and not in print?
Well, let’s start with the why it doesn’t work in print part of this question.
While it is important to open your book with a hook of some kind, something to snare a reader’s interest, opening with some pivotal, often life threatening moment is a real gamble. Why? Because we don’t know the characters yet. We don’t care about them. And you really can’t depend on human decency and sympathies to hook a reader because for all they know, this person you’ve got dangling off a cliff in scene one is going to plummet to their death and then we’ll be moving on and introducing the actual hero/ine of the story. There’s also a sense that the author couldn’t think of a more interesting way to introduce the characters, so they blow the load early by putting the end at the beginning and then telling the entire book in an essential flashback. It feels like cheating.
So what about TV and movies?
Well, depending on the movie, I often have the same problem that I do in books. If I don’t care about the character yet, then doing that end flash and starting earlier often feels like cheating. But not as bad as in books. Because that opening flash sets a tone of expectation. We know where the character is going to end up, and so we’re then primed to look for clues to how they end up there. Which can be a great way to misdirect the watcher and pull the rug out when you wind up there again because by the time you see everything that leads up to it, that same scene may mean something entirely different.
The place where I think this works best, though, is in TV. Why? Because in TV, you have a series about the same characters, which mean you have time to build a relationship with those characters. You grow to care about them. So when the episode opens with the hero standing over a dead body and a detective trying to arrest him for murder, you instantly think Well crap, Nate, how are you gonna get out of this one? You’re already emotionally invested in these characters, so you have more latitude.
What about you? Do you think this tactic works better in TV and movies than in books? Why or why not?