How “Friendship is Magic, Part 1” hooked us all: The Five-Sentences Hypothesis of narrative conflict

In keeping with last post‘s theme of understanding what FiM does well, let’s go back to the very beginning: “Friendship is Magic, Part 1”.

"Back where you began."

“Back where you began.”

Four years later, it’s easy to under-appreciate what this episode accomplished; it managed to overcome the stigma of My Little Pony.

MLP is still frowned upon in certain circles, but it’s at least acknowledged as “a thing”, even if it’s a weird thing.  Among internet culture, it’s become nearly ubiquitous.

But back in October 2010, the situation was very different.  Among the 4Channers who would soon become the first Bronies, My Little Pony wasn’t a brand — it was a punchline.  Most of them just read an article about the coming doom of creator-driven content in the animation industry, then idly clicked a Youtube link to see what all the ruckus was about.  They probably expected to laugh at how bad the show was, then close the vid after 5 minutes and go on their way.

Four seasons and two movies later, they’re still watching.  So clearly, the pilot must have done several things right.  Let’s see if we can figure out what those things are, starting with the introduction:

Narrator: Once upon a time, in the magical land of Equestria, there were two regal sisters who ruled together, and created harmony for all the land. To do this, the eldest used her unicorn powers to raise the sun at dawn.  The younger brought out the moon to begin the night. Thus, the two sisters maintained balance for their kingdom and their subjects, all the different types of ponies. But as time went on, the younger sister became resentful.

That bolded sentence is where the intro started to grab me.  Before then, it was looking like the usual boring My Little Pony mush (albeit with some great animation to back it up).  But the conflict is where the story gets interesting, so it’s vital to introduce conflict early.

And I mean really early.  I’m going to propose a hypothesis:

Ninety percent of successful stories introduce a conflict within the first 5 sentences.*

"Then, everything changed when The Fire Nation attacked."

“Then, everything changed when The Fire Nation attacked.”

This may seem odd.  Intuitively, we might expect that a story should take some time to establish its setting, characters, mood, etc. before jumping into the conflict (in fact, that’s what I tried to do in my one brief foray into fanfiction, before I knew better).  But that’s not generally what we see.  In fact, some of the most successful stories introduce a conflict in the very first sentence.  Consider the start of one of the most iconic stories of our time:

A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away…it is a period of civil war.
-A New Hope

Or, if Star Wars isn’t enduring enough for you, consider (arguably) the most famous work of English literature in existence:

Two households, both alike in dignity,
In fair Verona, where we lay our scene,
From ancient grudge break to new mutiny,
Where civil blood makes civil hands unclean.
-Romeo and Juliet

In one sentence, Shakespeare sets enough exposition for the audience to understand the conflict, introduces the conflict, and makes it fit meter and rhyme.  This is why we still force teenagers to read this guy’s work four centuries later.

But of course, we aren’t all Shakespeare — sometimes, introducing a major conflict that early is untenable.  This is particularly true if the story is set in a fantasy world.  We have to tell the audience about the world, rules, stakes, etc. before the introduction of the conflict can really be effective.  We want to let the audience get invested in the characters before we threaten them with whatever crisis forms the backbone of the story.  How can we do that effectively in only five sentences?

Note the exact wording of the hypothesis: “a conflict”.  Not necessarily the central conflict.  That initial conflict can be resolved quickly — the important thing is that it hooks the audience and gets them invested in the story.  Indeed, the conflict of FiM‘s intro gets resolved (to some extent, anyway) before the introduction even finishes, with Celestia banishing Nightmare Moon.  The important thing is that it got us all interested enough to keep watching and see what happened.

Of course, some great stories don’t seem to introduce an early conflict at all.  Let’s consider the godfather of Fantasy himself as an example:

In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit. Not a nasty, dirty, wet hole, filled with the ends of worms and an oozy smell, nor yet a dry, bare, sandy hole with nothing in it to sit down on or to eat: it was a hobbit-hole, and that means comfort.

It had a perfectly round door like a porthole, painted green, with a shiny yellow brass knob in the exact middle.  The door opened on to a tube-shaped hall like a tunnel: a very comfortable tunnel without smoke, with panelled walls, and floors tiled and carpeted, provided with polished chairs, and lots and lots of pegs for hats and coats — the hobbit was fond of visitors.

-The Hobbit, J. R. R. Tolkien

Not exactly a gripping opening.

So, The Hobbit seems to be a counter-example to my hypothesis.  But I’d argue that it isn’t, and here’s why:

Try to put yourself into the position of Tolkien’s initial audience, back in 1937; you’ve never heard of The Lord of the Rings, Middle-Earth, Gondor, The Shire, or any of it.  In fact, many pillars of modern fantasy are unknown to you — Dungeons and Dragons won’t even exist for another 40 years or so.

Now, what’s the first thing you think upon reading that first sentence?

“What the hell is a hobbit?”

And that is itself a form of conflict — Tolkien gives the audience enough information for questions to arise, but he doesn’t immediately answer those questions.  He gives the audience some information — just enough to keep them curious and interested.  This is basically the principle behind in medias res.  So The Hobbit does introduce a conflict early on (in the first sentence, in fact), but in the audience’s minds, rather than in-universe.  In this sense, the opening is a victim of its own success; it’s less effective now that the world is so well-known.

“Friendship is Magic, Part 1” uses a similar tactic.  Once the story of Nightmare Moon’s banishment ends, we need a new conflict to keep the audience interested so they’ll stick around through the introduction.  The episode accomplishes this in 2 ways:

First, it introduces an in-universe conflict in the form of an unresolved question:

Twilight: Hmm… Elements of Harmony. I know I’ve heard of those before… but where?

Exit OPENING MONOLOGUE, enter PURPLE SMART.

Exit OPENING EXPOSITION; enter PURPLE SMART.

Just like the story of Nightmare Moon, this conflict gets resolved fairly quickly — after a quick trip to the library and some help from Spike, Twilight has all the info she needs (as far as she knows, anyway).  But we don’t need the conflict to be major — we just need it to be interesting enough that the audience will sit through the theme song.

The second conflict, as in The Hobbit, isn’t an in-universe conflict at all.  Instead, it’s the unresolved questions the audience are asking: “Who is this creature?  What is she doing here?  Why is she reading about this ancient battle?  Why do I feel such a strong urge to hug her?”  We don’t even learn Twilight’s name until after the theme song ends.

So conflict should enter the story right away, but that doesn’t mean we need to forgo exposition or pacing.  Just be sure to throw in some mini-conflicts along the way — even if they’re just in the audience’s minds.


*I’ve checked this on several works, using a very rigorous process that I call “think of as many popular and/or enduring works of fiction as I can, then watch/read the intro if I can be arsed.”  Of the 14 other works I’ve checked, 12 of them fit the model:

-Avatar: the Last Airbender
-Mass Effect
-Beowulf (the original epic, not the 2007 movie)
-Firefly
-The Adventures of Tom Sawyer
-The Call of Cthulhu (if you don’t count the opening quote)
-RWBY
-Alice in Wonderland
-Fallout Equestria
-The Iliad
-Welcome to Night Vale
-Pride and Prejudice (this one’s a little ambivalent, but I think it still applies)

So far, I’ve only found 2 clear counter-examples:
Harry PotterSorcerer’s Stone doesn’t introduce a conflict until the 7th sentence.
The Nightmare Before Christmas.  The movie opens with a song, which complicates the situation.


Want to know when I’ve thought of something new and interesting about the narrative techniques of My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic?  Yeah, neither would I, probably.  But just in case, you can follow The Pony’s Litterbox on Tumblr, or follow me on Twitter.

Advertisements
This entry was posted in Analysis, Storytelling technique and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to How “Friendship is Magic, Part 1” hooked us all: The Five-Sentences Hypothesis of narrative conflict

  1. A fantastic analysis. To get an audience past that opening theme was no easy feat!

  2. I’ll definitely have to share this out to my writing group.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s