Before it fell apart towards the end, the recent reboot of “Battlestar Galactica” was one of the most compelling shows on TV. Like “Lost” it was a great example of epic storytelling, keeping people on the hook for years as it parceled out tiny bits of the larger picture every week. How did it get people to keep coming back? By managing expectations very carefully. The creators knew that they had to make certain promises to their audience and those promises were spelled out every week in the show’s intro.
The standardized intro of “Battlestar Galactica” was always broken into two chunks. The first half ran before the teaser, and the second half ran after the teaser. The first half talked about the villains, and the second half talked about the heroes. This was no accident, and it nicely encapsulate a fundamental rule of storytelling.
Every episode, before that week’s story began, before they even did the episode teaser, the first half of the intro re-established who the bad guys were. It ended with big words printed right on the screen: “AND THEY HAVE A PLAN”. Note that they didn’t say what that plan was (and for most of the series, we didn’t know), but the writers were explicitly saying, “yes, trust us, the bad guys do have a plan and all will eventually be revealed.”
Then each episode would have the teaser, where they begin that episode’s story. Once the teaser builds to an exciting point, the music swells and we suddenly cut to the second half of the intro. This part summarizes who the heroes are and what they’ve gone through, then ends with their goal in big letters on the screen: “IN SEARCH OF A HOME... CALLED EARTH”.
The implicit point is that the villains, not the heroes, drive the action. The quickest way to get us to care about the story is to establish that the villains have a goal. After that, they then give us some actual story to get us sucked in before they reveal that, oh yeah, the heroes also have a goal, but it’s less important. On any given week, if the villains attack, the heroes will forget about their own goal and just defend themselves. They only actually search for Earth on those weeks in which they think they’ve shaken the villains off their tail for a while.
This rule applies to movies as well. The villain motivates the action. John McClaine wants to reconcile with his wife, but Hans Gruber wants to rob a bank, so Hans gets to control the story. If John still wants to win his wife back, he has to do it on Hans’s time. I had been taught this rule before, but watching the opening of BSG really drove it home for me every week.