Columnist Michael Cassutt explains why Batman Begins worked—and Wolverine didn't

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Dec 14, 2012, 3:54 PM EST

"Endings of stories come easy. It's the beginnings, when anything is possible, that come hard."

So wrote Alexei Panshin in a 1971 novelette titled "How Can We Sink When We Can Fly?," in which a young SF writer struggles with a story about a happy future. He can visualize that setting; he just can't figure out how to get there from a depressing spring in 1970, much less where to kick off his character's journey.

Last column we examined sci-fi series and movie endings, which are tricky enough. But, let's be honest, once you've decided to slam your battlestar into the Cylon mothership or to kill Spock or to maneuver some 50-year-old nuclear bomb into the island temple, your options are limited.

They are nowhere near as great as they are when you started that script—or, for that matter, that piece for SCI FI Wire.

The beginning carries the added burden of hooking the audience—think of the narrative crawl at the opening of Star Wars, followed immediately by the starship pursuit.

There are several types you can consider. First up, appropriately enough, is the Genesis Option, where you start the story "In the beginning." The very popular novelist James Michener excelled at this in novels like The Source (1964), which, as I recall, started when the Earth was still molten. Kubrick and Clarke's 2001 kicks off far back in time, too.

A number of sci-fi works begin in laboratories, with the discovery that an object the size of a breadbox can send you through time. Some start with the realization that the new neighbor is vampire, or that there's suddenly a big alien ship taking position over the White House.

The Genesis Option doesn't have to deal with the sci-fi gizmo ... it works just as well when it focuses on people. Look at the first half of the first season of Heroes, which introduced one new and interesting character after another.

Then there's the Big Bang Option. The famed SF novelist (The Demolished Man), short story writer ("Fondly Fahrenheit") and comic-book (Green Lantern) scripter Alfred Bester used to advise writers, "Start with an earthquake, then build to a climax." In other words, hit your audience with action, the more immediately mysterious the better.

A successful example of Bester's method was the pilot for Lost—bam, a man wakes up in a jungle. He's wearing a suit, he's stunned, he's vaguely aware of noise nearby. ... Oh, it's a plane crash, and he's a survivor, and we are off.

Battlestar Galactica had its Cylon attack.

A variation on the Big Bang Option is the Big Reveal, where your setting or character seems to be mainstream or historical, then, whoops, you realize you're 500 years in the future on another planet.

The opposite of the Big Bang, to borrow further from astrophysics, is the Steady State Option. Think of E.T., which starts with a strange little creature lost in the big woods. Or Panshin's long-ago story, which starts with a struggling sci-fi writer meeting two colleagues at a rural bus depot.

Beginnings are doubly difficult when you write a television pilot. There is an eternal battle—on the scale of the battling gods of Asgard—between the writer's desire to tell a story as a novelist would and the network's need for stand-alone episodes that are accessible to any new viewer. Between the Big Bang or Genesis on the one hand, and some version of the Steady State on the other.

To take this week's unavoidable subject, the original Star Trek television series didn't begin with Kirk, Spock and McCoy meeting in the shuttle up to the Enterprise. ... it started with what execs call a "center cut" episode, an adventure that took place well into the crew's "five year mission". Only now, 40-odd years later, are we getting the origin, or some version of same? (Is it too late to say spoiler alert? Have any of you not seen the movie? Go now. I'll be here when you get back.)

The motivation to do a center-cut opening is reasonable, from a business standpoint. New viewers can catch up immediately. And for a mainstream concept like C.S.I., that works fine. But Lost would have been, well, lost with that approach. Even a sci-fi procedural like Fringe, set here and now, requires some kind of serialized introduction.

The reality is, if you do start your movie, your series, your comic book, with a center-cut episode, in success, your audience will demand an origin story.

And there have been some great ones. Batman Begins. The Terminator sequels.

But there is a risk, too.

I enjoyed the first two X-Men movies, but Origins: Wolverine—for all its undeniable film-making skill on display, not to mention the presence of Hugh Jackman—left me cold. It skimped over what would have been an equally interesting "origin" story—Logan and Victor as young orphan mutants struggling to survive in 19th-century Canada—in favor of the more predictable exploration of how Wolverine got so powerful, yet so memory-challenged that he became the character we met in the movie. There weren't enough surprises to justify the journey.

These options, of course, are merely tools, methods you consider as you face the blank screen. It is still the material—the idea—the character that ultimately guides the choice.

It's just so difficult. You're creating a whole world that your characters inhabit. You have to fight the urge to toss a steaming hunk of exposition onto the page ("This takes place a hundred years from now. A giant solar storm has scorched the face of the earth. Surviving humans live in caves") and find just the right moment or image to bring your hero or heroine onstage.

In this example, the solar storm is years in the past. So scratch the Genesis Option.

Your audience doesn't come to the theater or turn on the TV without some sort of preparation, so you're not going to get much impact from a Big Reveal, where you might see your hero dressed like a historical aboriginal hunter for several moments, only going wide at the right instant to see the shattered skyline of Dallas-Fort Worth behind him.

You choose Steady State ... following your hero into an ordinary day, possibly on a hunt—

Until something changes in his world. He's attacked by a beast that should not exist. .... He discovers a crashed alien spaceship. ... He is almost knocked over by the arrival of a time traveler from 1971.

The only real, unbreakable rule is to begin a sci-fi story when a new element is introduced to the character's world.

A challenge? Of course. Sci-fi beginnings are more challenging than those of other genres. It's what makes writing them fun. It's why we're in line for Wolverine and Star Trek.

Michael Cassutt has written novels and short stories as well as teleplays for such sci-fi or fantasy series as The Twilight Zone, Max Headroom, Eerie, Indiana and The Dead Zone. He also teaches TV writing at USC's School of Cinematic Arts.