The Ten-Second Version

I’m currently working on a spy thriller, and near the beginning of the film, our protagonist is presented to a team of spies as their new recruit.

In the first draft, I then launched into a series of tests and trials for her to prove herself worthy of joining the team, and to impress the team leader – establishing the primary relationship of the story, between new recruit and mentor-antagonist.

But that sequence never felt right. It slowed down the narrative. It felt obvious, predictable. It just wasn’t working.

And then this morning, I realized – I need the Ten-Second Version of that sequence. I need the one test, the one question to answer, that will convince the team leader that the protagonist is the only person for the job.

Why? Because near the beginning of a story, the dramatic process is not important – the decisions are.

Once your story is well underway, and especially in the third act, dramatic process – how the protagonist wins – becomes very important indeed. The audience derives enormous pleasure from seeing the protagonist learn from their mistakes, enlist the help of their allies, exploit the villain’s weaknesses and grow into their own power as a hero – and all of that needs to happen through specific, detailed actions.

But early on in the story, the dramatic process doesn’t have all of this emotional weight, and we can take shortcuts to get to the good stuff, especially when it’s near inevitable. (After all, if my protagonist doesn’t get onto the team, there’ll be no story, so it’s not like I can play this for suspense!)

All I need is one good reason why the team leader would accept her, one brief moment of proving herself – and the justification for that decision will play out through the rest of the movie.

So next time you’re struggling with motivating a decision in the first act of your story, consider – do you actually need the Ten-Second Version?

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5 comments on “The Ten-Second Version

  1. Tony Jones says:

    At the beginning of TV series “Kung Fu”, all the prospective trainees are invited to a meal with the grandmaster.
    They all begin eating, except for Grasshopper, who explains that it is good manners to wait for one’s elders to eat first.
    All the others are dismissed, Grasshopper’s good manners are rewarded, and the plot can get down to the martial arts training (and hero’s journey) that we want to see, without all the tedious whittling them down.

  2. This might not be pertinent to what you’re working on, however, something tripped me up:

    If I understand this, your protagonist is a new recruit and THEN must prove herself. That seems backwards. Granted, you can tell anything in anyway you want, but it seems to me that a team of spies would recruit someone who has already proved themselves, or is IN THE ACT OF PROVING THEMSELF.

    Now, “presented to a team of spies” seems to suggest maybe someone else (non-spy) is doing the presenting, so it might render this moot in some way. However, from your first two paragraphs, I couldn’t help thinking, “this should begin with the spies literally spying on the recruit, as she’s proving herself.” But, maybe that’s the obvious, boring route. I don’t know. I just thought it was worth a moment to point out that I inferred the order of operations – being recruited, then proving oneself – to be out of order. I’ve babbled enough now. Good luck and ignore me if what I said makes no sense for what you’re writing.

  3. Let me see if I can simplify what I was just trying to say:

    If someone’s getting recruited, then they’ve already proven themself in some capacity; why else would they be getting recruited?

  4. I think you’ve pinpointed your issue – this thing slows down the narrative, felt obvious, predictable, etc… You’ve also found one possible approach – the ten second version. I have another suggestion, especially now that I know your issue is one of trust within a spy thriller.

    Stack Functions. Permaculture teaches you can’t introduce a new thing into a system unless it performs multiple tasks/functions – stacking functions. Instead of a scene that only performs the function of the character proving herself trustworthy, insert that into the drama of the natural storyline. For example, she’s doing prep, set-up stuff with one of the spies, who only gives her minimal information (because of uncertainty of trust). Naturally, this lack of information negatively affects her ability to perform to the best of her abilities, then, dangerous drama ensues. At which time, your recruit must prove herself simply to escape the situation, which the other spy observes.

    Of course, this then leads to the two of them having words about trust and working together…. etc, etc… but this is also coming from someone who sees trust as a huge player in a spy thriller… In my mind, the trust issue will never go away. Granted, you can have some spies trust her, but you can also have that last holdout (which wouldn’t get resolved until the final dramatic moments, if at all). Like I said, when you say spy thriller and trust, I see this as one, continuous interwoven aspect. I mean, to me, trust is the essential question for spies. They’re spies, who can they trust? And how do they EVER get to the point where they can actually fully trust someone? Can they even get there? I mean, isn’t it dangerous to trust someone in that line of work?

    Okay, that’s just me. I see it as a trust story. And, maybe it’s something else altogether. Perhaps trust is just one of those functions that needs stacking.

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