Start the Damned Thing Already, Just Not There

Let’s talk about The Sound of Music for a minute.  Maria is, without a doubt, the most decorated sing-off opponent the Nazis have ever faced.  She also had an engaged naval captain thinking naughty thoughts about somebody who belonged to a convent, so she had that going for her.  (I guess.)

But when it comes to advice about getting the ball rolling, I think Maria might have taken one too many spins around the top of that hill.

“Let’s start at the beginning, a very good place to start.”

When it comes to storytelling, if you’re starting at the beginning, you’re probably doing it wrong.

There’s a term in writing known as “in medias res,” which means “into the middle of things.”  I like to think of this approach as parachuting a reader into a situation already in progress.

I’ve heard discussions about stories that introduce characters first thing in the morning as the protagonist is either waking up or getting ready for their day and that this somehow represents the character’s birth to the reader.  In my opinion, it sounds like a lousy way to start.

I think it’s better if a reader feels like they’ve stumbled upon a character who’s already engaged in some other pursuit.  This way feels more natural to me.  Like in life, your reader should be introduced to fully-formed people, and their character will be revealed through actions, speech, and (when given the benefits of fiction) thoughts.  You don’t typically learn the backstory of everyone you meet in the real world.  You have to put your time in, stick around for a while, and give people the chance to open up a little.  I don’t see any reason to change the rules just because you’re dealing with fictional people.

Now you might be saying to yourself, this sounds great at the beginning of a story, but once things really start heating up, you can’t just drop your reader into the middle of the action anymore.  To that, I would say good story pacing is as much about what you leave out as what makes it onto the page.

I have a chapter in my current work in progress that ends with the protagonist getting mugged in his office apartment.  Does the next scene start immediately following the attack?  Nope.  I pick up the action a day and a half later.  We’re on to new events, new adventures, and I can sprinkle in any important details a reader might have missed in the time gap.  I’ve noticed that most of the times when I’m struggling with how to begin a chapter it’s because I’ve started too early in the action.

I know there are some who would argue the benefit of all this exposition and backstory.  If you feel the need to write those things, do it.  These set pieces certainly have value for you as an author in that the more you understand about your character and setting, the more informed your story decisions will be.  Just don’t be afraid to cut them from your final manuscript.

Beware of anything that sounds long and explanatory.  If it doesn’t maintain the forward momentum of your story, it’s probably just you on a hillside, spinning in circles.  And that path is fraught with nuns and Nazis.

Larry Jenkins is an aspiring Word Pimp. Has laptop, will travel. Let's make this happen, people.

1 Comment

  • Ted Boone says:

    I’m a big fan of in media reas, but in my recent zero draft I was actually accused of doing it too often! I guess switching things up every once in a while to give the reader a breather might be a good thing.

    …nah :)

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