But then I thought, what if there is no right answer? What if there is no such thing as the ‘right way’ to start a story?
That’s the premise of this post, and you’ll notice that in a desperate stab at wit, I began it in media res or, as you non-ancient Romans would say, ‘in the midst of things.’ According to Wikipedia (don’t judge) it’s a technique essentially as old as literature itself, featuring in such classical classics as the Iliad and the Odyssey. 13 years Before Christ, Horace wrote that “nor does he [the successful writer] begin the Trojan War from the egg, but always he hurries to the action, and snatches the listener into the middle of things.”
Due to the fact that such a concise description of the delicate art of jumping in at the deep end hasn’t been equaled in two millennia, I’m going to confine this article to a snapshot of the pros and cons of ‘snatching the listener into the middle of things.’ Is there a right way to start every story, and what pitfalls should you be on the lookout for?
There’s no doubt that it’s a popular technique. Whether in our books or on the big screen, I’d go so far as to say the majority of stories plunge you into the action right from the off. There’s no better way to snag an audience than by setting up a ‘you’re in for one hell of a ride’ moment. In many ways it’s become downright expected – if my James Bond film doesn’t start with some chase/shootout/assassination then it just wouldn’t be James Bond!
But this definitely doesn’t mean that in media res is the be-all-and-end-all of starting off your story, regardless of its length, genre or theme. I’d say the number one rule when it comes to the opening is be true to what you’re writing. Bond doesn’t open in the way it does because the writer/director has a fetish for macho action scenes (though he might), it starts like that because it wants to give the audience an all-in-one taster of what’s coming. In the same way, you shouldn’t feel the need to start a thoughtful, slow-buildup literary thriller with big explosions or raging arguments or riots in the street. Nor should it be imagined that in media res has to actually throw the reader into physical action. Dialogue is also a prime candidate, but really it could be any activity imaginable.
And the downsides of all this? Well, there are a few. Firstly, there’s a danger the reader could be easily confused by a sudden explosion of activity right on page one. It’s happened to all of us. Of course it should be written in such a way that by page 3 the reader has established a fair grasp of what the heck’s going on, but it’s something to watch out for.
Likewise, there’s no guarantee that as the writer you’ve chosen the correct point to jump in at. There could be something far more important plot or character-wise that takes place before all the action you’re involving the reader in, and you’ve weakened your story by leaving it out. You have to conduct some analysis on when you’re kicking things off, and why, before you just leap in.
As for personal preferences (because let’s be honest, it’s writing, everything is ultra-subjective) I tend to endorse the use of in media res, but that’s only because much of my writing is action-oriented and pulpy. Of course my kickass werewolf story starts with a shootout. But, at the other end of the spectrum, my political thriller set in 1630s Edinburgh opens with a long description of the sights, sounds and smells of the town itself as the protagonist traverses her way through it. I felt scene-setting and a gentle, descriptive opening was more in keeping with the story I was trying to tell, and really played to the strengths of the historical fiction genre. Ultimately, as I’ve said, you have to be true to your story. Who picks up a book and literally starts reading from the middle? If you do want to start things partway then it has to serve a purpose.
Whether you go with in media res or not, we should all give the beginning of our stories a lot of attention. Like, a painfully, mind-numbingly large amount. An agent will know if a story’s worth investing in before he hits page 5. So no pressure, right?