Thursday, 21 February 2013

Starting A Story In The Middle

Starting a story in the middle of action is fine if that’s the kind of story you’re telling. Generally, that'd probably be something in the adventure/thriller genre. But not all stories suit the kind of opening where assassins are chasing a monkey over the rooftops of Buenos Aires (although I have no doubt that book would be a huge hit).

And even if you are writing in that genre, you might prefer to build up to those kind of scenes. Having someone hanging from a twelfth storey window ledge can feel very hackneyed. We don’t know the character, we don’t know why he’s up there, and frankly, we don’t care. It’s not always enough to just put some random person in peril.

A high tempo opening scene might not be right for your story and it quite often reads like an attempt by the writer to inject the story with drama it hasn’t really earned and can feel contrived.

But an energetic set-piece out of an action movie isn’t the only way to make the reader feel they’re in the middle of something interesting. Another way a story can benefit from starting in the middle is to start in the middle of emotion.

Unless a character is a newly produced replicant, chances are they will enter your first scene in a particular mood. You can use that mood to pull in the reader. It doesn’t really matter what that mood is, as long as it isn’t neutral.

Often, because the story starts in normal mode, with weird stuff to happen later, the main character is fairly relaxed. They may have certain issues to deal with, but they’re dealing with them. While that’s perfectly plausible and realistic, it’s also quite dull to read.

Just because they aren’t running for their life, doesn’t mean they should just be treading water.

An easy way to lift them out of that kind of flat introduction is to have them already emotionally affected by something. It doesn’t have to be a big emotion, they don’t have to be angry and shouting, it can be sad, vengeful, jealous, whatever. It depends on their personality and what situation they’re in, that is to say it helps if you choose their emotional state to reflect the type of person they are, and then express that emotion in a character specific way.

It’s also worth bearing in mind that how you show the emotional state to the reader makes a difference. Literally showing the emotion, i.e. tears on the face of a sad person, spittle flying out of the mouth of an angry person and so on, isn’t very engaging. It’s just vivid description (nothing wrong with that, just not useful for our purposes here).

What works much more effectively is to show emotion through behaviour. What are they doing because of the emotions they’re experiencing? Having them sitting there thinking about stuff (which emotionally wrought people often do) is not going to help you get the reader caught up in the start of the story.

And just because this technique can catch a reader’s attention doesn’t mean it will without a little creativity on your part. A guy with a gun is scary in real life, in fiction it’s any crappy TV show.

A direct cause and effect (he says he’s been cheating on her, she bursts into tears) doesn’t offer much in the way of intrigue.

If a policeman knocks on  a woman’s door and tells her they’ve found her husband murdered and she punches the air and whoops with joy, that’s a bit more attention grabbing.

And it makes for a more dynamic scene if the character’s emotions interfere with what she needs to do. If the husband tells the wife he’s leaving her at a wedding where she’s supposed to give a speech on the power of love, you can get a lot of mileage out of how she reacts.

You can make this technique work for just about any emotion, but it’s important to avoid anything that’s along the lines of stunned, traumatised, bored, shy, icy, or any other emotion which is expressed through non-action. Either that or find an active way to express it. Heart-broken people do spend a lot of time in bed, but they also set fire to their ex-lover’s car.

Obviously, those “leave me alone” emotions exist and may be relevant to characters in your story, but my point is specific to openings and using emotions to hook readers. “Crawl into a hole” emotions won’t serve you there so don’t use them.

Right, I'm off to finish my new Argentinian spy thriller Orangutango!
If you found this post useful, please give it a retweet. Cheers.


Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

That will be a hit, Moody!
My last book the main character started off annoyed. Which was fun, because he got to take it out on someone else.

mooderino said...

@Alex - simian spy stories are seriously under-represented in today's marketplace.

CBame13 said...

I would read Orangutango, no doubt! This post also gave me an idea for how to change my intro (to a less cliched opener).

Author R. Mac Wheeler said...

Excellent stuff here.

One thing that always irritates me with how-tos/writing rules, is the writer leaves out that critical piece...what is the genre...what is the tone necessary for the story.


mooderino said...

@CBame - Keep an eye out for the sequel "Dr Bonobo"

@Mac - Most how-to books have that issue. The need to make information seem universal means they have to fudge the fact different types of stories require different techniques. So they end up trying to convince people every book should be written like an airport thriller, because that's what sells easiest.

Al Diaz said...

Through the gold in all these words of advice, I must say Orangutango already gave me a whole scene in less than 10 minutes. That's really thought provoking.

mooderino said...

@Al Diaz - And then there's my erotic drama, "50 Bunches of Yellow".

Rachna Chhabria said...

The kind of opening you mentioned will be a surefire hit Moody. Sadly for me my MG book does not start in the middle, it works its way toward it :(

mooderino said...

@Rachna - as long as it's working it's way towards something I'm sure it'll be fine.

Misha Gerrick said...

Hi Mood,

Just dropping by to congratulate you and let you know that you've been nominated Best Giver of Writing Advice for February's Paying Forward Awards. Congrats!


Nate Wilson said...

Exactly. Starting with action for action's sake leaves me uninterested every time. Give me emotion, damn it!

Also, give me the Orangutango sequel The Gorilla from Ipanema.

Unknown said...

Another way a story can benefit from starting in the middle is to start in the middle of emotion.--- totally agree. Less hackneyed, and the reader is invested rightaway.

Unknown said...

Articles like this are why you've been nominated for best writing advice. Love it.

mooderino said...

@Misha - Thanks very much!

@Nate - On it!

@Damyanti - A lot more options for the kind of scene, too.

@ML - Cheers.

Lydia Kang said...

That would be a runaway hit amongst all primates.

mooderino said...

@Lydia - Whole new meaning to Amazon bestseller.

Stephanie Allen said...

I feel like the advice "start in the middle of action" tends to get misconstrued. Action doesn't have to mean chasing assassins across rooftops, or whatever; I feel like it can be as simple as the character reacting emotionally to something. I think the key thing is, something needs to change - or at least, those are my favorite openings.

mooderino said...

@Stephanie - I'd agree with that, but that's generally how it's taken (and why it's resisted). Starting the story without context or explanation requires something of note to be happening to catch the reader's attention, and the easiest way to do that is to have a character in peril, but that certainly isn't the only way.

Michael Offutt, Phantom Reader said...

The high fantasy story I wrote starts in the middle of everything. I've queried it to one agent who hasn't gotten back to me about it yet. I've also sent it in to Harper Voyager and heard nothing (that was back in October). Who knows, HV may get around to thinking it's something they want. If so, then I can definitely say "starting in the middle is the way to go!"

mooderino said...

@Michael - I think adventure/thriller type stories are most suited to that kind of opening. Fitting the audience's expectations is a big part of it too.

Rusty Carl said...

Anyone besides me recall that short lived show where Chimps would reenact scenes from hit movies? I seem to recall the Chimp version of Braveheart to be very moving.

I think starting at the most interesting point is what everyone's goal is, or at least at the most interesting point that can be reasonably expected to serve as a beginning. I think action works better in movies than it does in books for an opening. So I'm right there with you.

You know, as much as I tend to agree with these posts of yours, you'd think I'd write much more compelling fiction. Go figure.

mooderino said...

@Rusty - My question would be did you do a lot of drugs in the 90s? I'm pretty sure I would remember Mel Gibbon in Braveheart.

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