Tuesday, February 15, 2011

(Don't!) Start at the Beginning-Part 1

Hey, everyone! I’m excited to be joining forces with the Nocturnal Nights gang. My (pen) name is J. Rose Allister, and on the 15th of each month I’ll be chatting about writing craft. As good things come in threes, I’ll be doing three-part series segments--hence my three little piggy graphic.

In honor of new beginnings here on NN, my first 3-part series will explore the beginning of a novel—and why you might not want to start your story there.

Part 1: In Media Res

Remember when stories started at the beginning? “Once Upon a Time…” If a tale could be likened to a winding road, the author set the reader’s feet on the edge of the map at the start of chapter one. Characters were introduced gradually, scenery and premise was intricately painted, and the whole “before” scenario was carefully constructed so that the aftermath of exciting events later was that much more of a contrast.

Not so much these days.

Many publishers want fiction that starts off in media res, which in Latin means “in the middle of things.” These markets are looking for work that sets the reader’s feet in the middle of the map. Characters start off on the run, and then things get wilder.

So how exactly does this translate onto page one? Here are a couple cool opening lines that demonstrate this “in the middle” concept:

The man in black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed.
–from THE GUNSLINGER by Stephen King (and my favorite opening line of all time)

I’d been waiting for the vampire for years when he walked into the bar.
–from DEAD UNTIL DARK by Charlaine Harris

Example 1 starts in the middle of a hot pursuit. The reader is off on a merry chase to catch up, and later learns the gunslinger’s quest has been a lengthy one. Example 2 dives right into a long-awaited moment for the main character—and raises more questions than it answers. Thumbs up.

Sounds simple, but starting in media res is no easy matter. The “middle” approach gets even dodgier when we’re talking romance, where the traditional formula involves meeting the characters, letting them meet, fall in love/lust/preferably both, and then throwing some curve balls at 'em before they get to Happily Ever After. How can that angle work with in media res?

In example 2 above, the vampire mentioned is about to become her love interest—when they meet on page 2. (Not chapter 2!) In my book KATA SUTRA, I open with the male lead getting aroused thinking about the “annoying” female student who winds up as his lover in fairly short order. SINFUL ELLA AND THE WOLF opens with the heroine standing naked in a window, being bathed by a male house servant while her eventual mate watches from outside.

Am I suggesting that all romances/novels MUST cut to the chase with characters already acquainted and banging it out by page 2? Certainly not. But romantic stories that fly fast to the juicy stuff (which can mean sexual chemistry and tension, not just hitting the sheets) is a popular sell with pubs and readers alike these days.

In parts 2 and 3, I’ll be talking about why the way we introduce our stories and characters to ourselves in the first draft is often not the best way to serve them up to the audience. Until then, I hope you’ve found the idea of in media res an interesting one to chew on. My question for you: What do you think of stories that leap in with a bang? Rarin' to go, or too much too soon?


Tabitha Blake said...

Loved this blog! That is so true. You know where the story begins but is that where you want to start it? Then you have to figure out that crucial starting point. Grrr! I hate the beginning of a story. That is my biggest weakness. Once I get past that I am fine. But I do think you need to start out with something interesting or the reader will get bored. It doesn't have to be action but it needs to be something that inthralls the reader in some way. You have to make them want to read more. If I start reading a book that starts out slow I start to wonder if the whole book will be slow and boring. I do give it a chance but if you don't have me hooked by chapter 3 then I am done. If it starts out with a bang I am hooked.

Brenda said...

LOVE The Gunsliger--the whole series!!! And yes, what a fab opening!!!!
Great post, and welcome to NN.

J.Rose Allister said...

Thank you, Brenda and Tabitha! So happy to be here. Hope this post starts me off with a bang, too! LOL

Jillian said...

Love this advice and am psyched that you used Latin!! I took 4 years of Latin and I dig it when I can see it being bandied about! LOL!

Great first post.

J.Rose Allister said...

LOL Happy to oblige, Jillian! Thanks for stopping by!