Wednesday, June 27, 2012

In media res...

Received wisdom tells us to begin a story in the middle--the middle of the action, that is.  We're told to 'hook' the reader on page one, from the first sentence if possible.  Keep things moving, keep the action going, keep the reader on the edge of their seat.  It's a lot to expect from the beginning of the story, and woe to the author who doesn't do this.  There are plenty of books out there, and readers have an ever-shrinking attention span--they won't hesitate to drop your book and pick up another, one that presumably holds their interest.


What about those books that don't start right in the middle?  What about the books that take you on a journey, building your relationship with the characters before plopping them into the middle of the action?  I'm not saying I want to read the entire biography of a character before they do something, but as a reader, I don't mind a little build-up to the action.

One of my favorite books is Outlander by Diana Gabaldon.  If you haven't read it, go get a copy.  I'll wait. <g>

By today's standards, Outlander starts off pretty slowly.  It takes at least 50 pages for Claire to travel back in time and meet Jamie.  My guess is that an agent or editor today would want to trim that introduction, have the book begin right as Claire makes her trip.  But all of the stuff that happens before she goes back tells the reader who she is, makes the reader care about her so that we want to know what happens to her.  The details and back story also serve to make Claire a more fully realized character, one who comes alive off the page.

Maybe I'm being naive, but rather than worrying about opening with an explosion or car chase, I try to open with something that makes the reader want to turn the page.  That doesn't have to be a big, showy event, and in fact, I usually have several pages of character introduction and scene setting before getting things off the ground.

Fellow authors, how do you approach beginnings?  Do you like to set the scene, or do you start things off with a bang?  Readers, what about you?  How much time are you willing to spend on a book that doesn't get to the point right away?


  1. Good but tough questions, Lara.

    I try to start in an interesting place and one that really depends on the story and the characters. Not very helpful, is it? :)

    As a reader, I tend to give things a chance if it seems interesting enough. The ending make or break a book or even a movie for me, so I tend to have a lot of patience. I have less patience with grammar punctuation and spelling, so in the case of fan fiction or a self-pubbed book, I'll toss it across the room faster for those transgressions than for a slow start.

    I've been trying to read H.G. Bissinger's Friday Night Lights--the book that spawned the movie that spawned the TV show... I got just over halfway through before I moved on to more exciting reading. I hope to go back to it at some point, except I know how it ends. :)

    1. Hi Jen,

      I, too, like to give a book a chance. Most of the time, it's worth it. Sometimes it's not. It's a difficult balance to strike though--you want to start with something interesting, but you still need to make the reader care about these characters.

  2. Lara,
    You know I love OUTLANDER! My hubby just read it and found the opening slow. If I hadn't made him read until Claire traveled, he would have put it down. He's glad he didn't. ; )
    It's a challenge to know where to start. The characters must hook the reader some way. Finding the right balance in action and character reveal is a part of writing.

    1. Exactly! [g]

      Glad your hubby liked Outlander! It didn't hook my Dad, but I'll give him the benefit of the doubt, since he was ill when he read it.

  3. Hi, Lara! And thanks for the nice words!

    The other (main) reason for the beginning of OUTLANDER is that Claire _had_ to have a reason for trying to return from the past--and if we hadn't seen the shape of her life (and known Frank to some extent), her conflict over choosing Jamie would be...well, it wouldn't. Other significant parts of the plot wouldn't work, either, if she wasn't trying to get back--ergo, she had to have something to get back _to_.

    Another consideration is that I used to write comic books for Walt Disney. And one thing I learned from that was that the conflict/situation you set up in the beginning panel had to be resolved in the final one. So...Claire's trying to re-establish a fractured relationship and thinking of starting a family in the beginning--and at the end, she's succeeded in mending a fractured relationship, and she's pregnant. The pieces of the story need to be connected, is the main thing.


    1. Hi Diana,

      Thanks so much for your comment! I appreciate you stopping by and giving more insight into the beginning of Outlander.

      Thanks also for your tip re: comic books and connecting the pieces of the story. I know there are no 'rules' to writing, but it's amazing how good writing shares common traits, regardless of the genre or form it takes. [g]


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