Three Ways to Start Your Story10 May 2019
This post was totally not thrown together at the last minute. Because I’m on top of all the things.
Yeah, yeah. Keep telling yourself that, Joyce.
Ignore that voice in the corner. This month, I’m going to talk about story openings – the three main types and my thoughts on each.
In Media Res
Anybody who’s been in writing circles for a significant amount of time has heard of this kind of opening. It’s when the story starts right in the middle of the action. Details of what led up to the opening scene are revealed later, either through flashbacks or exposition.
“Renowned curator Jacques Saunière staggered through the vaulted archway of the museum’s Grand Gallery. He lunged for the nearest painting he could see, Caravaggio. Grabbing the gilded frame, the seventy-six-year-old man heaved the masterpiece toward himself until it tore from the wall and Saunière collapsed backward in a heap beneath the canvas.” – Dan Brown, The Da Vinci Code
This type of opening is great for hooking the reader quickly. The action sucks them in, and the mystery urges them to stay. They will want to know what happens next. That’s why In Media Res openings are so popular.
One downside of this style is that it encourages the writer to start the story with violence or, at least, a lot of tension. Though it works well for a thriller, it doesn’t fit every genre and story. Despite what others may say, readers don’t need to be slapped in the face in order to get their attention. And unless you’re writing a story with a lot of action and tension from beginning to end, this slap to the face would be misleading at best and a deal-breaker at worst.
Meaning “from the egg” in Latin, this kind of opening is where the story begins at the beginning. All of the events unfold in chronological order, which means that the bulk of your exposition is in the first chapter, and you won’t need to use flashbacks. If the story starts with the birth or childhood of the protagonist, it’s an Ab Ovo opening. The example below isn’t that extreme, but Ferguson does devote the opening paragraphs to describing the novel’s protagonist and his home city on the day his life starts taking unusual turns.
“Grand Avenue cuts through the very heart of the city, from 71st Street all the way to the harbourfront, and although it is eight lanes wide, with a treed boulevard running down the middle, the Avenue feels claustrophobic and narrow. […] Edwin Vincent de Valu (a.k.a. Ed, a.k.a. Eddie, a.k.a. Edwynne in his poetry-reading college dorm days) emerges from the underground at Faust and Broadview like a gopher into a towering canyon. On Grand Avenue, the rain is dirty before it hits the ground. Edwin had once caught a solo drop on the back of his hand, had stopped and marvelled at that single bead of water, already streaked with soot.” – Will Ferguson, Happiness™
Ab Ovo is a very logical way to start a story. By laying all of the events out in order, the reader is less likely to get confused about what’s happening and why. It’s a slow build-up which makes it a good tonal fit for slower-paced genres like romance and slice of life stories.
The biggest downside, however, is how long the story takes to reach the inciting event. The longer it takes you to get the story rolling, the more chances the reader has to drop the story and never pick it up again. As writers feel increasing pressure to get and keep a reader’s attention quickly, this style of opening becomes less popular.
This style doesn’t have an official name, but I’ve dubbed it “the compromise opening” because it’s a compromise between the other two types of openings we’ve discussed. The story is already in motion when the reader enters. Instead of being dropped into the middle of an action sequence or a moment of high tension, the reader comes in during a lull in the action/tension.
“When he woke in the woods in the dark and the cold of night he’d reach out to touch the child sleeping beside him. Nights dark beyond darkness and the days more gray each one than what had gone before. Like the onset of some cold glaucoma dimming away the world. His hand rose and fell softly with each precious breath. He pushed away the plastic tarpaulin and raised himself in the stinking robes and blankets and looked toward the east for any light but there was none.” – Cormac McCarthy, The Road
This style preserves the mystery of In Media Res since there’s no context to the opening scene. Yet it feels similar to Ab Ovo in its gentle approach to the story. McCarthy’s novel opens very quietly, but the reader immediately starts asking questions. Why are these two characters sleeping in the woods? How did they land in such dire straits? And what is the relationship between the man and this child?
But like any true compromise, the writer must trade a couple of things when using this style of opening. First, the compromise style doesn’t eliminate the need for flashbacks and/or exposition. Readers need to learn about the events prior to the opening scene eventually. Second, mystery alone won’t persuade every reader to see your story through to the end. If your opening lull is too far away from the next burst of action or tension, readers will lose interest.
Personally, I use this final style for most of my long fiction. Mystery is one of my favorite hooks, both as a writer and as a reader. On another hand, “high octane” is not a phrase I’d use to describe my stories. I think those of you who’ve read the pieces I’ve published here would probably agree. The slower pace of the compromise style is a better tonal fit for the kind of deliberate plots that I write.
Which style of opening do you prefer? Why? Got any better name suggestions for the compromise style? Let me know down in the comments.