The start of a story where you introduce the protagonist and the setting, referred to as the exposition, is the door you open for readers to step through and sample what kind of world you’re taking them to. You have a few minutes to tempt them if you don’t want them to leave and move on to the next author. The hook is a challenging event, an appealing description, a compelling character, something that grabs the reader’s interest, inviting them to continue. As the first act can take up to 15 to 25 percent of your narrative, you will also have space to provide some relevant background information and key events from their past.
When a reader begins a book, she/he puts aside their normal understanding of the world—known as suspension of belief—and you want them to know where they are without delay, so the initial sentences should plant clear clues for the reader to orient themselves in the world they’ve entered. You present the protagonist, showing the audience a glimpse of who they are and a problem they encounter in their day-to-day existence.
The first sentence tells us Jimmy is nervous. The second lets us know this isn’t the first time he’s been in this situation and his expectations are low.
The train picks up speed as it leaves Stuttgart. He grew up here, amid long shady streets footed in ancient cobblestones and gardens bright-spotted with afternoon light, but it is no longer the place Anton knew when he was young. (1)
The location and mood—reflective and melancholy—is clear as the character remembers the past and compares it to the present. The chapter heading, Fatherland, September 1942, lets us know this is Nazi Germany.
My working relationship with Lucifer began on a rainy Monday. I’d just settled down to a long afternoon of watching the holovid soaps and doing a little divination, spreading the cards and runes out on the hank of blue silk I’d laid out, when there was a bashing on my door that shook the walls. (2)
Here the speaker is at home, relaxing when an ominous (door bashing and walls shaking) visitor arrives. Although a bright sunshiny day might have given a greater contrast to the action taking place, the choice of ‘rainy’ (gray, overcast) foreshadows the trouble that’s arrived on the doorstep.
All three indicate mood and describe the setting, and we are well equipped to venture farther into this new dimension as we know who, where and when.
Another method of pulling people in is to start in medias res, (from the Latin) which literally means ‘into the middle of things’. This term comes from the Roman writer Horace who, when defining the perfect poet in Poetic Arts, stated: Nor does he begin the Trojan War from the egg, but always he hurries to the action, and snatches the listener into the middle of things.
In medias res sidesteps exposition which is later given in another way, generally through straightforward accounts of the past or flashbacks or dialogue. With in medias res you open with a bang but slow down afterward to fill in the blanks. Instead of 1, 2, 3 you do 3, 1, 2 or 3, 2, 1—whatever works in your particular tale. Movies often open with an action scene as film directors aim to grab the audience’s notice straightaway.
None of the heat and bright luster of the mid-afternoon sun bathing the city of Tropolis reached Lower Level Park Four of the multi-storied downtown parking lot. The erratic flickering of the fluorescent light bulbs created uneasy shadows, and the air was rank with the stink of old seaweed, rotten cabbage and sewage stirred into the mix. It was a stench that slunk along the ground like a dense November fog off the river—the stench of goblin.
As the elevator door slid shut behind them, JB turned first to Nikki, indicating she should go to the right and block the exit ramp. He signed he would head in a diagonal line toward their quarry before sending Gemma straight ahead. They padded off with guns raised, making little noise as they eased closer to their objective. A dark indistinct shape blurred across the back wall.
This is the opening scene of Sorcerous Deeds, the second in my Adept Solutions series of urban fantasy novellas about a private detective agency. Here JB and his team are tackling a bounty hunting job.
They shoot the white girl first. With the rest they can take their time. No need to hurry out here. They are seventeen miles from a town which has ninety miles between it and any other. Hiding places will be plentiful in the Convent, but there is time and the day has just begun. (3)
Although we haven’t yet met the ‘they’ in question, the introductory sentence grabs attention, making it impossible not to read on further to find out what occurs next. This is the opening paragraph of Toni Morrison’s Paradise and a masterclass example of in medias res.
‘It’s official,’ Harley said. ‘They killed the Berliner two nights ago. You’re the last.’ Thereafter a pause: ‘I’m sorry.’
This opening is from Glen Duncan’s The Last Werewolf where we learn of Jacob Marlowe’s dramatic situation at the same time he does. We’re also made aware of his world-weary character as despite this shocking news his thoughts turn to easing the aftereffects of his recent werewolf shift rather than how to combat his upcoming demise.
For example, don’t let little Jimmy go up to Mabel and ask can he join in her game if, later on, she has no relevant role to play. Readers become invested in what happens to your character(s). Chekhov's message is, don’t lead people down dead-ends.
Whichever way you choose, if you’ve done your work, your audience is connecting with your character, you’ve drawn them into the world you’ve created and they will continue to follow your hero’s journey.
Exercise 2: Look at the book you’re currently reading and analyze what choice the author made. If you have an ereader, go through half a dozen books or so doing the same. Think about your reaction to what you read, what you like, what impresses you and and what you can learn.
https://www.goodreads.com/shelf/show/in-medias-res has a good list of books starting in media res. You can check out any that interest you by going to Amazon and using the ‘Look inside’ feature.
Stay well, stay safe and keep writing—no matter what!
(1) The Ragged Edge of Night by Olivia Hawkins, 2018, Lake Union Publishing, Seattle.
(2) Working for the Devil by Lilith Saintcrow, 2005, Hachette Digital, London.
(4) The Last Werewolf by Duncan Glen, 2011, Cannongate Books, Edinburgh.