Six impossible things

Where do I begin…

How do you decide where a story starts?

Stories, short or long, generally are not about characters who are happily living their normal lives. Something unusual is going on; something has upset the status quo (whether the status quo was a miserable life as a slave, or a happy life as a king).

Stories therefore generally start in one of four places:  either just before, just at, or just after the point at which the status quo is upset, or else in medias res, smack in the middle of whatever is going on. 

I have found that, since I am a natural novelist, starting in medias res for a short story is seldom a good idea for me. Usually, it means that I’m trying to write a novel, but because I’ve artificially decided to write a short story, I’m leaving off the beginning and most of the middle of the book, and the end result is just not going to work as anything but an excerpted piece of a novel, no matter what I do. Starting in the middle of things works fine for some novels, and I’ve used it at least once (The Seven Towers, if you were wondering), and it works find for other short story writers. Just not for my short stories.

“Just before” works well for fantasies and SF, because in these stories, the “status quo” background is usually unfamiliar. “Once upon a  time, there was a woodcutter who lived at the edge of a great forest with his three sons” is a just-before-things-change opening; it sets up the status quo. The change arrives with the sentence that begins, “One day, when he was out in the woods working…” something happened that set the story going. The trick is to keep it just before the thing that changes everything happens — it is very easy to back off too far, and provide too much introduction to the status quo. The current situation isn’t the story; the story starts happening when things begin to change. And of course, this sort of thing isn’t limited to starting with a fairy-tale-type opening; “The woodcutter shouldered his ax and started off into the forest for another day’s work.” is also a just-before sort of opening; he’s not doing anything he hasn’t done a million times before.

“Just at” the point where something changes the status quo would be “A poor woodcutter, hard at work in the woods, heard a cry for help. Running in the direction of the cry, he found a small man about to be eaten by a lion…”  It is not usual for the woodcutter to rescue small wizards (for that’s obviously who this is) from lions, and the woodcutter’s reward, whatever it turns out to be, is going to form the basis of the rest of the story.

“Just after” would be “The woodcutter set his ax beside the door, stared at it a moment, and went in. His three sons looked up; at the sight of his face, their expressions grew worried. ‘Father, what has happened?’ said the oldest. ‘I met a man in the woods today,’ the woodcutter replied. ‘And he told me…'”

In medias res would be something like “The woodcutter crouched behind the arras, watching the guards pace outside the king’s treasure vault. Through the iron grate that covered the window, he could see the glitter of gold — and, more important, the shine of his magic ax. If he could just get his hands on it again…” This works really, really well for lots of people, but as I said, for me it’s a bit dangerous to open a short story with it, because (for me) it usually means the story really wants to be a novel. In addition, one needs to be careful not to disorient the reader too much. Also, I find it hard to fill in the background/backstory in the limited wordage of a short story, unless I’m doing something like a fairy-tale, where the backstory is so familiar to readers that they can fill it in themselves. “Cinderella stood at the top of the stairs, looking down at the sea of wondering faces that filled the prince’s ballroom” would make a perfectly good in medias res opening for a short story. On the plus side, the in medias res opening generally gets things going with a bang; it is often a very good opening for an action-adventure.

How you decide which one works best — well, you just have to look at the story and think about it for a while. There aren’t rules for this sort of thing, unfortunately.

  1. thanks for this post. Knowing where to start is one of my biggest problems. My tendency is to start way WAY before anything happens, and then have to go back and cut off the first third of the story. Writing so much background is great way to get to know my characters, but having to trim so much can be downright discouraging.

  2. Starting at the beginning of the end works for short stories too, particularly very short ones. I suppose it’s an extreme form of in medias res except that in medias res stories carry straight on from there and you tell the rest of the story chronologically, whereas the “starting at the beginning of the end” method then flashes back to explain how the characters got to that situation before continuing to the denouement.

    Hope that makes sense.


  3. I’m not too bad with starting well – it’s knowing where to end that gets me. I tend to want to keep going and I miss the wrap up spot so the story feels like it’s hanging or the wrap up comes up artificial feeling.

  4. I almost never use in medias res at all, and seldom cotton to it much in SFnal contexts. I admire enormously anybody who can successfully pull it off.

    The great gamble the imr writer makes with their audience is: I bet you will care right away what happens to these people. In a familiar milieu, there are a lot of deft and economical ways to make this happen. In an unfamiliar world, with alien characters acting upon often nigh-incomprehensible motivations, this takes either genius or special advantages to accomplish.

    One time-honoured solution is to write about settings or characters the audience have reason to know all about. Homer, Virgil, and Shakespeare did this in varying degrees. Lesser makers can do as much. If somebody writes about Hector or Holmes, Sophonisba or Cinderella, then I know why I ought to care about them – or not. Fanfiction gets the same option, usually within a narrower niche. But if the same story starts off with Moonbucket of Shadowheugh or Barack-Sarah Spammersbane #437 in a big perilous pickle for big opaque reasons, they don’t have the same trust capital, and I will probably plonk the book back on the shelf with a feeling of mild albeit vague nausea.

    Convince me once that B.S. Bane is worth the reading, and I’ll follow shet through hell and high water and any style of beginning. This won’t work for the first such yarn I run into. Another reason, I suppose, for the Triumph of the Series!

    In medias res is all about trusting that the reader cares. The SF writer has the specific handicap of having to persuade the reader that they also care about it in a setting of which they know nothing, before having done any of the customary worldbuilding spadework to earn it. If this gamble succeeds, it succeeds gloriously. But if it doesn’t…!

    I lean, more than most, to a rather saga-like style of telling that consciously takes the reader’s secondary belief and interest for granted. It is one of my personal tricks, and it is my personal gamble that I gain on quality and compulsion what I lose on ease of engagement. But the good old in medias res opening? Too rich for my blood, mostly!

  5. @Gray: I like to read in medias res beginnings, and sometimes write them. Reading such a beginning doesn’t feel to me like a matter of “trust”; like any other kind of beginning, it’s a matter of being “hooked”. Do I find this beginning intriguing (and well-written)? Questions can be just as much of hook as answers—Who are these people? How did they get in this situation? What is the mighty Celandine Herx? And where are all those beetles coming from?

  6. As an avid reader, I think that if the story is at an in medias res start, but is dry and rather boring, most people would rather not follow it through. If it is catchy and ‘snaps’ to get your attention, some wondering inquisitivness can float through your mind. Little questions pop up unconsciously, like: Why does the king’s guards have the woodcutter’s magic axe in the treasury? How did it become magical (if it was once ordinary)?
    How did they take it from him? And might I ask, how did the wood cutter cme by a *magic* axe, any way?

    Also, does anyone know the term for a story that starts about a quarter through the tale? I am not quite sure, because some of the things that cause the scene where the story starts to happen could be missing, but from there on, the plot takes off…

    Any way, very interesting post!

    • Mary – If the story starts partway through, instead of at the beginning, then it’s technically in medias res, whether it starts 1/3 of the way through, halfway through, or very near the end. A lot of the time, the whole point of starting that way is to catch the reader’s attention with questions like why the ax is in the treasury, how it became magical, and so on. The trick is to make the answers even more interesting than the questions, which is not always easy!

      Also, it’s what Tim and Gray are saying – if you start in the middle, you gain action/urgency, but you often lose those readers who want to know the characters first, or they won’t stay interested. Sometimes, you do it anyway because it’s right for the story (also, you can’t ever get ALL the readers anyway).

      Mary’s Mom – Sorry about the delay in letting your comment through. I screen first-time posters to prevent spam, and I only get around to looking at the holding pen about once a day. Anything new from that email should go through with no problem now.

      Tim and Gray – Yup, yup, carry on.

      (One of these days, in my copious free time, I am going to figure out how to enable comment threading on this thing. Don’t hold your breath, though.)

  7. OK, I just read my Mary’s (a mere 10 yrs old) comment, and she had to explain it to me. Yikes. Thanks everyone for the free education she’s getting on here.
    ~Bookworm Mary’s dear mother

  8. Tim @ 5: Yes, I was a bit sweeping in there, wasn’t I? I think it’s a matter of what hooks you. If it’s primarily an intellectual thing (or you’re simply looking at a puzzle-driven story), then in medias res is as reliable as anything else.

    If it’s emotional/character engagement that grabs you, though, I think you risk several things by just diving in. Firstly, you’ve had no time to get to care what happens to these people, and it’s already apt to be happening big time. Secondly, you’re meeting them at a moment of high stress in a situation you don’t really understand – misjudgements may abound. Thirdly, and slightly differently, it screws with your emotional baseline for them, to which they’re hoping (or fearing) to return… And so on.

    Every one of these things can surely be turned to the story’s advantage. I still say it’s generally upping the stakes.

    You’ve made me think twice about this, and out of that comes the notion that maybe imr is an especially promising introduction for action-adventure types – characters whose baseline is doing stressful, plot-hustling, hair-raising stuff, because that is pretty much what they are…

  9. @Gray: I’m not sure that (at least for me) it’s really a character/action split. I don’t think I need to “care” about a character in quite the way you do, so long as I find them interesting, intriguing or amusing, and want to find out more about them because of that. Also:in medias res can throw you into the middle of an argument over whose turn it is to do the washing up, or to the moment when someone makes a scathing comment about the work of a particular film director to an astonished audience of film fans, just as easily as it can throw you into the middle of a battle. Of course, whatever is going on, the writer needs to make sure that what the characters are actually saying and doing makes them and/or their situation seem intriguing or funny or otherwise worth reading more of. So I think the question of where to start is orthogonal to the character-centred vs. action-centred axis.

    It’s more like the difference between, on the one hand, going to a formal business meeting (to, say, start negotiations on a contract), where everybody introduces themselves first, giving their name and job and the company they work for, and then the person chairing the meeting reminds them of the list of items on the agenda and says what they’re supposed to be trying to achieve in the meeting, and only then do they get on to the actual business of the meeting, versus, on the other hand, just wandering up to a conversation among strangers at a party, and listening in, trying to work out what they’re talking about (which could be contract negotiations between two companies!)

    As Patricia said: in the first case, you get to find out what’s going on, all set out in logical order, but not much happens for a while; while in the second, things start happening immediately, but you have to work out what’s going on. (This isn’t necessarily exactly an intellectual puzzle—you don’t need to get out a notebook and start taking notes … not if the writer has done it properly—but as a reader you do have to make some inferences, and also to not mind being a bit confused about some things at first.)

    @Mary’s Mom: however old or young you are, there’s always more to learn!

  10. Tim @ 10: I think the ‘where to start’ versus ‘where it’s centred’ axes are certainly separate ones, but I don’t think they’re truly orthogonal. Or if I visualized them so, I’d also visualize the resulting map as being blotchy with zones of high and low expected story-potential. Is this metaphor stretchy enough yet?

    Your business-meeting/party analogy is giving me a notion as to where either our tastes or our definitions part company. For me, both kinds of beginning are dropping you into something interesting. There’s the course of the character’s regular life – which, especially in SF, ought usually to be of interest and some kind of value to the reader – and then there’s the plot which, like Bilbo’s Road, ‘sweeps them off their feet’ for good or ill, and to return or otherwise. If the standard beginning feels like the introduction to a business meeting, to me it’s failed. That’s the job of framing and incluing, generally.

    But if it feels like the early part of a party when one is making a lot of introductions, and the party is going nicely but intangibly leading up to something right up until Wild Man O’Halloran jumps out of the birthday cake and starts beating on his bongoes – that’s what I call success.

    In medias res is that approach to the party which prefers to descend upon it only after Wild Man has kicked it up to where it was headed, and of course these party animals will get different things out of it.

    My taste usually runs towards coming early, feeling the build-up, and getting to know the people I’ll be dancing with later. Anybody out there who has actually seen or felt my funky left feet in action can shut up round about now.

  11. Thanks for explaining my question! I think I get a sense of it now…

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