In Media Res – don’t start at the beginning!

This is an old blog post I’m recycling due to having had a conversation with several people lately about the right place to start a story.

In Media Res

For a writer it can be a bit tricky to know where to start your story. Whether you are writing a mystery, a children’s novel, a family saga, or a paranormal romance, you often feel a need to tell the whole story. This can mean beginning far too early. You tell the reader in painstaking detail that your protagonist got up, had a shower, got dressed, had breakfast, went to work and that it was a day just like any other. Maybe you talk about how the steam fogs up the bathroom mirror and then describe the colour of her nail polish as she wipes it away, or you describe the pattern made by her cereal as it drifts around in the milk, and how that reminds her of the time when…

But there is a better way… What you could do, is to start in the middle of things. In Media Res. Begin your story right there in the middle of the action. Let your reader meet your protagonist at the crossroads where everything begins to happen, or change, when something new is coming. We don’t want to meet them a year before it happens. Or even a day before. The action is what will make or break your main character, and it will make or break your story. The first time I meet your protagonist, I want to meet him crouched and panting in a dark alley, his heart in his mouth, in constant expectation of hearing a footstep, wondering if they have found him.

Or, let’s meet her for the first time as she comes down the stairs in the dark and falls over the dead body. Show me how she raises a bloody hand in the candlelight. Or show me the new kid’s first day at school when he has to walk past everyone to reach his seat. Or maybe the new baby has got sick and a nervous young dad has to beg a lift to get to the doctor’s surgery in t he next town. Or let me see the moon rising behind darkling clouds as I hear the sound of a werewolf baying for blood. 

Let me see your protagonist as they step on the brake at the top of the hill and discover the brakeline has been cut; let me watch as they career perilously ever closer to the wall or lumber-truck or cliff edge and their apparently unavoidable doom.

Cut to the chase. Literally.

No more lengthy introductory scenes a la Proust, unless you are Proust. No more stage dressing. Does the audience arrive to see the rehearsal? No, they only arrive for the main event. Don’t bother to tell your reader what your character had for breakfast unless that’s what killed them.