“Begin at the beginning and go on till you come to the end: then stop.” The King in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland says it very succinctly. However it is a dilemma for all writers. Where to begin a story? For the first draft, as I said in my last blog, I just start wherever I want. It is when I come back after that draft for the first rewrite that this comes in to question for me.
The beginning of the story has so many jobs. It must establish the feeling or tone of the story, set the pace for the story, grab the reader’s attention (and the editor’s attention before the reader) and hold that reader’s (editor’s) attention as it leads into the story… among other things. So again, where to begin?
The mantra is ‘in media res’. It’s a Latin phrase, in the middle of, which means that you start the beginning in the middle of the action. This action can be any number of things. In mysteries many times they start out with the murder, or the detective coming upon the murdered body. In the past, it would start with the detective getting a visit from a new client. A lot of movies use the technique. They start the show in the middle of a battle or car chase or some other action scene. It could be as simple as starting the story in the middle of an interesting conversation that has a very important part of the plot.
Either way, start your story with some sort of bang. In the first book of my Mel Addison Mystery Series I start the entire series off with Mel getting a gun shoved in her face on her first day on the job. It leaves the reader with the question, why is someone threatening this person with a gun. And since my mysteries are in the first person (another blog about this later), we get a very visceral feeling along with the character.
Starting off in media res, keeps the narrative and exposition at a minimum in the beginning. This is important because these have a tendency to be slower and most of the time have less to do with the plot and moving the plot along. Many times exposition is used to slow down the action and give the reader a break before notching the action back up again. Don’t start off your manuscript slow.
In media res also grabs works as the hook for the manuscript. I believe that this is the biggest job of the start of the story. If there is not a good hook you will loose the reader (and make the editor throw your manuscript on the reject pile). You must hook the reader for the beginning sentence and continue until you have them totally hooked into the story.
When you are trying to get your manuscript published, if you don’t have a hook, you will never get to the stage of having readers. At a writer’s conference I went to long ago, an agent was there taking pitches, (another blog on that topic too) and he told us how he looks at manuscripts sent to him. He opens the envelope (yes, it was when few agents/editors took email submissions and I’m dating myself but the idea remains the same), pulls the manuscript out just far enough that he can see the first line. Read that again… the first LINE. If the first line, not sentence… line, captures his attention, he pulls it out further to reader the first couple of lines. If that is still interesting to him, he’ll read the first paragraph. And it continues until he is intriqued enough to pull it all the way out of the envelope. At any point if the submission loses his attention, he shoves it back in the envelope and puts it on the reject pile for his secretary to send a rejection letter.
Think about that. One line is the first check point. If you can’t get his attention from the very first line, it’s done. No waiting because it gets better later. Nope. Right away or not at all. And remember what I’ve mentioned before, the agent/editor is looking for any, and I do mean ANY, reason to reject a manuscript so he/she can move on to the next manuscript and maybe the next best seller. Don’t waste they time and yours. Grab them right away.
Angela Abderhalden is the author of the Mel Addison Mystery Series and Acquiring Editor for Seventh Wave Books, LLC.