Stories should start in the middle of the action, right? You’ve probably heard that advice over and over again, in a number of different forms. Start strong, don’t let your characters dawdle around, give your readers something active to start with, and so on.
So is this always the best approach? Should you ever start your stories slowly, building up to the action later on? Or is it always correct to start trapped in the middle of a gunfight?
Just like writing, there are no hard rules here, despite what you might have heard. And writing, like life, is full of trade-offs.
Some stories will benefit tremendously from an introduction that’s fast-paced and full of action. Others need a gentle hand, one that guides the characters away from action, but not out of tension.
Starting in the middle of things
Start as close to the end as possible.Kurt Vonnegut
You might have heard the Latin phrase in medias res when discussing a story’s beginning. The phrase translates to “in the middle of things” and refers to a story that opens straight into the heart of a plot.
For example, many detective stories will open with the protagonist stepping into the crime scene. We don’t know who perpetrated the crime, we don’t know how they did it, and we don’t even know who the victim is. However, we’re going to find out, and from there, we have all the direction we need to be steered through the plot right to the conclusion.
By starting your story in the middle of the action like this, you attempt to pull the reader straight in. If you’re able to sink those hooks in, fast and furious, you’ve got a great shot at capturing the reader’s interest for the entire story.
Tension is important
Even after considering the previous section, it’s important to note that you don’t need to start in the middle of a war to have a strong opening.
If you don’t start with conflict, consider starting with tension. Tension is important, especially if there is no significant action. As long as you have an interesting hook to keep readers entertained, you’re doing your job as a writer. Interesting things are subjective–some stories and some readers don’t want to start in a war.
An interesting, strong voice can be a form of internal conflict. Conflict drives storytelling. Your readers will thank you for it.
Whatever event you choose to start with, consider starting with a unique event, and make sure it’s not just unique for the characters, but also for the reader.
The controversial prologue
Prologues are a hotly debated topic. Some readers and writers swear by them, while others claim that there’s never been a prologue worth reading.
One prologue that stands out is from The Wheel of Time by Robert Jordan. This brief story immediately sets out some rules of the world, lays out a villain and a profoundly complicated hero, and throws a significant destructive event into play right away. This lays out some backstory that’s implicitly known by characters in the fictional world, helping to place the reader alongside them without requiring some in-character exposition. There are ways to embed this material inside the story, surely, but when it comes to word count and description, this prologue hits the mark for me.
If done badly, a prologue becomes nothing more than an info dump.
Consider the reasons why you’d want to add a prologue, and if it truly helps your story. If the only reason you want to add one is to start the story in the middle of action, try to remove the prologue and see if you can find the missing tension in your introduction. You might find that the prologue makes more sense as a later chapter.
Whatever you choose to do, start the story in an interesting way, and keep those readers entertained.