Friday, August 26, 2011

Starting Stories with Action: Hit or Miss

Whether you’re an avid reader or simply watch movies you’ve experienced a story starting in media res. Simply put, it means in the middle of action.

On the first or second page of a book, or as the movie opens, you’re thrown into a scene as something significant happens.

There’s enormous pressure on new writers to grab the reader, an editor, or agent on the first page. Otherwise it’s too easy to set the book back on the shelf. It’s even easier for a professional in the publishing industry to send out a form rejection letter.

Movies have a huge advantage over a published novel. They can lure an audience in with a gripping trailer and once the person has paid for their ticket—cha-ching. It’s also unlikely that someone will walk out of a movie or warn others not to see it if it had a slow start but later picked up, entertaining the audience in a satisfying way.

Regardless of the medium, there's an effective way to execute in media res. There's also a clumsy way that should be avoided unless under duress.

Marvel missed the mark in the opening scenes of Thor. The movie begins with astrophysicist Jane Foster (Natalie Portman) out in the middle of the New Mexico desert with her quirky team waiting for an aurora. Lights blaze in the sky and Thor appears in a swirling cloud of sand right in her path. Then the story the audience is engrossed in comes to a head-jerking halt and rewinds eons to dump the backstory of the Asgardian war with the Frost Giants. After the film, my husband (not immediately after because we were both caught up in our disappointment over the villain, Loki) turned to me and said, “The beginning was terrible. Didn’t flow smoothly at all.” I’m inclined to agree. The beginning was terribly, horribly disjointed.

Two solid examples of how to start in the middle of action, filling in the background information along the journey: the movie Cowboys & Aliens (a science fiction Western) and Kelly Meding’s Three Days to Dead (an urban fantasy).

In Cowboys & Aliens, the film opens to Daniel Craig’s character—a loner—waking up in the wilderness, dirty, barefoot, with a bizarre, futuristic bracelet locked on his wrist, and no memory of how he ended up there or even who he is. Before the unknown loner utters a single word, he kills three men, swipes a change of clothes from a dead body, armors up, steals a horse and gets a cute dog as a new BFF. Was the audience lost? Far from it. The audience was hooked.

I recently read Three Days to Dead. Kelly Meding does a fantastic job of opening the story in the crux of the heroine’s problem. She just died, is now in a new, strange body of another person, and has to figure out who killed her and why. Oh yeah, and she’s in a morgue, naked. Backstory is filled in piece by piece as we go on an adventure starting on the first page.

When done well, opening in media res can be a compelling and unforgettable experience. Done poorly, readers may never buy the book. Even worse, a writer may never have the chance to see their “baby” on the shelves of stores.

What type of beginning in a book or movie do you prefer? Dropped in the middle of action or with a little grounding in the main character(s) right before the inciting incident that sets the story in full motion?

65 comments:

  1. I like to be dropped into the story. I want to see Cowboys and Aliens. Have a great weekend!

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  2. I like foreshadowing. Start with a conflict...then keep me guessing or waiting or hoping...and I'll turn the pages.

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  3. I love it when the author/movie producer drops you into the story with an exciting first scene! And I agree with Em-Musing. I LOVE foreshadowing!
    Have a wonderful weekend!

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  4. Miranda ~ Hope you enjoy the movie.

    Em-Musing ~ Foreshadowing is always great.

    Jess ~ Have a wonderful weekend also.

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  5. I like a little background. If I'm dropped in the middle of action, I won't know what's going on and feel clueless throughout the entire film until they fill in the gaps. The majority of people I know also hate flashbacking...jut tell it straight. :)

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  6. Laila ~ With books I usually prefer to be grounded a bit with the characters even if for only a few pages. I honestly believe Thor would have been better served if they had simply started with things in Asgard rather than doing the flashback.

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  7. I still want to see Cowboys vs. Aliens. Just can't find time to go to the movies. :( Great post, and so true!

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  8. I want to see Cowboys and Aliens too; Contagion is up my alley as well. As per starting a story in meida res, as you said, it works when done well. BUT: if every single story ever written started out that way--I think that could get played out too.

    Great post!

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  9. Because most writers in the genre I writer begin with a murder, I like to do that as well. I find it unusual when the writers (in the genre) don't do that because I expect it. In other genres, I'm not sure they start with action.

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  10. Ciara ~ Making the time to hit the cinema myself this weekend.

    Joanna ~ I don't think that a movie or book has to or should start in media res. It's not right for every story. But if done, do it right :).

    Clarissa ~ It does vary with genre, but many books regardless of genre start right as something critical happens.

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  11. I kind of like being dropped in, but I agree--it has to hook the audience as opposed to confusing them!

    Shelley

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  12. Absolutely fantastic blog!!! Glad I found it! Love it!!!

    Lola x
    http://lola-x.blogspot.com

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  13. Well, I have to agree with you that there are ways to properly begin a book/movie in media res, and as long as that's done, I love it. It makes me excited to find out just what's going on and who's who etc. That being said, there's also a right way to build the action up and if done wrong, it can have a nasty narcotizing effect. So, basically what I'm trying to say is that I'm cool with either/or as long as it's done right! :-)

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  14. I like it when they start with some action, but I need to know who the characters are. I lose interest when things are too confusing.

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  15. Cowboys and Aliens is on my must-see list. And that kind of opening is the kind I like in books and movies. It's the kind I do my best to write. The Thor movie sounds like what happens in books with action-packed prologues that move to a Five Years Earlier chapter one.

    I usually start to soon, even when I think I'm not, and have to go back and redo. Often more than once.

    Happy Weekend!

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  16. Isis, I can go both ways in a movie--or a book for that matter. Depends upon the genre and the skill of the writer. I do agree, backstory, in either media, has to be skillfully filtered in.

    I wasn't thrilled with Thor's opening. Movie was okay and good effects. Captain America had a touch of that sort of opening (actually, more like a short prologue) but not as jarring and smoother, although you don't really understand the time period of the opening until the ending, but it does drop you into action. Good movie, btw.

    I need to check out Three days To Dead!

    Sia McKye's Thoughts...OVER COFFEE

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  17. I think it's essential that a book start in the middle of tension--this is not necessarily the same thing as starting with action.

    Thanks for the post! I'm hearing good things about cowboys and aliens. Want to see it now.

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  18. Wow, now I'm really saddened that we didn't go see Cowboys and Aliens.

    In books I definitely like some grounding, and a slow but steady building toward action. I want a sense of "oh, oh... something's about to happen" pulling me into the story. That will hook me.

    In movies, I like the grounding, but if the action flows and is not disjointed then that will quite often hook me. But it can't just be all action and no characters. I want fully fleshed out, interesting characters, or that movie (or book) isn't going to work for me.

    Great post.

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  19. I like it either way, if it works. What I don't like is narration before hand or through the movie, e.g. Star Wars although it is a cliche now Long, long time ago and in a galaxy far, far away... Gray's Anatomy is full of the what I call them "words of wisdom" it's becoming preachy.

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  20. Shelley (Storyqueen) ~ Confusing the audience or pulling them out of the moment completely defeats the purpose.

    LolaX ~ Thanks so much. Hope you keeping coming back :).

    Crystal ~ Couldn't agree more.

    Mel ~ Too slow or too much action where you can't follow along are both equally bad.

    Carol ~ Cowboys&Aliens won't change your life, but it is a fun movie.

    Sia ~ I think they made the opener of Capt America deliberately vague about the time period b/c of the way it ends. At first the audience wonders, but when you see how it ties into the end it was kind of brilliant.

    Elle ~ You are absolutely right. When you can't start in the middle action, starting with tension is the next best thing.

    Doralynn ~ Since we all like different things it's good that books and movies have different types of openings, but they should be good scenes that fit the film. Glad you liked the post.

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  21. Firetulip ~ I don't mind narration in the beginning as long as it's not drawn out and fits the tone of the movie. Haven't watched Grey's Anatomy since I moved to UK.

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  22. I say start me in the action. I haven't seen the movies you mentioned, but I don't mind "discovering" the plot as we go along. The problem for me is the movie (or book) that starts that way and S..L..O..W...S down for the rest of the tale. If you start out with a bang, I need the action to continue. Did that make any sense at all?

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  23. Cowboys and Aliens had a great beginning! I don't mind if a book doesn't start with a bang of action.

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  24. Hi Isis, great post. There seems to be an assumption that en medias res is always the way to go and can never go wrong, and you get to the heart of *why* it is such a captivating technique.

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  25. Brinda ~ I recently read a book like that. Ended up skimming until it got good again.

    Alex ~ Agree on both points.

    S.B. ~ I think many writers are better served starting as close to a scene with tension/conflict as possible, not necessarily in the middle of action.

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  26. I don't really have a preference. For me, it's all about how the author executes their opening pages. They can start slow if they have something else to grab me, like snappy dialogue or beautiful prose. A well-done media res scene can also pull me right in.

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  27. Hi, Isis. Most times, I don't like to be dropped into the story without a bit of grounding. AS I read forward, I have to back track to tie things together. Definitely a turn off for me. Thought provoking post. Thanks!

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  28. I do like things to start off with a bang, but then it depends on the story and the genre. I'm pretty open as long as whatever the beginning is, it's compelling enough to make me want to keep turning pages, or watching.

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  29. Steph ~ A variety of openings really work so long as the author doesn't weigh us down w/ backstory.

    Dawn ~ I like a little grounding as well.

    Heather ~ There definitely has to be enough to keep me turning pages.

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  30. I like a little bit of grounding/background, especially about the characters - I want to care about them some how, some way. Otherwise, it won't matter to me if they get blown up or turned into zombies, etc. :)

    (Thanks for "following" me via the Campaign!)

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  31. Hi Isis, I usually start in action but recently pulled back on one book to give "the ordinary world" because I kept getting complaints that I didn't world build enough~ so there is some risk to action first.
    Cheers~

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  32. I don't mind being dropped into the action, but don't put your mc in mortal danger before I have a chance to care whether he lives or dies :-)

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  33. Madeline ~ Caring about the characters is vital.

    Nancy ~ Great point, especially if readers are asking for it.

    Sarah ~ Totally agree.

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  34. I love being dropped into the action. I think the 2009 Star Trek film was a brilliant example of it working really, really well.

    Ah, Thor. The amount I laughed made up for any plot weaknesses ^_^

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  35. I think starting with action works great in movies. In books, it can easily be hit or miss depending on if the writing hooks you or not.

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  36. wow so cool
    i like your blog :D

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  37. Action for the sake of action can be as bad as long exposition. Openings must intrigue the reader because it also gives them a character to care about. If I blow up three buildings and kill everyone but a 2-Dimensional main character, I have not given the reader a reason to turn the page let alone buy the book. If I blow up three buildings and my main characters yet again is the only survivor. Then, I hint at a prior event where the MC suffered extreme personal loss and that the events might be connected, I've got a readers attention.

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  38. Usually by the time I've taken my seat in a movie theater or cracked open a book, I know enough from the trailer or synopsis to have an idea of what to expect. I don't have a personal preference between beginning in media res or laying the ground work first, just so long as it's done well. Great post, Isis!

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  39. Miss Cole ~ You're so right about 2009 Star Trek. My laughter didn't make up for the weaknesses in Thor, unfortunately.

    Lydia K ~ The device sometimes fails in movies as well.

    Sylar ~ Happy you found me and like me...er my blog :).

    K. ~ I think everything has to work all around if you're going to start with a "bang".

    Lindy ~ Even when I know what to expect from a movie or book overall, sometimes the beginning throws me for a loop. Glad you like the post.

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  40. I really enjoyed Thor overall, even if the movie had some aspects to it that could have been better. The good parts outweighed the bad parts for me.

    Also, I’m a new follower—wonderful blog! Stop by my blog and follow me too? :) http://rachelbrookswrites.blogspot.com/

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  41. SO AGREE WITH YOU ABOUT THOR. SO MUCH.

    I was like YES ACTION and then wait what and then I got SO into the backstory of Thor I was like THIS IS AN AWESOME MOVIE and then we were back in the present day and I was like ....but what happened to the movie?

    So well written, loved reading it, will definitely be looking for updates. Thanks for writing it!

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  42. When you do in media res, you have to remember that backstory can't sneak up on you like a wasteland of horribleness. If you're going to start in the middle of things, make sure that your story moves along forward and gives hints as to what happened in the past gently and sparingly. Backstory, when done badly, is a book killer.

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  43. Greetings from a fellow campaigner!

    I don't care that much how the story begins, as long as it is executed well.

    I believe it is more challenging to open with action and then fill in the back story because the reader hasn't engaged with the characters yet and the story generally has to slow down at some point to fill in the gaps. If the opening action focuses closely on the main character's POV, you can sometimes create the engagement you need as the scene unfolds.

    I do find it easier to relate to stories that open with a day-in-the-life view of the main character(s), and then devolve into an unexpected action that hooks you. I thought Terry Goodkind did a good job of that with his first Sword of Truth novel. That's also how I chose to begin my forthcoming novel Vaetra Unveiled.

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  44. Rachel ~ Heading to your blog and then to find you on twitter.

    AG ~ HA-HA, LOL :).

    Marlena ~ So agree with you.

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  45. Daniel ~ Thanks for stopping by my blog. Hope to connect with you on Twitter as well.

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  46. I like when a story takes off fast with either some action or other crucial moment that distresses the protagonist. It doesn't have to be plot or life altering, but something that sets the stage and honestly prefer to have mysteries about what happened before and why and have it revealed as the story unfolds. I love reading/watching stories like this so much, I've modeled my own writing style to mimic this. Start in the midst and fill in the gabs and avoiding flashbacks. Flashbacks are pointless really, they eliminate too many mysteries about the past.

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  47. There's differing opinions here. Some say you shouldn't start a story in the action as the reader needs to get to know the character/s first or they won't care what happens to them. I disagree but it's all about PTA (Page Turning Action) isn't it?

    Denise

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  48. TL ~ Mystery is good to keep the reader hooked.

    Denise ~ Different readers like different things. And not all stories are meant to start with action. Some need a little grounding first.

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  49. I'm all for action. I hate loads of description and/ or backstory in the opening. Gimme the story!

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  50. I think starting a book with action is the way to go especially if your publishing on kindle as the buyer can sample the first chapter for free before buying the book, so if you grip them with some action and leave them wanting more they will buy the book.

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  51. well said, isis :)

    best advice i got was from a screenwriting instructor: grab your audience/reader by the throat, early, and don't let go til you type your final 'period'.

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  52. Talli ~ Different strokes for different folks :), but starting with the story is essential.

    Lisa ~ Kindle (e-readers) have definitely changed the publishing landscape. Now I pass on far more books after reading the free sample.

    Laughingwolf ~ Excellent advice!

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  53. You're right about Thor and it's beginning. Once I got past how horrible the plot and some of the characters were though, I just enjoyed the action and the eye-candy.

    I'm excited to see Cowboys and Aliens too. I've read so many good things about it that I cannot not see it now=)

    PS- Fellow campaigner and look forward to reading your blog!

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  54. A great post, Iris. You comment about todays writing industry was eactly correct. The pressure is on-- even if the book is not an action style. Writers must make things happen right from the start.

    I wish it were different but these are the times we live in. Impress or die, lol.

    At least with a movie it only last for a hour and a half or so. A book must hold you until the real story begins.

    I really enjoyed this post!

    Dannie

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  55. Hey I've given you a blog award on my site! Come stop by and pick it up at http://writeskatedream-jmckendry.blogspot.com

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  56. I think it depends on the type of movie. Action/Adventure needs something different than Romantic Comedy. Both movies look good, as does the book, though.

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  57. Kathleen ~ Thor did have good eye-candy!

    Dannie ~ I look back at some amazing Anne Rice books that had a somewhat slow start, but ended up being amazing and long for publishers who still had such a diverse vision.

    Jess ~ Thanks so much!

    Shari ~ Totally agree that different stories need different things.

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  58. I want to see Cowboys & Aliens. Glad you liked it. There's another endorsement for it. :)

    It can be exciting to start with action. The new Star Trek did. Indiana Jones usually does, too.

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  59. wow! So many comments! Good for you Isis! So surprised to see you in the same PNR Rom group for the campaign! Love this post! Start with a ban, dribble in the backstory and you've got it made!

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  60. I love stories that jump into the action - I get a feel for the story and then it winds back so we learn a bit about the character etc...:)

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  61. You know, I don't prefer one over the other, as long as it's well done. I want to be interested in what's going on. However, I have probably only put down two or three books without reading them all the way through; I feel compelled to finish any book I've started, even if it's pure torture.

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  62. I hear the same thing from agents and publishers. If you want your book noticed, drop us into the action. I've been engaged by both methods, but what I like about in media res is that is shows a certain trust, that it's all right for the character to unfold in the action, to show us the character.

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  63. i agree with your criticism on thor. don't understand why it was reviewed reasonably well. and was also vastly disappointed with the character of loki.

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  64. M Pax ~ Hope you enjoy it.

    Jessica ~ Glad we are in the same group.

    TF ~ It can be a good way to start if done right.

    Shannon ~ Starting with action is not the only way to start.

    Alissa ~ There is certainly a lot of pressure from agents and editors. I guess they read so many manuscripts you can't afford to wait to hook them.

    Aguilar ~ I'm still scratching my head about the reviews of Thor.

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