Monday, October 6, 2008

in Media res

Openings are important, they invite the reader into the story and keep them reading. Janet, a successful literary agent explains. "I ask the question: does this work pull me into a fictional dream? If it does, then I’ll keep reading, wanting more, if not I put the book down. If it doesn’t work on the first page, why would it work on the second page and so on?"

As writers it is our job is to hook the reader immediately. Yet for many authors the opening can be one of the hardest parts of the book to write. There is a lot of advice out there … "begin with a character" … "don’t open with a dream sequence" … "set the scene" … "don’t mention the weather" … "tell a joke’ … "don’t tell a joke" … "set the tone" … "set the mood" ….

"A good opening," according to writing consultant Scott Edelstein, "should fit naturally with the rest of the piece. It should give your reader a sense (either overt or subliminal) of what is to come in the way of tone, mood, and events. It should not mislead your reader, intentionally or unintentionally."

Today, most genre editors (and many agents) demand that their writers jump into the story with both feet …or in medias res (Latin for "into the middle of things"). Murder mysteries that open with the main character tripping over a dead body open in medias res. Martin Scorsese’s movie Goodfellas starts in the middle of the story (in medias res), while Francis Ford Coppola‘s Godfather does not.

The advice I most often give in my novel writing class is "begin as close to the end as possible." Consider a movie about a kidnapping. Randsom, the 1996 movie starring Mel Gibson as Tom Mullen and Rene Russo as his wife Kate opens with the Mullen’s attending a science fair in Central Park with their young son Sean. Within minutes the family becomes separated and Sean is kidnapped. A parents’ worst nightmare becomes reality. The viewer is hooked.

Later, during the police investigation the audience learns the background story. Bit by bit past events emerge to disclose possible motives and potential suspects. The plot line is designed to keep the story moving forward, the tension building toward the climax and finally the end.

The good news is that the opening doesn’t have to written first. Finish the first draft then during rewrites ask yourself does this opening grab the reader? Does it generate excitement? Does it make sense? Will the opening make the sale?

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