Starting a story in the middle of action is fine if that’s the kind of story you’re telling. Generally, that'd probably be something in the adventure/thriller genre. But not all stories suit the kind of opening where assassins are chasing a monkey over the rooftops of Buenos Aires (although I have no doubt that book would be a huge hit).
And even if you are writing in that genre, you might prefer to build up to those kind of scenes. Having someone hanging from a twelfth storey window ledge can feel very hackneyed. We don’t know the character, we don’t know why he’s up there, and frankly, we don’t care. It’s not always enough to just put some random person in peril.
A high tempo opening scene might not be right for your story and it quite often reads like an attempt by the writer to inject the story with drama it hasn’t really earned and can feel contrived.
But an energetic set-piece out of an action movie isn’t the only way to make the reader feel they’re in the middle of something interesting. Another way a story can benefit from starting in the middle is to start in the middle of emotion.
Unless a character is a newly produced replicant, chances are they will enter your first scene in a particular mood. You can use that mood to pull in the reader. It doesn’t really matter what that mood is, as long as it isn’t neutral.
Often, because the story starts in normal mode, with weird stuff to happen later, the main character is fairly relaxed. They may have certain issues to deal with, but they’re dealing with them. While that’s perfectly plausible and realistic, it’s also quite dull to read.
Just because they aren’t running for their life, doesn’t mean they should just be treading water.
An easy way to lift them out of that kind of flat introduction is to have them already emotionally affected by something. It doesn’t have to be a big emotion, they don’t have to be angry and shouting, it can be sad, vengeful, jealous, whatever. It depends on their personality and what situation they’re in, that is to say it helps if you choose their emotional state to reflect the type of person they are, and then express that emotion in a character specific way.
It’s also worth bearing in mind that how you show the emotional state to the reader makes a difference. Literally showing the emotion, i.e. tears on the face of a sad person, spittle flying out of the mouth of an angry person and so on, isn’t very engaging. It’s just vivid description (nothing wrong with that, just not useful for our purposes here).
What works much more effectively is to show emotion through behaviour. What are they doing because of the emotions they’re experiencing? Having them sitting there thinking about stuff (which emotionally wrought people often do) is not going to help you get the reader caught up in the start of the story.
And just because this technique can catch a reader’s attention doesn’t mean it will without a little creativity on your part. A guy with a gun is scary in real life, in fiction it’s any crappy TV show.
A direct cause and effect (he says he’s been cheating on her, she bursts into tears) doesn’t offer much in the way of intrigue.
If a policeman knocks on a woman’s door and tells her they’ve found her husband murdered and she punches the air and whoops with joy, that’s a bit more attention grabbing.
And it makes for a more dynamic scene if the character’s emotions interfere with what she needs to do. If the husband tells the wife he’s leaving her at a wedding where she’s supposed to give a speech on the power of love, you can get a lot of mileage out of how she reacts.
You can make this technique work for just about any emotion, but it’s important to avoid anything that’s along the lines of stunned, traumatised, bored, shy, icy, or any other emotion which is expressed through non-action. Either that or find an active way to express it. Heart-broken people do spend a lot of time in bed, but they also set fire to their ex-lover’s car.
Obviously, those “leave me alone” emotions exist and may be relevant to characters in your story, but my point is specific to openings and using emotions to hook readers. “Crawl into a hole” emotions won’t serve you there so don’t use them.
Right, I'm off to finish my new Argentinian spy thriller Orangutango!
If you found this post useful, please give it a retweet. Cheers.