Stuck in the middle… with your reader

Clowns to the left of me…

I always thought of myself as one of the jokers (because jokers are wild) but as that’s as may be. What I was actually thinking about was ‘in media res’ which is not being in the traditional lands of the media-tribe, (I stand corrected.) but ‘in the middle’.

It’s a place quite a lot of books start. It saves an awful lot of that tedious mucking about in hyperspace (yes, indeed, a reference to the infinite improbability drive from Douglas Adams’s HITCHHIKERS GUIDE TO THE GALAXY). In a similar fashion to the improbability drive it can lead to the reader in a place which means nothing much to them, with dramatic things happening, and not having a clue what is going on, and hoping they’ll find out later.

It is not impossible that quite a lot of us think ‘Oh no, not again’.

Seriously, the reason is that it’s often an interesting place to start, and catching the interest, (not to mention the confusion) of the reader immediately is quite important, as a lot of readers won’t cut you much slack, while you work up to the point where a story get interesting and the plot finally gets rolling.

It can be very successful. It can also be a right royal bastard to do well. The problem, per se, is while the action may be very fast moving, the reader may not have a clue why your hero is being shot at. Worse, they probably don’t care. A noob mistake is confusing action (which can generate interest and, played right, investment in the character) with getting the reader invested in both the story and the character. I’ve lost count of the number of books that, avoiding the slow start dropped me straight into the shooting, or the space battle, or the murder, or sword-fight – with the happy assumption that I’d be interested because the action was right there.

Look, it’s possible if something passing strange happens, my curiosity will be piqued. That said, any number of the scenes above are not particularly strange in the context of ‘starting a book’. Even ‘strange: what the hell is going on here?’ only gets you a few paragraphs, max. At which point I either start getting some idea – maybe just enough to make me want to know the rest – or the character has done/said something that makes me care about their story, and about them. That’s… actually quite hard in a terse, action-heavy section of prose. It does get done successfully, but too often either the character starts long speeches/thoughts when it is all about staying alive.

Speaking from some experience: introspection is for after or before. When it is written in the middle… it feels odd. The key, I find, is to keep that first bit of action very short, with the teasers of ‘strange, what is going on here?’ in it, and then to break into areas that allow your reader to begin to care about your character. Why this is more difficult than a linear story (which this may be from this point on) is that you have to back-build within the story beyond this. The background, the setting… you just started in the middle without the reader having a lot of clues about these – so yes a good way to catch the reader, a harder act to follow.

I have seen it done (and I am trying it myself, right now) where entire chapters of setting and background follow. But I am not sure it’s a great idea, unless the reader’s interest is so piqued they really want to know how the character they now care about got into this horrid mess.

But remember – any clown- or joker, can start in the middle – it’s where you go from there that is hard – because it has to be both forward and back.

Image by Bernd Hildebrandt from Pixabay

16 comments

  1. Nick Cole and Jason anspach can pull this off. But like you say it’s rare that diving straight in can keep me interested.

  2. Some people call you a space cowboy…

    One of the worst fails I’ve seen of this was in the video game Alpha Protocol*.
    You played the tutorial, met a few of the major characters, then flashed forward to your debrief/interrogation right before the climax.
    It wasn’t even done poorly.
    But the writers forgot that one of the first things you did, was customize your character (as a spy, with easily changed things to make you harder to identify). So it was not at all clear that one of the characters in the cutscene was you.

    *It’s a bad game. The mechanics are broken, the level design unfair, and the bosses are brutal (especially if you spec’d your character for avoiding combat—which seems reasonable, even optimal, before you find yourself in an unavoidable boss battle). That’s absolute catnip for the right kind of player. (It’s internally consistent, and deep as hell.) I’ve beaten it at least 6 times. And I know there are still major bits of lore that I haven’t found yet. (It’s a spy game, where everybody has ulterior motives, there are branching paths where doors lock behind you, and taking the path to find one piece of information means that others become unavailable. For example, early on you can find out that ____ is secretly working for the NSA to keep an eye on Alpha Protocol. But if you make all the right decisions, you can find out that was a cover story that she planted for you to find, so you’d trust her, when she’s really working for ____ to bring down Alpha Protocol. Which perspective retrospectively changes the entire story.)

    1. Alpha Protocol was a game that-
      1-Deserved a sequel and
      2-Couldn’t have a sequel because the various branching paths made it almost impossible to “link up” the game, especially if the players were coming in blind and/or hadn’t played the first game.

      The only game that I think came close to pulling this off was Mass Effect-the first game was okay, the second was actually pretty awesome, and the third you could tell that they had no clue at all where they were going and how they were going to get there.

  3. I remember a Sabrina Chase I read not too long ago that opened in the middle of action – space battle – that worked The Long Way Home . (just checked the title on Amazon and see it’s $1.99 for the e-copy). Our protaganist is in the middle of a space battle and about to do a suicide manuever. Chase got across enough of the character that I was interested.

    My kid has been playing Final Fantasy VII having discovered it’s available for the PC (not the recent remake, the original) and from what said kid has been talking about I’d say that game does a wonderful job of story-telling, starting from the middle and working back and forth while building characters one cares about. Even I do, just from what I’m hearing.

  4. There are many ways of opening a story but, whatever you choose: voice; setting; opinions; summary; prologue; you’ll always need a character, their senses, and a problem.

  5. > A noob mistake is confusing action (which can generate interest and, played right, investment in the character) with getting the reader invested in both the story and the character.

    Not just noobs. Heinlein’s “Friday” is a very good example. The whole book is one lone chase scene.

    SEE FRIDAY.
    SEE FRIDAY RUN.
    RUN, FRIDAY, RUN.
    RUN, RUN, RUN!

    1. He was trying to repeat his earlier success.

      You can’t deny that ‘starting in the middle’ worked brilliantly in ‘Starship Troopers’.

      “I’m a thirty-second bomb! I’m a thirty-second bomb! Twenty-nine! Twenty-eight!”

  6. I opened the first of the Colplatschki books (Elizabeth of Starland) at the end, sort of. It was supposed to have been the end. [Bad muse! Bad bad.] The protagonist is surveying an unfolding battle and gloating that her enemy made a terrible, terrible mistake when he tried to sentence her to death-by-convent [disease, actually, but . . .] Then the story goes back to the beginning.

    I could do without that bit, and I just might clip it out of the print version, when I issue one.

    1. I dunno, I liked it, because it was sort of an ice-monster prologue for me: a promise that there were going to be battles and tactics to draw me through the drawing rooms and the politics of the beginning.

  7. My first novel, I was stuck with how to introduce my main character and the only way I could think of doing it was the whole “drop you in the middle of the action, then rewind and go back a bit” thing.

    I don’t know how I would have done it better, and maybe in ten or twelve years I will. Until then…

  8. In my first draft of “Isabelle and the Siren, ” I had it opening with Isabelle remembering what had just happened. To be just she had just heard it, not done or even seen anything, but still, I was a young writer then.

  9. Everyone tends (from what I see), to do it slightly differently. If it works, it ain’t wrong. If it doesn’t… well…

  10. I don’t mind starting in the middle. Enough of the SciFi I read in my younger days just dropped the reader into the deep end (e.g. Dune) and let him figure things out, or not, that I consider that technique “classic SciFi”.
    I do mind the next umpteen chapters being “how we got to the opening chapter.” It’s the literary equivalent to the TV show that resumes after the first commercial with, “three days earlier…”.
    With very few exceptions, story time should move forward. Characters can remember something, tell another character a story of the past, and that sort of thing, but the narrative “now” should not move backward.

    I find it incredibly annoying to know the future. It means that the decisions made “now” are irrelevant/predestined/foreordained.

  11. I like to start at the interstitial space, where people are coming and going and starting things and ending things. Train stations, airports, starports… This allows for the brief introduction of who they are, where they are, where they’re going, and what they’re about to run into before they hit the action.

    I’m working on changing that, and seeing if I can still pull of keeping the reader’s interest. Blood, Oil, and Love, which will be out this month starts in a foyer of a hotel, so it’s still doing that, but A Perfect Day (With Explosions) that’ll come out in October starts inside a shop, with the perfect dress. (It then proceeds to the explosions, but at that point you know what’s going on, even if one of the main characters is still confused.)

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