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.