Wednesday, August 31, 2011

How Starting Stories With Action Can Be Hit Or Miss

It's our pleasure to welcome Isis Rushdan with a timely topic on story beginnings. If you like this post, please leave a comment by answering Isis's question at the end of the post.

By Isis Rushdan

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).

Cowboys and Aliens

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?

Isis Rushdan was born in New York City.  Fresh out of high school at sixteen and to the horror of her family, she turned down a college scholarship and tried to join the U.S. Army. She did join when she became of age. After her tour, she went on to graduate with a B.A. in Psychology from Ohio State University and parlayed her degree into an active duty commission as an officer in the U.S. Air Force.  In 2005, she joined the reserves, where she is still a member of the Armed Forces. She currently resides in the United Kingdom.She is a Paranormal Romance and Urban Fantasy writer and is represented by Helen Breitwieser of Cornerstone Literary Agency. You may visit her on her website and blog at and


Jayne Ormerod... said...

I like to be dropped in the middle of the action providing it keeps moving forward after that. Nothing worse than having a huge chunk of backstory introduced in chapter 2 so that it makes sense.

Good topic for discussion.


Marlena Cassidy said...

As long as there's no backstory glut to sift through, in media res is all good.

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