Thursday, September 15, 2011
In Medias Res
In medias res is Latin for “in the middle of things.” It’s the recommended place to start a scene or a story. Snag the reader’s attention and drag ‘em in before they know what’s happening. They’ll have time to catch their breath once the story’s over.
I’ve heard anecdotes about writers who were advised by their editors to switch their first chapters around. Start with Chapter 2 and follow up with Chapter 1. Why? Because first chapters tend to end up as intros. We meet the characters, find out where they live and who their friends and families are, in a relaxed, everyday situation. The real action, the story itself, doesn’t start until Chapter 2. Editors like to see a story kick off with a bang. Plunge the reader right into the action on page 1. They can learn who these people are in Chapter 2, after they’ve been hooked.
Obviously this technique works great in mystery and action genres. But romance? Hey, why not? Paranormal and romantic suspense stories would definitely benefit from blasting right out of the gate. Raise that tension level right from the get-go. Rising tension never hurt a story.
Back in the ‘80s I read a book featuring the Woman Has Amnesia plot. She’d hired a pilot to fly her somewhere. The plane crashed in the wilderness, and she woke up with no memories. The pilot claimed to be her husband, for reasons I can’t recall. Maybe he was just a cad. Caddish behavior from romance heroes was acceptable in the ‘80s. They spent the rest of the book falling in love while trying to escape the wilderness intact. Plot particulars beyond that elude me now.
I do recall my disappointment, even three decades later. Chapter 1 opened on the airfield, with the pilot spotting the woman for the first time. Right off the bat, we know they’re not married. They’ve never met before this. By the time the plane crashed and the story proper started, any surprise or suspense had been blunted, as far as I was concerned.
I would have been so much happier had the story started like this:
The first line describes the woman’s slow return to consciousness. She’s out in the middle of nowhere next to the wreckage of a plane. She can’t remember where she is, or why, or how she got here, or even her name. Suddenly another person arrives, the hunkiest dude she’s ever laid eyes on (as far as she knows), the pilot of the plane. “Don’t you remember me, darling?” he says to end the chapter. “I’m your husband.”
Okay, I’m primed for Chapter 2 now. Bring it on.
The story can go in two directions from here. We can stay inside the woman’s head as she begins to notice the contradictions in “hubby’s” story even as she finds herself falling in love with him. Or we can hop into the pilot’s head for the truth. He knows vaguely where they are and how slim their chances are. He doesn’t need some panicky amnesiac jeopardizing their survival, hence the lie. “Look, I know you don’t remember me, but we’re married. You’ve always trusted me. Trust me now and do what I say and I’ll get us out of this.” So he’s not such a cad after all. But how long can he keep up the pretense, especially when he starts to develop genuine feelings for her?
Either way, the book’s got an added level of urgency now, sparked by the simple decision to start in the middle of the action. The reader’s no longer an observer; she starts on equal footing with the leads and can ride along as the story unfolds. Starting in the middle can help a book climb to the top of the charts. I’d better go revise my WIP.
(By the way, if the book I described – I think it was a Harlequin/Silhouette, maybe an Intrigue or Special Edition, if those lines existed back then – sounds familiar to anybody, I’d love to know the title, which I’ve long forgotten. All I can remember is that I didn’t agree with how the story started. Anyone recognize it?)