It’s time for another Writing Wednesday post, and I’m following up on my previous discussion of beginnings.
One good way to start a book off with a bang is with some kind of action. This sort of beginning is called “in media res,” which just means starting in the middle of action. You don’t really know what’s going on, just that something is happening, and the combination of action and curiosity about what the action is about serves to hook readers. But it doesn’t always work that way. I’ve heard agents complain about getting too many submissions that start with the protagonist running through the streets, being chased. The problem is that if you don’t know who this character is and have no reason to sympathize with him, why should you care if he gets caught? Reading about a random person running through the streets isn’t actually all that entertaining. We’re pretty certain that the main character in the story isn’t going to get caught and thrown in jail in the first scene, or there’s not going to be much of a story — unless the story is about him in prison or this is a prologue and the story is about what happens after he gets out of prison — so there isn’t a lot of suspense about whether or not he gets caught.
So, how do you make this kind of opening work? (And, really, these tricks apply to any opening, but if you can make them work with running through the streets, you can apply them anywhere.)
First, the character whose viewpoint we’re in needs a goal. It may not be the story goal at this point, but there needs to be something the character wants — other than not getting caught — and a reason for him to want it. Something needs to be at stake, and not just his freedom. Is he a thief escaping the police? What did he steal, why did he steal it, and what will happen if he gets caught? Will his daughter/mother/wife not be able to get medicine if he doesn’t get the money from this theft? Was he stealing a magical amulet from the evil wizard? Reclaiming his family’s heirloom that was stolen by a more powerful person? This goal gives us some suspense — we’re pretty sure the hero won’t get caught, but will he succeed in what he’s trying to do? Will he get into some other kind of trouble? It may not be the story goal and main plot at this point, but it should lead into the main plot in some way — say, the person who helps the hero evade the police then demands that the hero take on some other mission as paypack for the help, and he won’t be able to carry out his initial mission until that’s done.
There also needs to be some kind of context that draws us into the story. A chase scene is a good way of showing what the world looks like — is it a futuristic world with robot cops on flying motorbikes, a fantasy world with guards armed with swords, a contemporary world? Is it an unjust world with the rich and powerful not answering to laws while poor people are oppressed? Is crime common or unheard of? Is it an oppressive regime, and the hero is being chased just for being a rebel?
Beyond these plot-related things, you need to create empathy for the hero so that we care what happens to him as a person. There are some tried-and-true tricks that can be used here.
- Make him an underdog — an ordinary guy fighting against forces that are far bigger than he is
- Show him being extremely competent — he knows his way around the city, is able to hide, climb walls, or disguise himself
- Give him a sense of humor — he tosses quips at the people chasing him or has an entertaining internal monologue during the chase
- Show what other people think about him — the people in the city step up to help hide him or send the pursuers in the wrong direction, which shows us that people like him and are willing to take risks for him, so he must be a good person
- Have him “save the cat” — that’s a Hollywood term for doing something we associate with being good and kind. This kind of action makes people quickly like a character. If our hero in the chase scene stops to help someone else in spite of his own danger we’re more likely to warm to him.
If you think about popular books and movies, you can probably think of examples of these. The opening of almost every James Bond movie has Bond being extremely competent and tossing off quips during an action sequence. When we first meet Indiana Jones, he’s expertly navigating an obstacle course, and the sequence is capped by the revelation of his fear of snakes, which humanizes him. The opening of the animated Disney version of Aladdin manages to include just about all of these. He’s an orphaned street rat being pursued by the city guards, so he’s an underdog. He clearly knows his way around the city and is clever at evading capture, so he’s competent. He does it all with wit and flair. He hands over the food he stole to a starving child, for a “save the cat” moment.
The action beginning can work if there’s a reason for the action and if you can very quickly make readers care about the character.