Don’t Begin at the Beginning

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If you’re a fiction writer, you’ll be aware of the need to grab a reader’s attention as early as possible; to hook them, preferably, on your very first page. One key technique for doing this is to start your story in medias res

The Latin expression in medias res means “into the midst of things”. Used as a literary term, it refers to starting a story by jumping straight into the middle of the conflict or action.

It’s often a temptation for writers to start by providing all the background information for their story, all the character and location detail they’ve laboriously worked out. But this exposition or “infodump” can be very boring. 

A better approach is to skip the exposition, at least temporarily, and dramatize your work’s central conflict from the beginning. As well as immediately involving the reader, this helps set up narrative tension : the reader wants to know why the described conflict is happening. Explaining too much up front can deflate this intrigue. Over time you can slowly reveal the explanation in what will, hopefully, be a satisfying and engrossing process for the reader. 

Filling in the back-story can be achieved in several ways : via flashback, for example, or by having your characters recall prior events. The skill is in providing the reader with just the information they need, without either overwhelming them or leaving them bemused. The best approach is to reveal your back-story in dribs and drabs so that a lot of the time, your readers aren’t even aware they are being informed.  

Of course, there’s nothing wrong with writing long sections of factual information for your own use, as you work out the details of your setting. In many ways, this is a good thing. Just don’t expect your readers to wade through all that before they reach your actual story.

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12 thoughts on “Don’t Begin at the Beginning”

  1. ” . . . grab a reader’s attention as early as possible; to hook them . . . ”

    Please don’t condone the use of “them” as a singular pronoun! The antecedent “reader” clearly calls for a singular pronoun, “him” or “her.” As a woman, I much prefer to be included in the gender-neutral pronoun “him” than to wince at the incongruity of a plural pronoun used to refer to a singular antecedent. You did it again in paragraph 5:

    ” . . . providing the reader with just the information they need . . . ”

    If the concern is not to exclude female readers, this is easily solved by making such references plural: “grab readers’ attention . . . providing readers with.”

    I realize that I will probably lose this battle, but I’m not going down without a fight!

  2. You are right, Simon. It is a challenge, but one I am enjoying, to subtly fill in the background details while keeping the story in motion. This is especially true in children’s stories.

  3. @Julie: The issue of singular they/their/them is style, not grammar.

    The prohibition was INVENTED in the 18th-century.

    If “you” can be singular or plural, why the objections to “them”? It’s better than awkward constructions such as “he/she”.

    Allowing singular they is a practical acceptance of history and the fact it is useful, widely used (including by universally acclaimed writers), and is unambiguous.

    See this discussion on the DWT forum:

    That said, I agree with you that the opening for this particular article would be better if “readers” was plural.

  4. I had a book I was writing full of back story, I might have even had a back story within the back story. I loved that eight hundred page story, but not all people want to commit your eight hundred page story when all they want is the highlights. They don’t need to know where the protagonist went to school as long as he fights off the aliens.

    Reel them in at the beginning and they will want to know the back story, but you have to get them on your side first.

  5. @Cecily: You make a good point; we have always used you in both singular and plural, and I confess the need for a gender neutral singular pronoun.

    How do you research something like the origin of the “them” prohibition? I love language etymology and development, but I have not studied either.

  6. @Julie: I have formally studied etymolology, but I have reference books including Concise OED (I’m British), “Fowler’s Modern English Usage”, Gowers’ “The Complete Plain Words”, Crystal’s “The Fight for English” and “Cambridge Encyclopedia of English”. I also frequent various language and linguistic-related reference sites and blogs, including those referenced in the forum post I linked to. From those, I have my own notes, assembled over the years.

  7. The prohibition was INVENTED in the 18th-century.

    No it wasn’t. The alt.usage.english faq says Prescriptive grammarians have traditionally (since 1746, although the actual practice goes right back to 1200) prescribed “he” — and note that’s before anyone ever used “they” in a singular sense.

  8. @Peter: Interesting. Thank you.

    I did a fair bit of research on singular “they” a year or so ago and didn’t come across the argument you quote from

    However, it doesn’t cite any authority for or examples of 11th century prohibition of singular “they” (it merely says that some writers avoided it), though it does link to defence of it. Also, the sentence immediately before the one you quote admits “Singular “they” has been used in English since the time of Chaucer.”

    Mind you, if we’re going back to the 11th century for advice, we’re arguably talking about a different language. Few people today can even read Chaucer fluently without additional learning, and he was up to 200 years after that.

    It’s also worth noting that the article is from the perspective of American English (e.g. citing AHD usage panel) and AmE is far less accepting of singular “they” than BrE.

    I come across singular they/them/their all the time, whether in newspapers or novels of the eighteenth to twentieth centuries. I wonder if American publications remove it, in the same way they change “centre” to “center” and “pavement” to “sidewalk”?

  9. I need some basic advice on steps I need to take to write my first book successfully. It is Fantasy mixed with sci-fi, and I’m estimating that its going to be around 500 pages long roughly.

  10. @ Cecily & Julie

    I bet you guys are a blast to go out with and I also am assured that you write some really interesting stuff or so they tell me but I don’t believe them.

  11. Is it not poetic license or licence surely and if not maybe freedom of expression?. I am all for the right and proper use of language but it all seems a bit pretentious and off putting to the budding writer.

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