3) Ways to Begin a Story
There are three major ways to begin a story, and none of them are very impressive. I have started many stories, many more than I have finished. In the early days, I was intoxicated with beginning, and if the scene was clever enough, or the premise profound, or the expression beautiful, that was enough for me to commit it to paper. I have not changed much on that score, either, and so I do not mean to steal your enthusiasm. By all means, write it.
But if disappointment or discouragement strikes you in the beginning, do not make much of that. Beginnings are just not that great, nor that important, and are generally just something to get through to the meat. The end is where all the art is; the middle is the place for craft.
So, let us get through it in a technical manner.
In Media Res
This is the first of three approaches. It means in the middle of the action. It is very common. It is almost treated as a rule, and you probably will see elements of it in the beginning of any modern novel. It used to be that the novelist felt an obligation to set the stage in clear and helpful ways for the audience, giving them much useful information, and counting upon their patience. After all, they went through the trouble of acquiring the book. But now, the author feels an obligation to entertain and counts upon his audience’s impatience, as if there was a pleasure upon earth not mixed with suffering.
Hence: In Media Res. The truest form of this is like a minor climax in the beginning of a story. For instance, I had a story that opened with a detailed description of a rocket-propelled grenade launcher and its effects. It continued until the same character stabbed a fellow in the hand and threatened him with some sort of blackmail. In a book I have currently published, I open with the rapid murder of four separate people. These are probably my worst stories.
This is a more traditional approach. You build the setting, the caracters, the premise, well before introducing the central conflict. In many old stories, the conflict was not introduced for up to half the length of the book.
The problem with this approach is that it is the natural tendency of a completely new author, or one teaching himself, to build and build and build all of the details of his story. Oftentimes, you get bogged down in answering a thousand questions that might never actually come up. It becomes a very weighty thing to do, and unless you are skilled at writing in general, it does not have a rhythm built into it. Whereas the first method requires a rest of some kind, no matter how amateurish you are (although I have myself kept the action going for a goodly third of a story before).
This is the best way to do construction: Explain only what is encountered, and limit yourself just to enough to begin the plot. Furthermore, determine the conflict beforehand, even if it will not be introduced until later. That will prevent you from holding yourself up too much.
For instance, I have a book I am writing now. The central conflict is that the sun stops moving. The opening line is: “Wilfred Bonnywhack was the son of a lumberjack.” I construct then what his father and occupation is like. I explain other things only in between the operations of those original constructions, which is the work of a few days cutting down a tree.
It is not until the end of their work that the sun stops moving, right as the tree falls. It would have been the place to do in Media res, but then the characters and setting would be shallow. (This is actually my second attempt at writing this story, and the first time I began that way, in the middle of this conflict). Furthermore, the point of the book is to explore Christ’s conquering of the domains of demons in pagan nations. This would not be set up if I rushed into action.
The third way of opening a story as I see it is tranquility. This is also more modern of an approach, but it is the opposite of in Media res. It works in similar ways as construction. The main difference is that the things you are constructing are not stable in the later plot. As the action begins, these things quickly pass away. Simply put, nothing very upsetting happens for a few chapters. Life is maybe even ordinary, but not necessarily. For instance, I have two books I wrote at similar times. One begins with a man in the desert and the other begins with a man doing farm chores. What makes it this sort of opening is that the details, imagery, and even the setting, have no direct bearing on the rest of the story. It establishes the character and his perspective, but very briefly, and he is swiftly brought into completely different situations and places, antithetical in fact to his resting position, at which he started. The man in the desert finds himself embroiled with more and more people and more and more intricate plots, whereas the man doing farm chores finds himself in strange society traveling further and further into settled lands, with strangers of exotic backgrounds. They both leave their setting immediately. It is their home.
I highly recommend this approach. It gives you a baseline for yourself and your characters, it makes them have more depth, and it is low-stakes. What is more, you can move quickly into the other approaches if you wish.
There remains something to be said about prologues. Honestly, I no longer recommend them to anybody. They are essentially a way of telling a short story very tangential to the plot but at a time where the reader has no real interest but to begin, and it delays his beginning. I find them mostly to be the author preening his abilities, as if that was what the average reader cared about, when experiences shows that they care only for content, and all else is handmaid to that.
If you must fill in some mysterious scene whose significance is not revealed until far later, you are much better off doing it a few chapters in, in the ordinary order of the chapters. In fact, as I write this, I conceive the idea to do the same with one of my old prologues.