Nope, somewhere in the middle is not a commentary on my political views, my social status, or even where I like to sit in a movie theater. Somewhere in the middle represents my philosophy on storytelling.
I was raised, and I’ll bet you were too, on the sorts of tales that began with “Once upon a time.” We always had a nice run up to the plot in those days, right? There’s this princess, beautiful of course, born in a castle in a fair land, and her parents loved her, and they were all happy—even the servants and serfs and vassals and…and the gosh-darn vermin were happy! But the queen apparently dropped dead of gangrene from an injury sustained in a loom malfunction, or from inbreeding, who knows? And the king got lonely and married some vindictive cow with a touch of the eldritch who doesn’t like kids, and NOW we’re going to find out what the actual story is all about.
(Note: If it’s a movie version, the story begins when the narrator finally shuts up. Unless the narrator is Morgan Freeman, in which case screw the story and let the man talk! I’d listen to Morgan Freeman narrating a shopping list.)
With all respect to the old traditions, it’s just not my thing. If I’m going to put my readers through an elaborate set-up, I make very sure I have a good reason for it. Otherwise, I’d rather start things off like this:
“That’s going to leave a mark.”
First line of my short story (novel-in-progress) Choreography.
The gun felt reassuring in my hand.
First line of the first chapter of my novella, The Bluff.
I tossed my duffle bag into the trunk, slammed it shut with more force than necessary, then turned.
First line of the short-short story, Volition.
His breath was stale. She would never forget that.
First line of my current novel-in-progress.
See what I did there? Four different stories, of varying lengths, with diverse points of view and completely different plots, but I drop kicked you straight into the middle, didn’t I? You don’t know these characters. You don’t know their names, their ages, their backgrounds, and with one exception you don’t even know their genders. These things don’t actually matter at this juncture. What you do know is that something is going on.
What’s going to leave a mark? Why does that person need the reassurance of a firearm? Someone tossing duffle bags and slamming trunks with more force than necessary is clearly a person with something on her (or his) mind…and wouldn’t you like to know what that something is? And hey, he of the stale breath is certainly making a memorable impression on her. Why?
If I’ve done my job right, I sprinkled a little itching powder across those introductory sentences. I’ve generated a question or two in your mind. And the only way you’ll be able to scratch that itch is to read the next sentence.
If I’d started with a vast meandering lead-up to the problem at hand, you still might read the story, but it’s also possible that you’ll wander off to play Angry Birds or check email or trim that pesky toenail that keeps snagging your sock or something. Instead, I’ve generated a sense of immediacy by dropping you in the middle instead of easing you through a beginning. Think of it as the difference between the beach and the ocean. You can stand on the beach forever and not even get wet, but if you get dropped smack into the water, I bet you’re going to start swimming.
At least, I would.
Oh, but in the interest of complete honesty, I have made one notable exception to the middle rule. I’ll talk about that another day.
Throwing out a question for the writers and readers out there: How do you like to start off a story?