How to Open
Steve Almond | June 2014
Of the many dogmas that afflict creative writing classes these days, none is more abused—and therefore more odious—than in medias res.
Traditionally, in medias res (Latin for “in the midst of things”) is a literary technique in which the author begins in the middle of the story, rather than at the beginning. The Iliad, for instance, begins in the last year of the Trojan War.
More recently, in medias res has come to signify the idea that a writer is best to open a story—or novel or essay or memoir—with dramatic action rather then exposition. As a teacher of writing I see this constantly, and ninety percent of the time I’m hopelessly lost by the third paragraph.
So today, in an effort to deter more baffling beginnings, I’d like to offer a brief survey of my favorite openings. You will notice that exactly none of them obey the in medias res dogma.
There’s a lesson here somewhere. Let’s see if we can find it…
The Visit of the Royal Physician by Per Olov Enquist (novel)
On April 5, 1768, Johann Friedrich Struensee was appointed Royal Physician to King Christian VII of Denmark, and four years later he was executed.
Look ma, no scene! In fact, just the opposite. It’s just a pair of obscure historical facts. So why is it so thrilling? Because it immediately establishes suspense: the man summoned to court to cure the king is eventually executed by him. How and why did this happen? Keep reading.
The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath (novel)
It was a queer, sultry summer, the summer they electrocuted the Rosenbergs, and I didn’t know what I was doing in New York. I’m stupid about executions. The idea of being electrocuted makes me sick, and that’s all there was to read about in the papers—goggle-eyed headlines staring up at me on every street corner and at the fusty, peanut-smelling mouth of every subway. It had nothing to do with me, but I couldn’t help wondering what it would be like, being burned alive all along your nerves.
Plath is doing so much astonishing work here. She’s establishing the setting and time frame of her novel, the addled mood of her heroine and, above all, her inimitable voice, which is wise, searching, and psychologically fragile. The details are so precise that we feel instantly immersed.
Towelhead by Alicia Erian (novel)
My mother’s boyfriend got a crush on me, so she sent me to live with Daddy. I didn’t want to live with Daddy. He had a weird accent and came from Lebanon. My mother met him in college, then they got married and had me, then they got divorced when I was five. My mother told me it was because my father was cheap and bossy. When my parents got divorced, I wasn’t upset. I had a memory of Daddy slapping my mother, and then of my mother taking off his glasses and grinding them into the floor with her shoe. I don’t know what they were fighting about, but I was glad that he couldn’t see anymore.
I hear a lot from students about the so-called “info dump.” But the truth is, readers need a lot of information to understand who your characters are and what they’re up against. Erian is providing a remarkable amount of context here, all of it vital and thrilling. And like Plath, she’s doing so while also conveying the voice of her troubled young protagonist. The problem, it turns out, isn’t exposition. It’s inessential exposition.
“Reprieve” by Tim Kreider (essay)
Fourteen years ago, I was stabbed in the throat. This is kind of a long story and less interesting than it sounds.
This piece, the opening of Kreider’s splendid collection We Learn Nothing, immediately upends the reader’s expectations. Rather than focusing on the superficial “action” of such an episode—the blade, the blood, and so on—Kreider directs us to the real drama here: the spiritual and psychic fallout of this deadly attack. Kreider never details the stabbing itself. The piece is actually more enthralling because of this omission. Imagine that.
Walden by Henry David Thoreau (memoir)
When I wrote the following pages, or rather the bulk of them, I lived alone, in the woods, a mile from any neighbor, in a house which I had built myself, on the shore of Walden Pond, in Concord, Massachusetts, and earned my living by the labor of my hands only. I lived there two years and two months. At present I am a sojourner in civilized life again.
Thoreau could have started with any number of scenes. There he is building his cabin, or taking a dip in the pond or encountering the relevant wildlife. But he has the good sense to set out the nature of his experiment before he gets to all that. More precisely, he trusts the reader to take an interest in his larger endeavor before plunging us into anecdotes.
In her last picture, the camera had lingered at the hip, the naked hip, and even though it wasn’t her hip, she acquired a reputation for being willing.
In a single thrilling burst of direct characterization, Moore is telling us everything we need to know about our heroine, Sidra, about her doomed brand of fame, her passivity, and the way in which her body and being have been commodified as an actress. The story that follows tracks Sidra as she quits the movie business and struggles to establish a new identity. The looming question at the end of the story is the one raised in the first sentence: what happens to your soul when you allow yourself to become someone who is merely acted upon?
On the Road by Jack Kerouac (novel)
I first met Dean not long after my wife and I split up. I had just gotten over a serious illness that I won’t bother to talk about, except that it had something to do with the miserably weary split-up and my feeling that everything was dead. With the coming of Dean Moriarty began the part of my life you could call my life on the road.
Readers tend to think of On the Road as this rip-roaring, stream-of-consciousness novel. But look at how carefully Kerouac sets up the action. In three sentences, the reader learns why Sal Paradise has fallen into stasis, and how Dean Moriarty awakens him. What we get isn’t action, per se, but something even more important: the promise of action.
I could go on here. And on and on.
Instead, let me simply reiterate: a strong opening doesn’t have to grab the reader by the throat and throw them into the middle of the action. In fact, all things considered, most readers would rather not be grabbed at all. Instead, we are often most drawn in by those authors who can calmly promise us a compelling story and invite us along for the ride.