We are on our way to the hospital, Ryan’s father says.
Listen to me, Son:
You are not going to bleed to death.
Ryan is still aware enough that his father’s words come through on the edges, like sunlight on the borders of a window shade…
On the seat beside him, in between him and his father, Ryan’s severed hand is resting on a bed of ice in an eight quart Styrofoam cooler.
Zing! If you’re like me – or any ol’ human being – the first page of this story, Await Your Reply by Dan Chaon, has you immediately hooked. There’s the life-or-death action, but that’s only part of this equation. Dialogue is a great way to add urgency to an opening, but what really shines is that deftly-written metaphor in the third sentence. Reader, you are now fully clued in: you’re in the hands of a master stylist.
Here’s a subtler, but just as effective opening: the first page finds us in Saint Malo, France. It’s the seventh of August, 1944. The Allies are dropping leaflets, which are blowing about the city. They read: Urgent message to the inhabitants of this town. Depart immediately to open country. The leaflets twirl and catch on the windowsill of a blind sixteen year-old girl, Marie-Laure Leblanc. Her fingertips palpate the indecipherable slip of paper, while her ears detect the approaching hum of planes.
“Why is a blind girl alone in a war-torn city?” you wonder. “Will someone swoop in to help her?” Just like in Await Your Reply, we are plunged into a narrative with only the slenderest of names, places, and sounds. There’s no time for backstory, no reason for pedigrees. Anthony Doerr has dropped us into a climactic scene where we must grab whatever we can, much like the victims scurrying from the blasts. All the Light We Cannot See and Await Your Reply are using the same tried and true technique: in medias res.
You’ll notice a lot – and I mean A LOT – of stories on the shelves right now using in medias res. Genre depending, you might still see a decent number of prologues, too. But prologues are passé. Visit any online writing forum – or agent forum, for those of us in the business of trying to find out what is selling – and you’ll soon tire of hearing how detestable prologues are. Opening your novel with one is almost as bad as having your protagonist waking up in an opening. If you really want to send an agent into a furious diatribe, have a prologue that turns out to be a dream the protagonist wakes up from, then begin your first chapter with the waking up.
“But what about The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo?” you say. “Or Harry Potter? Those are both recent megahits with prologues.”
The prologue does have an occasional place. George R.R. Martin begins A Game of Thrones in prologue. Téa Obrecht’s The Tiger’s Wife has a lovely prologue. “In my earliest memory, my grandfather is bald as a stone and he takes me to see the tigers. He puts on his hat, his big-buttoned raincoat, and I wear my lacquered shoes and velvet dress. It is autumn, and I am four years old.”
But in medias res is hard to beat for excitement, and drama sells across every genre. Even the last cookbook/memoir I reviewed opens with the imagery of a city girl in a cow-field wondering, “How in the world did I up here?”
So why in medias res? Why now? You could say that we’re in a big hurry. Or that we’re impatient and want to know our precious time won’t be wasted. Maybe we have shorter attention spans or thinner wallets and can’t shell $29.99 out for just any ol’ book. …
“But wait, in medias res… that’s Latin, right?” Oh, clever you. Virgil used this technique over 2000 years ago. The Aeneid starts in a storm, our heroes battered about the ocean, seeking shelter from Juno. Sure there’s an introduction to Aeneas and his pop and crew in there, but there’s plenty of juicy bits (notably the sack of Troy) that must be told in backstory. And in case you were thinking that Virgil pioneered this technique: Homer starts The Odyssey when Odysseus has been stranded on Calypso’s Island for years already!
These are both great examples of stories in which the protagonist is getting in and out of trouble constantly. Yet these authors have still made the choice to disjoint the timeline and commence with a bang. Why? What are the advantages? Well, letting Aeneas tell about the sack of Troy infuses it with a psychological element. We get to have both the experience and the feelings of Aeneas. Virgil’s brilliant framing offers the reader a beautiful, thoughtful perspective. The destruction now has both drama and reflection.
And that is where many novels can fall flat – balancing the emotion and physical stakes of a protagonist, and doing it early. Readers must care, and must care quickly, what happens to the protagonist. Even if we know very little about them, like Ryan or Marie-Laure, we must somehow connect with them to step fully into the novel. How to do this in an original way… well, Chaon and Doerr are experts.
Who would you put on the first page of your story? What story’s in medias res sticks in your mind?