Here’s something that comes up a lot when I’m discussing structure with early-career novelists…
When starting a novel, you essentially have two structural choices. You can begin at the beginning, and move forward using a linear narrative, or you can begin in medias res – ‘in the middle of things.’ This, for example, is how Dickens opens David Copperfield:
Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station will be held by anybody else, these pages must show. To begin my life with the beginning of my life, I record that I was born (as I have been informed and believe) on a Friday, at twelve o’clock at night. It was remarked that the clock began to strike, and I began to cry, simultaneously.
In consideration of the day and hour of my birth, it was declared by the nurse, and by some sage women in the neighbourhood who had taken a lively interest in me several months before there was any possibility of our becoming personally acquainted, first, that I was destined to be unlucky in life; and secondly, that I was privileged to see ghosts and spirits; both these gifts inevitably attaching, as they believed, to all unlucky infants of either gender, born towards the small hours on a Friday night.
I need say nothing here, on the first head, because nothing can show better than my history whether that prediction was verified or falsified by the result. On the second branch of the question, I will only remark, that unless I ran through that part of my inheritance while I was still a baby, I have not come into it yet. But I do not at all complain of having been kept out of this property; and if anybody else should be in the present enjoyment of it, he is heartily welcome to keep it.
As David Copperfield is a ‘bildungsroman’ (or ‘novel of formation’), which means it charts the formation of the protagonist’s character from childhood, Dickens simply starts with the hero’s birth and then moves forward as he grows up. (You’ll note also the first person narration gives the novel the feel of a memoir.)
In medias res (from the Latin ‘in the midst of things’) simply means relating a story from the midpoint, rather than the beginning (the opposite of Ab ovo or ab initio – ‘from the beginning, the origin, the egg’). In an in medias res narrative, the story opens with a dramatic action rather than an expository presentation of setting, characters and situation. As Horace wrote of Homer’s Iliad (which opens at the height of the Trojan War) in his Ars poetica:
Nor does he begin the Trojan War from the egg
But always he hurries to the action, and snatches the listener into the middle of things.
A famous example is the opening of Dante’s Divine Comedy:
Midway upon the journey of our life
I found myself within a forest dark,
For the straightforward pathway had been lost.
Ah me! how hard a thing it is to say
What was this forest savage, rough, and stern,
Which in the very thought renews the fear.
So bitter is it, death is little more;
But of the good to treat, which there I found,
Speak will I of the other things I saw there.
There are at least four different middles here: middle age, the middle of the wood, the middle of a journey, the middle of a narrative. Danti conflates life, journey and narrative, and suggests that there are no absolute beginnings – we are always already begun.
If you decide to begin in medias res, open with a dramatic incident from the middle to the end of your second act (the main body of your story). Stop at a point of crisis, and then go back to the (notional) beginning. Move forward again from here, so that your introduction is revisited in a different way, developed and then resolved. Here’s a great example of this technique from Chuck Palahniuk in the opening scene of the novel Fight Club:
Tyler gets me a job as a waiter, after that Tyler’s pushing a gun in my mouth and saying, the first step to eternal life is you have to die. For a long time though, Tyler and I were best friends. People are always asking, did I know about Tyler Durden.
The barrel of the gun pressed against the back of my throat, Tyler says, ‘We won’t really die.’
With my tongue I can feel the silencer holes we drilled into the barrel of the gun. Most of the noise a gunshot makes is expanding gases, and there’s the tiny sonic boom a bullet makes because it travels so fast. To make a silencer, you just drill holes in the barrel of the gun, a lot of holes. This lets the gas escape and slows the bullet to below the speed of sound.
You drill the holes wrong and the gun will blow off your hand.
‘This isn’t really death,’ Tyler says. ‘We’ll be legend. We won’t grow old.’
I tongue the barrel into my cheek and say, Tyler, you’re thinking of vampires.
The building we’re standing on won’t be here in ten minutes…
I know this because Tyler knows this.
Prologues also remain a popular opening gambit. A ‘prologue’ (from the Greek pro, ‘before,’ and lógos, ‘word’) is an opening to a story that establishes the setting and gives background details, often some earlier story that ties into the main one, and other miscellaneous information. The Greek prologos includes the modern concept of ‘prologue,’ but was more like what we would think of as a ‘preface.’ In a novel, the prologue is a part of the front matter rather than the main text, like a kind of narrative book end, which is then balanced by an epilogue or l’envoi at the end. These should not, however be confused with framing narration, although there are similarities.
Euripides supposedly developed this structure, in the form of an explanatory first act, although generations of critics, reviewers and theatre goers have decried the prologue as a useless appendage prefixed to the play – a barrier between audience and text. The original point, to an Athenian audience, was to supply information required to make the succeeding scenes intelligible.
In contemporary fiction, ‘prologues’ and ‘prefaces’ are essentially interchangeable terms. Stephanie Meyer, for example, opens Twilight with a short ‘Preface’ (which is also in medias res):
I’d never given much thought to how I would die — though I’d had reason enough in the last few months — but even if I had, I would not have imagined it like this.
I stared without breathing across the long room, into the dark eyes of the hunter, and he looked pleasantly back at me.
Surely it was a good way to die, in the place of someone else, someone I loved. Noble, even. That ought to count for something. I knew that if I’d never gone to Forks, I wouldn’t be facing death now. But, terrified as I was, I couldn’t bring myself to regret the decision. When life offers you a dream so far beyond any of your expectations, it’s not reasonable to grieve when it comes to an end.
The hunter smiled in a friendly way as he sauntered forward to kill me.
If you decide to use a ‘prologue’ then you need to balance it with an ‘epilogue’ at the end of your text – you’d be surprised how many novelists forget this. Prologues and epilogues can look quite out-dated and overblown though, so experiment; often just leaving them as opening and closing chapters is neater. If you’re considering an epilogue remember that these are generally used nowadays set the denouement apart from the final chapter only if it differs significantly from the main narrative in time or place, or if it’s in a radically different style. The epilogue of Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, for example, occurs hundreds of years after the action of the novel and takes the form of a transcript from a historical symposium.
But however you start your novel, remember that on a practical level, your opening scene is what’s going to sell it. The publishing marketplace is ridiculously crowded and competitive, so however you start, aim to grab your reader’s attention and hold it. I have heard it whispered in the dark haunts where agents gather, in fact, that the secret of a successful opening scene nowadays rests on the ‘4F’ rule, which is ‘a fight or a f— in the first five pages,’ especially if the novel is by a new and therefore unknown author. (I know, depressing, isn’t it?) Slow burners and subtle opening scenes are therefore a commercial gamble, but, then again, rules are made to be broken and who wants to be ruled by the vulgarities of the marketplace, anyway? You must be true to yourself and write what pleases you. The real trick after the opening scene is to keep writing.