THERE IS A MOMENT WHEN, in your story world, everything has changed. The stranger has come to town, the father has died, the mother has left, the best friend has announced that she’s moving to Pakistan. And that moment is a great place to start your novel. Forget backstory, forget building up to it—just lay out the stakes right away.
Like In Media Res, in which you begin in the middle of the action, this technique relies on triggering a reader’s curiosity. The world has suddenly changed. What will happen now? That’s the question you want in the back of your readers’ minds at all times, but especially at the beginning.
Some examples: In The Lovely Bones, it is the moment when Susie, a teenage girl, gets lured into a neighbor’s secret bunker. In The Hobbit, it is the moment when the wizard Gandalf appears and talks to Bilbo, then leaves a mysterious mark on Bilbo’s front door. In The Light Between Oceans, this is when the childless couple manning a lighthouse finds a baby in a lifeboat.
This technique answers the question of why a reader should care by creating drama immediately that will result in—what? We want to know what. If you start big, you can afford to fall back a bit afterwards, a least for a bit. Layer in some characteristics; maybe even give a bit of back story. You have won the first battle: getting the reader’s attention.
Starting at the last moment possible allows for a dramatic chapter one, which is great, but it raises the stakes. Your reader will probably want more of the same. Of course, it would be difficult for the writer and tiring for the reader to have constant, building drama. There is an ebb and flow to everything, even our attention. Down time is important—but not too much. The writer needs to create enough sparks in chapters two, three, and so on to prepare for the next dramatic moment without losing readers.
And a dramatic moment doesn’t have to be a natural disaster or a gunfight; it can be as small as one character’s timely decision. Drama in the Greek means “Action.” Think of how many kinds of action there are in life! So don’t worry if your novel begins not with a death, but with a simple decision to write an anonymous letter. That’s an action. That’s drama. That’s starting at the last possible moment.
Other posts in “The Cold Open” series: