In media res. Latin for “in the middle of.”
Shakespeare successfully used this technique of starting scenes in several of his plays, most notably, Othello. Check it out. In every single scene, two characters enter already engaged in conversation. As we “eavesdrop” we learn important bits of information. Characters are developed, actions are plotted and we are engaged right from the start.
It’s a great technique.
Often writers choose to start with a description (Tolkien, anyone?) or a digression (Victor Hugo has entire chapters of these). Both are good tactics. They are not, however, the only options.
Shake up your writing a little (pun intended) and try starting a chapter in the middle of the action. Hook your reader, get them intrigued, then let the information out. This will help them stay interested in the story you’re unfolding.
Remember, YOU might know what happened before the scene, but is it really necessary for the READER to know? Are you overloading with exposition? Are you giving so much backstory that they’re screaming at you to get on with it?
In media res. Three Latin words that will become your best friends.
Go to your bookshelf and choose ten fiction novels at random. Alternately, choose ten short stories at random. How many of them start in media res? What do you think came before? As an exercise, choose one and write the scene immediately before the scene in the book. What were the characters talking about? How did they get onto this subject or in this place?
If you already have a work in progress, go to the start of a chapter and determine the point where the most important information is revealed. What if you started there instead? How much of what came previous is actually necessary for the story?
Remember, digressions aren’t necessarily bad, but be aware of what choices you’re making. If you choose to start a chapter with description or a digression, both of which are legitimate techniques, choose to do it on purpose. Likewise if you start in media res.
Alternate alternate activity
If you’re staring a new piece, start smack-dab in the middle of a conversation between two of the characters (protagonist and his/her best friend, antagonist plotting to take over the world...you get the picture). Have fun and see where it takes you!
(You can also do this as a writing exercise just for fun. You never know when an exercise just might hit a home run and turn into a novel) :)
Play safe...and remember the tip!