Copyright 2011 by Gary L. Pullman
Typically, an opening chapter, beginning in media res, sets up a mysterious, sometimes bizarre, situation that involves danger, compelling a character (usually the protagonist) to take immediate corrective action, the outcome of which may be left, for the moment, in doubt.
Let’s take a look at each of these elements.
In media res means “in the middle of things,” and refers to the narrative technique of presenting an incident out of context, apart from the related sequence of related incidents of which it is a part. A classic example in detective fiction is to begin the story with the discovery of a murder victim’s corpse. Obviously, someone killed the person. Who? How?, Why?, When?, and even Where? (the dastardly deed could have been done somewhere else and the body moved from the true crime scene to its present location) are all implicit, but as-yet, unanswered questions. The incidents that led up to the murder have been omitted. The story, in other words, has begun in media res.
The way to create mystery is to withhold key explanatory details that would create a context in which the situation would be understood. Often, such details relate to who or what is causing the situation, how the situation is being caused, or why it is being caused. A writer has only five questions with which to work in developing his or her plot and in creating, maintaining, and heightening the suspense that keeps readers reading: Who?, What?, When?, Where?, How?, and Why?* It is best, perhaps, in the opening chapter to address as few of these vital questions as possible. If an author supplies the what?, for example, and need to address the other four questions, it is probably best to leave them for later. By keeping the reader guessing concerning these questions, the writer maintains suspense.
The bizarre, of course, is the unusual. The unusual can be outlandish, but it need not be. The unusual can be a description of the life of a little-known people, such as an arctic or an Amazonian tribe. It can be a look into the customs of a different culture, past, present, or future. It can involve an expedition to another world. The unusual can be the anomalous, phenomena that do not fit the current scientific view of nature or reality. The bizarre may relate to the monstrous, the abnormal, the deviant, the fiendish, or the aberrant. Folklore, legends, and myths are sources, at times, for beliefs and attitudes that may seem bizarre to modern men and women.
Danger is most often associated with the body; it is physical. Such danger should always be present in a horror novel, of course (and is present in almost all genre fiction). However, physical danger is often coupled another type of danger--theological, philosophical, social, familial, or technological, for example, which compounds and elevates the physical dangers to which the characters are exposed. Danger to the body is frightening, but when such danger is coupled with perils to faith, belief, nation, family, or infrastructure, the fear is magnified.
The danger must force the character (usually the protagonist) to take immediate corrective action, but what is “corrective action”? Ideally (from the characters point of view), it is action that solves the problem which he or she has encountered in the opening chapter’s situation. From the readers’ point of view, though, the problem should never be so small or simple that it can be easily solved by the endangered character. Instead, his or her attempt to solve the problem should fail and, in fact, lead to or cause an even greater, related problem. Therefore, “corrective action” might mean no more than evading the danger, escaping it, or temporarily neutralizing it, only to have the same peril recur, with greater intensity or be replaced by a superior, but related, hazard. Until the end of the story, “corrective action” is generally either evasive action or stop-gap measures designed to postpone what seems to be inevitable death and destruction or a failure of some lesser sort. (As a rule, if the opening chapter does not involve the protagonist, the character who is involved in the opening chapter’s situation must turn out to be related in some way, directly or indirectly, to the protagonist or the protagonist’s plight.)
Lincoln Child’s novel Terminal Freeze offers a textbook case of beginning one’s story in media res and of setting up a mysterious, sometimes bizarre, situation that involves danger, compelling a character (usually the protagonist) to take immediate corrective action.
A tribal shaman invokes a ritual by which he hopes to appease gods who, he believes, have been angered by a woman’s careless violation of a taboo--a violation that has already led to some (unnamed) catastrophe and which, if it is not propitiated, may lead to more, even worse calamities. He performs the ritual, but it doesn’t work. Instead, something far worse threatens his people, and the shaman realizes that it is not the woman’s accidental breaking of the taboo, nor is it the failure of the ritual, but something far worse: “Only a violation of the most serious of all taboos could cause the kind of spirit fury he now paid witness to” (4). The shaman’s response is to order the woman to pack her belongings, for they must leave the next day, to travel south, “to the mountain” (5), where the violation of the most sacred taboo, presumably, has occurred. Readers are left hanging, so to speak, concerning the question as to whether the shaman and his people will be able to put matters right. If not, what horrible fate awaits them? This is another question that, left, for the moment unanswered, compels further reading.
*Some argue that a sixth question, How many? or How much? is also implied by any situation.