Don’t start at the beginning

I put my kids in front of the computer to watch “E.T.” as a generational experiment, to see if it takes. Right away, Charlotte (7) starts firing off questions: Who’s that? Where are they going? Is he a bad guy? The story has started in medias res, “in the middle of things.”

After the movie we put on music videos. Lily likes a song called “Skinny Love” and I jump at the chance to connect with her, but it’s not Bon Iver, it’s a cover by someone called Birdy.

We make a deal to play both versions side-by-side and vote on the best.

The Birdy video features the somber and talented artist drifting through muted scenes, lingering by a window with dead flies. It’s that kind of mopey self-indulgence I was into with The Smiths and never grew out of.

I say let’s watch this instead, and I put on a different female artist who goes by the moniker The Knife. It’s called “When I Grow Up,” and features a similar somber girl, but she’s walking out on a diving board above a swimming pool that’s full of dead leaves.

Again, Charlotte is firing off questions: What’s she doing? Why’s she dancing like that? Daddy, I’m scared.

This is the sign of good art, good film, good music video. In story-telling, give your readers questions, don’t give them answers. Let them come to it on their own, treat them like adults.

We get enough spoon-fed content, it’s refreshing to use our minds. Which is why perhaps we retreat to books, to film, to museums: to come to things on our own terms.

Jeff Tweedy from Wilco said they’d write pop songs and then deconstruct them, put them back together again. That’s what makes it interesting, something seems off or missing, unexpected.

The writer Lawrence Block gives his advice about fiction writing: take your first chapter and flip it. Start with the second one, instead.

What are some of your favorite first scenes from books or movies, that start in the middle? (Mine is the first scene from Episode 1 of Lost.)


Categories: writing

Tags: , , , , , , , ,

40 replies

  1. Interesting post! I’ve seen a lot of people say about this advice. It’s always good to start from the middle. This may not always be the bit with the action, but it definitely raises questions, and that’s what turns the pages!

    I can’t say that I’ve seen a show which does this, but there are loads of films and TV shows that mess around with plot structure to create a similar effect. It’s clever!

    Great post!



  2. “It’s that kind of mopey self-indulgence I was into with The Smiths and never grew out of.”

    What a great way to make a useful point. I like this!

    “This is the sign of good art, good film, good music video. In story-telling, give your readers questions, don’t give them answers. Let them come to it on their own, treat them like adults.”

    I’m currently in the throws of trying to decide whether I need to go back and “give answers” to the questions I raised in chapter 6 (in a re-write of that chapter). Yours is very helpful advice this morning.

    Here’s my main thought for the day, for what it’s worth: “Don’t insist on an outcome with your writing or anything else in life. Just focus on trying to enjoy the process and bringing your version of God into it. Don’t insist that reality conform to your world view or your religious view. Trust God to have answers to the big questions – answers that would make logical sense from a higher perspective.”

    OK, that sounded more “religious” than I might have intended, but I guess that was the outcome. I was focused on the process.

    Thank you for your insight. Great blog!


    • Your main thought for the day is worth a lot to me. Thank you. Non-religious thoughts of God (if such a thing is possible) have consumed me of late, and I will reread your comments and take them in. I’m glad this helped trigger thoughts for your work, and best of luck with it. Keep in touch please so I can hear how it turned out! Cheers and thanks for visiting. – Bill

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Dadgummit, Bill, I could spend the whole afternoon responding to the different things you touch on in this post (which I enjoyed reading very much). My daughter will be six in June. I was six when I saw Star Wars and I’ve been looking forward to sharing that with her at around that age. I think it may scare her though, my wife manages what she watches very carefully and she’s never seen anything with fighting or explosions. Anyhoo, I say Star Wars. Lost is hard to beat, too,though. Good advice on storytelling, too.

    Liked by 1 person

    • She’s never seen anything with fighting or explosions? What kind of world are you trying to fool your daughter into living in? How unbearably boring, Walt. What’s she going to do when she goes out in the real world? She won’t survive.

      Anyhow, I was also six when I saw Star Wars, remember that vividly. 1976. I wanted the same for my oldest daughter: to have this like bonding thing with the movie, but then she went and saw it with a friend on a sleep-over or something, and there went that.

      I’m glad you enjoyed the post, thanks. I’m trying to spend less time online so I can focus more on research for my story idea, but it’s hard as you know. Yesterday, went to the zoo with the kids and enjoyed some pre-spring weather out our way.

      Have a good week. – Bill


      • No worries, I will just continue to protect her and isolate her. Keep her in a bubble. She’ll know nothing of the world but what I show her. It will be kind of like the Truman Show, or some such.

        Enjoy that springish weather. We had six inches of snow on Saturday.

        Good luck with the research and the writing project!


      • Six inches of snow. Well, that’s just enough to qualify as a storm I think. Out here, it would be Armageddon. Thank you for the good luck. Some time we will have to rap about it. I’d like to hear more about your projects too. I just cracked open your post, so quit bugging me so I can read it… Cheers!


  4. The Usual Suspects comes to mind.

    My middle daughter was terrified of ET for the longest time. Turns out, we learned later, she suspected the rest of her family were aliens.


    • Wasn’t too far off the mark, was she?

      Years ago, I was watching The Usual Suspects on a local station. They cut off the very end in order to run ads. If I hadn’t seen it in a theater, I never would have know Spacey’s real identity. Shitheads.


    • Yeah, I wonder how they came to the creation of the ET face and all that, the mannerisms. The thing makes burpy sounds and bumps into things, which lends it a likable quality. Funny to watch it through the eyes of a couple young ones. And to see Spielberg’s mind at work. You probably wouldn’t remember this (not sure), but all the grown-up/people actors in the scenes where they’re looking for ET show just their bodies the frames (no heads), which makes them ominous somehow. And then there is an iconic scene where one of the researchers who’s trying to capture ET appears in a space suit, to keep himself sanitized or whatever, and he removes his helmet in this grand reveal. Thanks for playing Ross. Usual Suspects is brill. Reminds me of an evil cat in our neighborhood that had Kevin Space lips, I think I told you about him once.


  5. I love the idea of starting the book with the second chapter. I’m trying to think of a favorite book or movie that starts in the middle of things but nothing is coming to mind right now. I’m sure I will wake up in the middle of the night with one. In which case, I will return to let you know!


  6. Good timing. I’m struggling right now with how to make something work. Maybe taking it from the middle and working my way back out will help.


    • I hope it does, Dina. I’m in that funny place of starting something, and flittering between writing it/ideating on it/researching on it. I believe the best thing to do is to write it, I know that, but…well…I needn’t say more. When an idea comes to you and starts taking shape, it’s very exciting. This is the first “good idea” I’ve had in a while, so it’s invigorating.

      Enjoy your week and good luck with your struggle, there.


  7. Many moons ago, I took a journalism class. The instructor said that when you read a newspaper article, more often than not, you can start with the second paragraph. That the first paragraph is usually unnecessary fluff. The author showing off. That’s accurate more often than you’d think.

    Liked by 1 person

      • Is it true? Or was he just a bitter old sod teaching who’d rather be a journo?


      • In a traditional news story, the first paragraph is the most important, summing up the main facts or importance. Then you have your soft leads, in which the writer tries to engage the reader by other means, usually for follow-up or news feature types, which is what he may have been talking about. Either way, he sounds like an overgeneralizing twat.


      • Frankly, I don’t even remember his name, if that’s an indication of anything. No impression at all beyond what I’ve related. I wonder why that stuck in my head for so long?


      • Maybe things stick in our heads sometimes that don’t belong there, like burrs. If this is any kind of corollary, I remember a theater director I had being happy with me that I didn’t have any training, because there was nothing he had to undo.

        I still feel kind of bad going off about your dog. That’s because I have become a real Northwest wuss. I lost the east coast a while ago; I guess it’s refreshing to speak it with you. Go ahead, cuss at me if you would. Hit me! Now I’m seeing a Bukowski scene with a woman tied to her bed and her guy slapping her around. There, I feel better now.


      • Oh, for Pete’s sake. Look…if I felt you owed me an apology or deserved a thrashing, you’d know it. If you had disparaged my wife or daughters, it’d be a different story. But it involves my fucking dog, who I hate anyway. Jaysus. I wish things were going so well for me and that life was so care-free that I actually had the capacity to think about this at all. Really, you’re giving yourself too much credit.


      • You’re right. And I do that: I give myself too much credit. Now I’m going to mope, Mark.

        In all seriousness, I have thought about you and that sitch you’re in with the dog, and how you probably got the dog for the kids etc. so I’m going to cast some good ol’ West Coast positive vibes your way, and breathe some evil voodoo into the ear of that dog, to die unexpectedly, soon.


      • We saw a dog behaviorist last night. We’re putting the dog on doggie Prozac. The doctor said that we can’t re-house her because of her aggression so if this doesn’t work we’ll have to consider euthanizing her. My wife said, “Oh, no…” and broke down crying. The doctor then said we must lie and never, ever tell my daughters we put the dog down. That it’s something that’ll haunt them the rest of their lives.

        Walk a mile in my shoes, pallie. Then make fun.


      • That dog behaviorist is a bigger twat than the journo prof.
        I promise I will never, ever make fun of you again. Until necessary.


      • Alright you two hooligans. I’m sitting here in the dark trying to Zen out to like decide if I should walk for some inspiration or just sit here and do it (actually write, with a pen) and my goddamned phone keeps chirping because you two clowns are gumming up my bathroom stall. I’m going for a walk and leaving my phone here in the dark, alone. Good luck with the dog Mark, mean it.


  8. I really wanted my kids to take to ET like I did, but maybe you had to bawl your eyes out at in a darkened theater to truly appreciate it. How about that parenting too, huh? Won’t lie, I miss the 80s, the movie version anyway.

    Recently I watched the Olive Kitteridge miniseries, which began with a gripping scene closer to the end than the middle and which stayed with me the whole time. I wanted that part to resolve, but i didn’t want the show to end. It was based on a book by the same name that I also really enjoyed, though it had been awhile since I read it and it felt brand new.

    I listened to some Bon Iver on a long drive home yesterday. My teenager listened to upbeat pop on earbuds while my younger one napped in the backseat. The mope and melancholy was all mine and it was delicious.


    • I don’t know that Kitteridge series, but it sounds interesting. Yeah, this insane book I’m rereading called Infinite Jest is something like a thousand pages long, and the first chapter is technically the last one, which is incredibly odd. I’m looking forward to getting to the end so I can move on with my life, though.

      Your scene there with the Bon Iver is good. Funny, how those precious moments with music can take you out of the scene altogether by going inside yourself, somewhere else. The singer really cops a breathy “mood” I enjoy. Cheers Kristen, thanks for stopping by and sharing.


  9. Hey! I was listening to the Smiths as I was reading this…Morrisey is getting a lot of iPod play lately. My son and I were discussing the best Smith song, I am There is a Light that Never Goes Out guy, he is a Girlfriend in a Coma kinda kid.


    • I am from the There is a Light That Never Goes Out school, myself. I remember when Strangeways came out and I bought it on vinyl. Decent record, but I prefer the ones that came before it. And then I bought the live album that came out afterwards and sadly, that was that.

      But Morrissey’s first solo record — really, really liked that one. And some of the singles and 12″ records he put out thereafter, with all the old film stars on the covers. They looked nice in vinyl, in my collection. I gave them all away, with the exception of Louder Than Bombs, which sits in our den above the fireplace alongside “Closer,” by Joy Division. Not a favorite JD record, but I like the drama of the cover and it throws a certain aspect/feel to the den. Sort of grounds it all in the music.

      It’s nice you and your son can riff off music like that — I’m looking forward to doing the same with my kids as they get older. And I have to be fair and let them come to their own tastes, but I have been stacking the deck, so to speak.


      • One of the great joys of being a parent to my kids has been their love of music and sharing music. It makes me think I have done something right…maybe only one thing, but it is a good thing.


      • You and I have that in common, then. And my 7 year old is getting good at chopping garlic cloves surprisingly. It’s as if she has that DNA imprint, somehow.


  10. Favorite En Media Res: Lethal Weapon 2? The one that starts in the middle of a car chase…not movie making at its finest, but loved how they jumped into the action without any build-up.


    • Some of those action films really do have good stories, it’s necessary for them to be good. If you read that book by Robert McGee (“Story”) he does a good job of dissecting them and showing why they’re good stories, they fit the format. He also pissed me off in his gruffness, but he’s right: if you don’t have an ending, you don’t have a story. There are different schools of thought on that, though. I think about Stephen King’s The Stand though, and was disappointed with how he ended that, because I don’t think he knew where he was going. And there’s the classic contradiction of Mark Twain ending Huckleberry Fin: how do you send a black man down the Mississippi looking for freedom, and resolve that?


      • Huck Finn is one of those books that I think should end right after Huck decides to go to hell and rips up the letter to Mrs. Watson. Since it is an episodic novel, it seems like Twain wasn’t happy ending it there and returned to the absurd humor of Tom Sawyer. I wonder if he did it to draw a contrast to how Huck has grown through the novel, or if he just didn’t have a good idea about how to bring it to conclusion. He did take a long break (three years as I recall) while writing the novel and I wonder if that was that he just didn’t know what to do.

        The question for all of us who write is how do you build tension in a story and keep people pushing through, while at the same time blindly hoping that you have a clue about where you are going. What I like best as concepts are: Have your main character establish something they will never do and then spend time tempting them with that very thing, and develop information that the main character isn’t privy to that the reader knows. Other than that, I am of the Steven King way of thinking: uncover the story like a fossil. That’s probably why I’ll never be published.


      • I recalled you teach English, and I’m glad you took the bait with the Huck Finn thing. Because I couldn’t remember all my professor talked about on it, but I recall spending a lot of time talking about the Great American Novel and how it kind of didn’t have a Great American Ending. I’m with you on the fossil thing. The dig is a recurring theme, to what I’m doing. Goddamn it, I’m convinced it’s right out there, somewhere. Reminds me of that scene from Raiders of The Lost Ark, before they find the staff-thingy.

        Liked by 1 person

Leave a comment!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: