Continuing what has come to seem like an endless exploration of the January 1925 issue of Weird Tales we arrive at “Arhl-a of the Caves” by C.M. Eddy, Jr, author of “the Ghost-Eater,” “With Weapons of Stone,” etc., or so I hear.
This time, let’s talk about beginning a short story in media res:
When Arhl-a opened her eyes, darkness had settled over the universe. the tough cords of reindeer sinews which bound her hands and feet cut deep into her flesh and her wrists and ankles were raw and bleeding from her futile struggles to free herself from the bonds. The flickering light of the fire at the entrance of the cavern caused the shadows to dance on the limestone walls in a ghostly, ever-changing glow. Silhouetted against the background of the fire loomed the huge body of Zurd, his eyes fastened intently upon her.
Roughly translated from the Latin, in media res means “in the middle of things.” And more than once I’ve advised—especially for short stories, which have precious little time to build to the essential action of the tale—that you start in the middle of some kind of action. How you define “action” in that moment, well… that can take on what might be infinite (or let’s say, effectively infinite) forms. That does not have to mean literally in the middle of a fistfight or gunfight or other sort of violent confrontation, but in the middle of something that’s happening to or as the result of the direct participation of one or more people.
Here, C.M. Eddy began in the middle of an abduction/kidnapping. Arhl-a wakes up, bound, in darkness, confronted by Zurd, who we’re give every reason to believe is the villain of the story. This is a fantastic example of beginning a story in media res for the sake of its simplicity alone. There isn’t anything particularly nuanced about it. It’s a straightforward “woman in danger” pulp setup, but there’s left no doubt that the story is now on.
Who is Arhl-a and why has she been tied up? Who is Zurd and what are his intentions? How will she get out of this? It’s questions like that that keep your readers reading, at least into the next paragraph.
So keep this in mind for the all-important opening of not just short stories but novels as well. Ask yourself: How deep into the action can I start? Find your answer, then start a few minutes after that!
If you’re sure you have to “set the scene,” go ahead and do that in your rough draft if it helps you think through it, but then cut all that and let your first draft start when she wakes up in the cave, or when the bullet hits him in the chest, or when her fingers slip off the rope and she begins to fall, and so on. You can go back and cover why she’s tied up, where the cave is, who Zurd is, why his name rhymes with turd, and all the rest of it as you go. But grab your readers first. I once called it punch, push, explain, and I’d recommend going back and reading that, too.
I also hope that you’ll actually read this frankly goofy stone age love triangle thing. Spoiler alert: Arhl-a kicks ass. It’s got some amazingly purple prose and a general silliness that’s hard not to both love and dismiss at the same time. But in the end, reading old pulp fiction like this isn’t about learning how to write dialog like:
“Then Arhl-a must needs remain hungry and Zurd will feast alone. For bound she must remain until the fire dies out of her heart and she is tamed—until she will give herself to mate with Zurd.”
I used to use that line in college and never got anywhere with it except, y’know… jail.
What we’re looking at here are the pieces of each of these stories that work, and the opening paragraph works. Your language, your voice, will be different in any case. The fact that it isn’t 1925 will mean pretty much all of our voices will be vastly different from this, will start from a contemporary rhythm to the language, contemporary word choice, and so on, riding the waves of the massive social and political changes that have occurred over the last almost ninety-five years. But structurally, this story has a lot to teach us about how to build a skeleton upon which to hang entertaining, engaging short fiction.
And for more on your opening paragraph…
First, the Dragon Attacks:
Writing Gripping Opening Scenes in Science Fiction & Fantasy
You have one chance to make a first impression—make that opening paragraph count!