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Suspense is the key

In a discussion elsewhere on the interwebbytubes, the subject of in media res openings came up.

An in media res opening is one where a story starts with a bang, a climactic action sequence -- then cuts away to a slow build-up to how the protagonists got to that point. It's a variant on the hook line, whereby the author sets out to snag the reader's attention right from the get-go (e.g. "It was the day my grandmother exploded." -- Iain Banks, "The Crow Road") but with a whole scene, rather than just a striking opening sentence or paragraph.

One or two commenters (in the discussion elsewhere) objected that IMR openings feel manipulative and increasingly fall flat; the event may be explosive (car chase! space battle!) but we've been given no contextual information about the stakes, no character to identify with, and it's clear that what follows is gradually going to focus down until it converges with the opening, thus undercutting any suspense until we get to see how it plays out at the end of the story.

But I don't think this is inevitable.

Back in the 1950s, cinematic folks were very cautious about how racy the scenes they depicted on screen were allowed to be: even a kiss lasting ten seconds was liable to cause a film to fall foul of the censor. But it is said that a journalist once asked Alfred Hitchcock, the master of suspense, "sir, how long can you hold a screen kiss for?"

Hitchcock mused for a few seconds then said, "mmm, about half an hour. But first, I plant a time bomb under the lovers' sofa!"

My takeaway is that suspense is the key. You can make the most mundane scene gripping if you just provide a context that supplies suspense, by embedding the scene in a high-stakes frame.

For example, take two men playing chess.

The players are: a prisoner, who is a very talented player, and the prison commandant, who is an even better player. That's all.

The frame that supplies the tension is that they're in a Nazi concentration camp in 1944 and for every piece that is taken, a prisoner will either be hanged or spared by the commandant at tomorrow's morning roll-call. And the highest stake of all is that if the prisoner loses, he'll hang alongside his "pieces" ... and if he wins, the commandant will sneak him out of the camp.

(Or so the commandant promises.)

This is the in media res opening, of course: a flashback from the present, circa 1960-1970, where two somewhat older men are playing chess in a public park in New York. Only this time, the roles are reversed: the former camp commandant is a fugitive from justice, while the prisoner is working for an unspecified intelligence agency who require the former war criminal to perform some sort of service for them that requires the cooperation of former Nazis with access to an unspecified middle eastern state's nuclear weapons program.

The game continues, alternating between wartime horror and cold war suspense, as we try to work out in which game the stakes are highest.




ADMINISTRATIVE NOTICE

NO MORE FILM/TV SHOWS.

IMR is a standard trope in visual media; using it is fundamentally uninteresting, and anyway, I don't do film/TV. If you insist on commenting just to mention another movie I'll start deleting comments. (Updated after about 10 film/TV names came up in a row.)

110 Comments

1:

The other factor is that in the real world we rarely get introduced slowly to a story or event, with all the setup ahead of time.

Instead we tend to get thrown in the deep end and have to run to catch up and understand the situation and contributing factors.

To take an example of the moment, or at least it's anniversary, most people tuned in to 9/11 as it was happening, with no context and no idea what was going to happen.

Thus we are used to that feeling, and the author can tap into the same mindset to give their story impact, and shock.

2:

There's an interesting variant as seen in Damages, and differently in Quantico (and arguably in Use of Weapons): you start in future timeline, then jump into past timeline, and alternate between the two. Damages plays smoke and mirrors with the context to make you understand things differently than the final reality, making you go "how did that happen... what happened anyway... damn!" all the time. Quantico show you the "truth", but plays the "incorrectly accused" card and runs from the point of view of the accused, so it works too.

But it's not trivial to setup.

OG.

3:

I think it was you who pointed out that Rule One was "fiction was about people".

How quickly can you make the reader care about / identify with / invest in the people in that opening sequence? If you succeed, the suspense works. If you fail, the reader won't care, and the suspense fails.

4:

It occurs to me that there was a phase of TV drama doing something similar - an "in this episode" montage at the very beginning, hinting at the Peril Faced by Our Plucky Heroes over the next 42 minutes of script. This being driven by the need to promise the excitement to come on the other side of the advertising break (and the reason why the adverts always happen at a Meaningful Point)...

5:

"Genesis & Catastrophe" - Roald Dahl
Must be a prime candidate for such a tension build-up.

6:

Gerry Anderson liked to do that - the opening of each episode of Thunderbirds and Space: 1999 always include a short montage of actiony bits to come.

7:

The movie Déjà vu starts with an exploding ferry, and then literally does the 'n .. days earlier' thing with an SF plot device device - a time viewer, and only n days to catch the terrorist, because that's how the technology works.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/D%C3%A9j%C3%A0_Vu_%282006_film%29

8:

Also used in "Source Code" wasn't it?

Historical note:
"In medias res" should of course be in classical Greek, not Latin, because ... how does "The Iliad" start, after all ... (?)

9:

I suppose the movie Memento was kicking off a new in media res scene every few minutes! Slowly, the audience got to piece together what was going on, even if the lead character couldn't.

10:

I quite liked the scenes in Boondock Saints, where we would see the police investigating the aftermath, and then the Saints doing something utterly different. It's not really the same thing though.

I think the most complained about in media res in genre fiction has to be Gardens of the Moon. The prologue involves discussion of riots in a city not on the map, then the opening chapter plunges you straight into an epic scale mage war on a different continent between people we don't know and based on the map clearly halfway through an invasion. Everyone loves to hate on that one.

I'm not sure your chess game supplies enough tension though - surely two people playing in a the park means both survived the game in the past, which for me removes tension from any subsequent event in that timeline.

11:

The whole of the Canadian police series "Flashpoint" is like this; the "hook" is set into the incident where they show a flashpoint in real time, then they rewind several hours to build up to the incident and normally run on past as well.

Of course, with a series you get to know the regular and recurring characters over time, and it probably stands or falls on the writing.

12:

I bought Hamilton's Reality Dysfunction because there was a cool space battle which I (almost) could read in the bookstore.

13:

A variant of this is the 007 film first/opening 15 minute sequence. It quickly establishes that this scene is a slice of life for the main character: our hero is always experiencing adventures. The sequence that follows - the feature story - is just another adventure only with additional detail thrown in. Thing is, in books more so than in film, it's understood that everything that is shown/printed is relevant to the story. The challenge in real life is teasing apart what is relevant to what.

Tension - also a big factor in humor. E.g. Deep space alien encounter: two very differently configured space ships approach each other. After stopping and somehow managing to set up AV communications with each other, the scene shows the two commanders warily viewing each other. Just as it appears that one of the commanders is about to speak, offside on the human ship, we hear: 'Oh, sh*t!'. The camera shows something gooey slowly pooling on or dripping off a surface. As a uniformed back crew man/woman drops to his/her knees, everyone else on deck quickly exchanges glances then goes rigid, looking obviously afraid. Both commanders slowly look at each other again. Finally, one shrugs as the other flaps an ear. The alien commander then says: 'I've got one on my command deck too. Want to come over for a [coffee]?' Camera POV then switches to alien ship's command station showing a uniformed alien frantically trying to wipe something off his/her console. The alien commander steps down, pats that crew member on the head, then moves on with both ears continuously rippling.

14:

ADMINISTRATIVE NOTICE

NO MORE FILM/TV SHOWS.

IMR is a standard trope in visual media; using it is fundamentally uninteresting. And anyway, I don't do film/TV. If you insist on commenting just to mention another movie I'll start deleting comments.

YHBW. HAND.

15:

There is a book by an Italian author (The Luneburg Variation by Paolo Maurensig) which deals with exactly the example you mention (high stakes chess match).

Also, a peculiar checkers game is played (again, for high stakes) in Our Man In Havana by Graham Greene, but the first one (Maurensig) it is much closer in structure to what you describe.

16:

Of course, the concept is as old as the Odyssey...

17:

No
The Iliad - as I said in #8

18:

(since I can't edit my post)

I think the way Homer used it also works. We see the hero in relative peril (trapped on the island with Calypso), learn his motivation (he wants to go home), but resolving that situation is NOT the end of the story, merely a step along the way.

19:

So, basically parallel narratives - stories done in chronological order (or not) told from one or multiple characters' POVs - that are supposed to eventually converge, e.g. shared feelings of joy/grief, life/death. But it's also equally likely that despite each character essentially seeing/experiencing the same events, their reactions and futures might diverge. Doing a deep-dive into why such differences and/or outcomes means looking back at various details in order to predict or rationalize the future. Then toss in random chance. Could get pretty fractal that: lives are the same shape overall with only trivial differences in terms of size (length) and color (success/happiness).

The 'start your story with the first word/sentence ... jump straight into the action with word 1' was constantly repeatedly by various English comp & lit teachers throughout my elementary and secondary education. Therefore no surprise that it's often used in contemporary fiction. (Betcha that the slow start novel openers are mostly written by 'classically' educated authors aka English Lit majors.)

20:

Interesting... sorry for the TV reference, but an old TV guy (Norman Lear) condensed it down as 'fiction is all about relationships'.

21:

Both, technically. Although the flashback narrative in the Iliad is a bit sketchy in comparison.

22:

Ok, in that case I'll be that guy and mention the wonderful The building was on fire, and it wasn't my fault. from Butcher's Blood Rites. Which as an opening hook is pretty damn perfect.

But actual plot relevant and suspenseful IMR openings are harder to recall. Most seem to be variants on the classic Bond style opening of a random interlude rather than directly in the story. Guns of the Dawn has a nice opening battle before returning to explain the buildup, but the character deaths are somewhat robbed of meaning as we don't know who they are yet.

Suspense I think in recent years probably comes best from Andy Weir's The Martian. I'm pretty much fucked is definitely up there in memorable hooks, but a lot of that probably also comes from the serial nature of writing it.
Hmm, I wonder if that's a factor in the better works of the past - they needed regular good hooks to continue, same as visual media does today, whereas books today are allowed more time to draw the reader in. It's easy to swap channels, a bit more effort to get a new book so you probably get more than a chapter or two to hold em.

23:

"'Begin at the beginning,' the King said gravely, 'and go on till you come to the end: then stop.'"

Useful advice for testimony; not always useful for a novel.

24:

I get the impression that one function of the IMR advice is to prevent the author from committing a bigger mistake, wherein nothing happens in the opening pages. Sure, it has its own failure modes but at least it's not starting with infodumps.

25:

A good in medias res beginning? Try Kate Atkinson's Life After Life, which begins with the assassination of Hitler in 1930, before jumping back to the death (at birth) of the heroine in 1910.

26:

What is the beginning of the story, and what is the end.

In the Dark Tower books, we start relatively near the end of Roland's quest.

Ian Flemming liked to start with Bond on the case, and flashback to the briefing.

Jim Butcher likes to start where the hero becomes involved in the current story, which might happen in the middle of another story. (He uses this a few times, including the mentioned building line, as well as Grave Peril).

'All you Need is Kill' starts at the end of a time loop.

'Use of Weapons' by Banks.

'100 Years of Solitude' won a Nobel Prize by starting of the main character remembering while facing his own execution.

27:

Surely one of the most epic exponents of the practice is Tolkien: publishes three hefty volumes detailing the last climactic year or so of a history longer than that of humanity since the last ice age, but despite a lifetime's work never even finishes the chronicles of all the preceding millennia.

28:

Charlie, your chess game example of the prisoner and the prison commandant reminds me of CARRION COMFORT by Dan Simmons. Only in this opening chapter the prisoners of the concentration camp are the actual pieces on a large board being controlled by a secret society of people with psychic abilities (mind vampires), who are high ranking German officers in WWII. Protagonist, Saul Laski survives Chelmno and chases after the secret society for decades in later half of the 20th century. CARRION COMFORT is full of high suspense.

29:

Hrm. Since someone has to mention it, although the height of the drama is relative... doesn't The Colour of Magic open thus?
Burn a city to the ground and then wind back to the establishing events. Followed by subsequent adventures.

30:

Maybe the Ford Prefect sequence in So long, and thanks for all the fish somehow counts - we watch over his shoulder as he does weird things in weird places (on his journey back to earth) and learn only a little bit later about why he does the weird things he does?
In this case, suspense is not so much the key because we already know him.

Another thought: Lem's short story about Pirx on patrol (I think the english title is actually 'patrol') starts with Pirx bored in his rocket, because without thrust he has no gravity and withou gravity the little dexterity game he braught along won't work. No real suspense in the opening but the central conflict of the story - a person, alone in space weith all the fears and projections he brings along and not much else - is already there somehow.

Come to think of it, I think IMR works mostly 'I want to find out why this stuff I'm reading is happening' so dpending on what you (Charlie) mean with suspense I disagree.

31:

Iain Pears uses this device repeatedly in his historical fiction. In e.g. The Dream of Scipio the tension remains not because there's a chance to escape the fate sealed in the introductory pages -- there isn't -- but because we're discovering what these persons now long dead found meaningful. It's kind of like how you can read a biography of some historical figure from centuries ago with interest despite them and their rivals both being assuredly dead and gone by now.

To put it another way, if a story becomes uninteresting after readers know the major plot points, it's not all that interesting in the first place. I don't seek out or propagate "spoilers" deliberately but they don't much hurt a good story. Works worth re-reading hold up whether they are already spoiled (either by the early pages of the work or by another reader) or not. I know what happens in The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay. It's rewarding to re-read anyway.

32:

One question, because now I started wondering if I am not missing the point completely.

Don't almost all mystery stories start "in media res"? It does not matter if it is a book, a movie or TV, it does not matter if it is Hercule Poirot or a Police Procedural... 99% of whodunnit start with the actual murder or immediately after, and build up from that.

Am I missing something?

33:

I suppose The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August starts that way, thought it might be a bit of a hybrid between that and a hook. It starts at the end of his 11th life where he gets a message from the future that the world is ending faster, then jumps back to the beginning, his first life.

34:

Like many here, I've reread quite a few favorite novels - therefore surprise obviously doesn't figure in why I still find them enjoyable upon re-reading. (Ditto viewing favorite TV/films. Face it: movie studios make probably even more money via selling DVDs vs. box office. Plus, people who read Hunger Games or Harry Potter still went to see the movie, and vice versa.)


Maybe it's more how quickly and intensely can the author have the reader identify with the protagonist and/or situation. So the cheap shot (or short cut in terms of character-driven fiction) is to start off with some fast-action (adrenaline rush/cortisol fear response) to facilitate the bond between reader and protagonist. No idea if this is so, but would make for an interesting study. Besides, this would be consistent with other types of research already done on fear and team building.

35:

Also "Chess With a Dragon" by David Gerrold.

Quoting from memory:

"Traditionally, the winner eats the loser."

"I have no desire to eat you."

"But the reverse is not true."

36:

Seems in media res is just a really full fleshed form of foreshadowing. Instead of "little did I know when I left my home that morning that I would never see it again", or even more subtle ways of creating anticipation, the IMR starts with the house burning down in chapter one, then goes on to tell the events that led up to it. Not used much, probably for a good reason. It's like the same reason an episodic drama, or equivalent in other media, can't really make you fearful for the life of the protagonist. We already know the hero will survive because he's back in every issue of the comic book. It's got his name on it. We already know the house will burn down and how, it's not some vague mystery of why the character never sees home again. Maybe she's taken by aliens, read on. It can be done, and Use of Weapons was an example given, but I'll bet it's a lot harder and for no good reason usually other than to show off.

37:

Downbelow Station starts off IMR, or at least the editions without the publisher-mandated prologue do. It starts off at the end of a war with a warship escorting a convoy of (dying) refugee-stuffed freighters to an already overcrowded space station.

38:

Stephenson uses this a lot, Snowcrash, SevenEves, Diamond age

39:

What, nobody's mentioned _Doorways in the Sand_ yet? Zelazny thought it would be fun for *every chapter* to start IMR.

Zelazny being Zelazny, he made it work. Not recommended for anyone else.

40:

Oh what I'd give to have a tenth of that guy's mojo!

41:

Donald Westlake wrote 24 crime novels under his Richard Stark pen name about a professional heister known only as Parker. Each novel starts in media res, and Westlake refined his opening technique as his readership changed. When he was writing cheap paperback originals, Westlake started them with the word when. Fielding offers from Hollywood and larger advances from publishers, Westlake started his Parker novels with verb phrases. Westlake started his next few novels with the name of the main character, because he knew what his readers wanted--Parker, as much and soon as possible.

But each novel itself always started in medias res, and often each individual division within the novels started in medias res as well. And the character allows the in medias res technique to work, because he is so compelling, so active, and so expressive for someone who comes off as rather unemotional. Parker never gets angry—Parker reaches for his gun.

42:

This is almost journalistic in form - a modification of the inverted pyramid. Put the meat of the story up front with a hook. Follow up with the context. Finish with a kicker that brings the story back to the initial claim, possibly with a subversion of expectation.

It's possible that IMR comes off as reader manipulation because the rise of click bait has soured us on the form. Certain types of bombastic headlines trigger an allergic response, even in fiction.

43:

Most fantasy epics start "in media res" - it's probably the most common place to begin a fantasy epic series. You're introduced to the protagonist, you're given their "normal, up until now..." and then the action begins, and over the course of the next three books you learn the actual context of their "normal", and how it shouldn't have been. This is also common in Urban Fantasy as well - you invariably get introduced to the focus character at some point in their life when something interesting happens, and continues happening. You get the back-story and context to fill in later - and often one of the fun things about playing with these sorts of things is the game of "assemble the chronology in your head" they involve.

Oh, and one genre which inevitably involves "in media res" beginnings is the computerised role playing game (whether fantasy or otherwise). You are NEVER dumped down as a level zero character who needs to be trained in everything - your character already knows how to use their primary weapon, and has the strength and agility needed to do so. But consider, for example, the beginning of "Final Fantasy VII" (I'm using this because I've seen it dozens of times and could recite it in my sleep) - you start with a swirly background of stars, pull back to a pretty girl looking at something leaking out of a pipe, and then you pull back further to see an almost circular city. Then zoom in on a train pulling into a station, at which point the game begins... and off you go discovering things about the character you're playing.

It's a useful storytelling trick for these genres, because it allows the storyteller to introduce a lot of background information in a way where the reader/listener/player isn't actually paying attention to the background per se, but is rather absorbing it as context for the characters themselves.

44:

(I realise CRPGs probably fall under the heading of "visual media". My apologies.)

45:

Like the opening of (probably) the best detective story ever, where the detectives's car skid/overshoots a blind bend-&-ditch, dumping him in the middle of the Lincolnshire Fens in snow ....
[ "The Nine Tailors" by D L Sayers ]

46:

"My takeaway is that suspense is the key." While I agree with that, I regard the routine use of flashbacks, flashforwards, IMR and similar as being (at best) gimmicks used by lazy authors and, as a result, they put me off even when used well (yes, Doorways in the Sand). I.e. as Tom M says. Special effects should be used only rarely, or they lose their impact. In addition to being overused, they are commonly used to cover up a feeble or inconsistent plot, and I find that they usually make the work harder to follow or thoroughly irritating.

47:

I'll raise you "'Take my camel, dear,' said my aunt Dot, climbing down from that animal on her return from high Mass." I read the Towers of Trebizond on the basis of that, but it wasn't my sort of book at all.

48:

One of Roger Zelazny's books, "Doorways in the Sand", uses IMR in every chapter.

Each chapter is split into multiple sections, with the big action first, then the intervening events that lead up to it. Using it in every chapter deliberately robs it of suspense, and makes it more like puzzle solving - how will he get to here?

Like a lot of Zelazny books, it uses first person narrative.

49:

I believe it was Kieron Gillen who opened this can of worms the other day, which is interesting because although he doesn't open "The Wicked and the Divine" with a flash forward, he does set up the end of the story in the pitch:
"Every ninety years, twelve gods incarnate as humans. They are loved. They are hated. In two years, they are dead."


Jasper Fforde uses the standard form of opening in "Shades of Grey" (nothing to do with 50 Shades) with the protagonist drowning in a plant and thinking about the events that lead them to that fate, but he does play with it a little by having the protag almost end up in the same situation about halfway through the story before escaping with a little "of course, that was how I ended up here. That was still to come".

(It looks like he's not going to continue to write books in that world, which is a shame because I think it's mix of his usual surreality with dark, 1984-style, overtones works really well)

50:

I find that the stories with a rigidly defined beginning to be far stranger than those that start in the middle of something. After all, history doesn't work like that: everything is happening all the time, with threads going far back and echoes far forward. Only human experience has a defined beginning and end, and even then it's blurred. No-one remembers their birth, or will experience death (death being the lack of experience).

A story that starts by introducing characters and setting statically, implies that those characters and setting are polite enough to stand still for the photograph. A strange concept.

51:

Agreed, but very few epochal or extreme events start out of nothing. The converse of nothing happening in the first chapter is reaching the end of the third without having located enough context for the action to make any kind of sense. The modern practice of each of the first half dozen chapters being parts of apparently unrelated stories (each of which seems to have started in the middle) is more than mildly off-putting. That's an extreme form of In Media Res - perhaps In Medio Chao?

52:

I think the master is Arundhati Roy with her book "The God of Small Things". She manages to keep that IMR feeling from first page to last page. Or, as one review on the cover says: "Roy peels away the layers of her mysteries with such delicate cunning, such a dazzlingly adroit shuffle of accumulating revelations that to discuss the plot would violate it" (John Updike, New Yorker)

53:

I think both of the original statements can be true (and sorry Charlie, you kind of bought the film and TV shows lists on yourself by talking about Hitchcock).

IMR stories can work if they're well written and novel. TV shows and novels in a series think they can get away with it because a reasonable proportion of the viewers/readers are likely invested in the characters. If you, Charlie, cold open with Mo, or Bob (or better yet Mo and Bob) in the middle of a fight (together) against overwhelming odds, and then fill in the backstory, then a fairly high proportion of the readers of your books already know Mo and Bob and will be gripped by the risk of their death (and cheering the fact they're back together).

That same fact can certainly make the writers lazy when doing it for a TV show where a lot of the IMR shows tend to be the weaker ones in the season. I suspect it's the writing by committee that does it there. But I think as well it's harder to pull off well. I'm not going to name names, because it would end up being rude about people but I will say there are authors whose other books I've thoroughly enjoyed who have attempted this and it's just fallen flat for me.

A sense of suspense, of meaning beyond the threat to the characters whether we know them or not, is required, yes, but I think something else is required too. For the story to be successful you need to make the reader (or viewer) feel like it's not just a lazy, or fancy, authorial trick but it's there for a reason. There needs to be a twist to take it away from the normal structure with the climax to the plot at the end. Charlie's parallel chess matches is one such. The memory-loss schtick and retracing steps in a movie Charlie won't have seen is one such. You could twist that and a do a Manchurian Candidate variation where a brain-washed assassin has just completed his/her mission and the brain-washing ends and he/she tries to piece his/her former life together. Dying and the whole "life flashing before your eyes" thing seems too easy but could work if it's really well written and there's an on-going theme that provides the twist to make it more of a tragedy, so it plays out with stark inevitability, at least in the eyes of the reader.

54:

Well the example that comes to mind here is someone I introduced you to.

David Devereux and the opening scene of Hunter's Moon. That said he was going for literary Bond as a model so hardly surprising.

55:

IIRC The Black Lung Captain by Chris Wooding opens with the Firefly-esque crew trying, and failing, to burgle an orphanage. It nicely establishes that, after the events of the last book, the crew is both desperate and at their most dysfunctional.

56:

About 15-20 years ago a major publishing house (fiction) conducted a study, i.e., billboards, posters, in-store merchandising 'flyers', etc. that included a complete plot summary up to the story ending of a hypothetical up-coming novel. Key finding: Knowing the story ending has no impact on sales, i.e., surprise is not an important driver. So the lesson here is find out what your market is/wants, and then do that. (Segmentation vs. all-or-nothing thinking.)

57:

Were that not the case, music as we know it would barely exist.

58:

First post and not fully sure it hits the brief but one that both amuses and drives me mad is If on a winter's night a traveler by Italo Calvino. It frustrates by never finishing the stories fizzing in it and starting from the same point. this might be a digression, but since I've lurked for over a year and tend to read a whole topic as my evening commute treat/distraction I hope I've judged the fairly placid tone on this thread, and not on others. I'm sure it will not derail.

59:

Yep - or McDonald's.

60:

But is suspense the same thing as not knowing how the story continues?

I think not. At least I catch myself during re-reads hoping for someone doing something helpful even if I know that they won't.

So here's my alternate definition of suspense: creating a situation that can be resolved either by way A or way B and the reader having an emotional investment preferring one over the other.

61:

Good definition of suspense! 'Creating a situation that can be resolved either by way A or way B and the reader having an emotional investment preferring one over the other.'


This begs a few questions:

a) Do wafflers/undecideds or the just-plain-I-don't-give-damn's also experience suspense?

b) What types of people hate suspense?

c) When is suspense inappropriate or counterproductive?

62:

Well, we can pitch whole tropes, like the "hero/ine wakes up with amnesia" sequence. I see that someone already pointed out that most high fantasy is IMR, because the One True and Prophesied Hero is stuck in the middle of the mess by definition, and about half of them attempt to make themselves interesting by making some poor schmuck, excuse me, the protagonist, figure out the mess that's lurking in the author's cackling hindbrain.

Although I'm not going to talk about the film Memento, I'd love a working definition of how telling a story precisely backwards isn't quite the same as IMR. Perhaps a subset?

A couple of IMR offenders. excuse me, examples, for the list:

Lord of Light by Zelazny.

Wintersmith by Pratchett (actually, that's a fakeout IMR).

"Call of Cthulhu" and various other "I'm about to die because of The Horror" stories from HPL. Or is that foreshadowing? Hard to tell with him.

Then there's weird stuff, like Palimpsest or "All Your Zombies." How many twists does a time travel story have before it becomes IMR, and how much more twisted does it have to get to stop being IMR?

63:

chapter II of excession with the drone action sequence hooked me by instant and i had to reread/admire the whole chapter 2 times before movin deeper into the book.
IMO its the best action sequence in SF.

but most of banks works is different timelines/threads anyway ... and most other stuff i like.

another example is fallen dragon/hamilton. another one of my all time favs.

i guess most non linear told stories must balance nicely things u get told and things that stay hidden till finale grande. fallen dragon does it perfect.

64:

add note:
i guess one of the genius in excession is that its some sort of DELAYED IMR.
prologue: some strange woman, i bird, an android ... okay
chapter I: strange communication of minds, sort of pseudo protocol, okay
chapter II: baaaam, action

:D

65:

On the flipside we have Kurt Vonnegut who is on record (somewhere in the intertubes) as saying, "Suspense is for the birds." (Or something very like that.) "Tell the reader as much as you can, as soon as you can."

66:

Pigeon - sorry to derail - but are you the same Pigeon as on El Reg ?

67:

What? The Register? No. Must be an impostor [twitches wing, nods head up and down]

68:

I think the reason for the IMR being in Chapter Two is that Banks by this stage had a dedicated following, and so he was prepared to play with reader expectations. He could set up the book so that casual readers would be put off by the prologue or Ch1, instead of being sucked into an exciting sequence that then was put aside for a much slower burn, leading to disappointment. To his core readers (perhaps including some people who hadn't persevered with Excession on first reading, but who would do so after becoming committed to the Culture setting), not likely to be put off by the largely epistolary form, he signals that there is something worth persevering for. I think of all the writers I know who rely on spectacular action set pieces in their work, Banks used by far the longest fuses. This is not surprising since he was an English graduate, and literary fiction does not use IMR as a rule; IMR is a device to get readers to commit to caring about the story up front while literary fiction assumes that commitment a priori. <snark>When Charlie regularly starts a book at the same sedate pace that many Banks works kick off with, then we will know he has reached a critical threshold of recurring royalties. Or he has finally decided to expand on Palimpsest or Missile Gap.</snark>

Personally, I like IMR, because it presents a puzzle that demands to be solved, and that presses my personal hot buttons. However, as per #42, IMR is now heavily associated with a particular formula for how to practise journalism, so tends to raise defensive cognitive filters. I'm starting to quite like the deliberate slow lead-in typical of literary fiction, and am reading more of it again. The Iliad be damned, not every story has to be told to tired threshers about to fall asleep at the fire after a hard day's manual labour. Or to people with attention spans twittered down to milliseconds.

69:

Starting IMR can work well in a role-playing game. Tricky, but awesome when it works.

We start a session of the campaign IMR with our characters escaping after a heist, an ambush starts, a bystander leaps out by surprise to take a bullet (/sword/etc) aimed at a character.... ...and before we find out if she will live...

Flashback to character meeting with this person years earlier. OMG, it's his old love ( or competitor or enemy or tutor or etc ).

Jump to a few weeks back. Play through the setup of the heist. The PCs will now watch the patron, consider the deal, try to figure out how it connects to the mysterious _her_.

Finally, after the suspense has built, play through the heist. Then the rest of the ambush and (hopefully) reach some answers.

All very trite in a TV show. But not for a long role-playing session.

70:

Harry Harrison managed to hook my son with the first sentence of "The Stainless Steel Rat" - dropping a safe on a police droid's head tends to make a young lad smile.

...but IIRC it was also an IMR, because we then find out how Slippery Jim got to that point. Sorry, can't check the book, the light's out in firstborn's bedroom...

71:

Personally, I like IMR, because it presents a puzzle that demands to be solved...

Interestingly I happen to be going through Department S courtesy of youtube; it's a British series from ~1970 that's puzzle oriented. Every episode opens with some bizarre thing being discovered (a jetliner arriving at Heathrow several days late, for example), then the credits roll and characters spend the episode figuring out what and why.

I think IMR openings are more often used for (often cheap) drama rather than mystery, but the potential is there even if it's not always used.

72:

Also recall being told to keep opening sentences short, so no way could I have written the below and passed English Comp. Guess English Comp & English Lit teachers never talk to one another.

'It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way – in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.'

Damned - that's still one hell of an opener!


73:

Nor, indeed one as short as "London".

74:

Dickens gets away with all kinds of crazy shit nobody would dare try nowadays. He's easy to take for granted; sort of the Beethoven (another nasty old dead white dude) of the novel.... but when you really look at what he's doing, it's often so radical you just have to shake your head and wish you could do it yourself

75:

That starting IMR is all about suspense is a great insight.

But IMR also gives great opportunity for characterisation by "show, don't tell". We learn a lot about Slippery Jim DiGriz by meeting him wisecracking mid-heist.

Pragmatically, I wonder if IMR might work for selling fiction these days as it does for TV - by trying to engage the audience with the teaser so that they will want the rest.

76:

Off topic I know, but Charlie- I just tried to send you an email with the bar at the top using Gmail and I didn't receive a copy like it said I would. Is it the fact that I'm using Gmail or is there another issue on my end?

77:

What the Dickens? If you're going to, um, pay tribute, steal from the best

“This was a Golden Age, a time of high adventure, rich living and hard dying... but nobody thought so. This was a future of fortune and theft, pillage and rapine, culture and vice... but nobody admitted it. This was an age of extremes, a fascinating century of freaks... but nobody loved it.”
― Alfred Bester, The Stars My Destination

78:

Actually, the opening chapter of SMD is a sustained in media res, with an enraged Gully Foyle rescuing himself from deep space, and only at the end of the novel does it become clear that the whole fast-forward revenge quest motif was gaudy misdirection as Bester unpicked the real context for Foyle's predicament before our very eyes without benefit of flashback. And then hit us with the consequences.

79:

The way I remember Excession is that it *did* start with the action sequence with the drone and the titular phenomenon which has an uncomfortably personal presence in said sequence. Which goes to show something or other about how the opening to that novel did in fact work, and what one remembers after some time.

80:

When I studied English (lit), we were barely aware creative writing courses existed and no-one would really have been interested, though *everyone* wanted to be a writer. It wasn't (necessarily) a snobby thing, it was more like the difference between physics and engineering. People who study creative writing to be a writer want to write bestsellers and make lots of money, while people who study English lit to be a writer want to win the Nobel prize, which is actually a lot of money but that might not be the whole point.

Personally, I was doing a dual degree and had a science major too. Didn't go anywhere with it, but started working in IT before I graduated... now I still think business is the joke degree but I am also holding out at arms length the idea that actually some people who studied business are saying useful and interesting things in my workplace from time to time.

81:

1. Check your spam folder in case your copy ended up there.

2. If it didn't, you probably (a) input your email address wrong, or (b) used smart quotes, accented characters, or something else that isn't strict old-school ASCII in the body of the message (I stuck a filter in a few years ago because I kept getting spammed senseless by Chinese WoW gold farmers).

82:

And his main character is a 'tribute' to The Count of Monte Cristo by Dumas, while the scenario was a 'tribute' to a real-life event reported in a National Geographic WW2 story (as per Wikipedia).


Never knew this before, but Dumas wrote The Count of Monte Cristo with a ghostwriter (Auguste Maquet, a historian turned writer), so this story might have even older roots.

83:

Thank you. I sent it last night, and the copy only arrived this morning.

84:

Not only made it work, but made it look effortless.

85:

Question: Does it have to be a climactic action scene? Is that the technical definition (provided there is one) for in medias res? Or can't the definition be broader?

For instance:

I’m lurking in the shrubbery behind an industrial unit, armed with a clipboard, a pager, and a pair of bulbous night-vision goggles that drench the scenery in ghastly emerald tones. …

looks like going in medias res for me. We as readers are thrown into a situation looking over the shoulders of a first person narrator who we know nothing about. And he introduces his boss (Andy) to us even before introducing himself. Only gradually over the next few paragraphs and pages can we collect some puzzle pieces, put them together and get the bigger picture.

I'd argue that this is a classic IMR, even though there are no explosions and car chases.

86:

Oh, and I forgot to say:

This of course corresponds beautifully to the fact that the scene is also an in medias res for the first person narrator himself, being his first assignment on active duty.

87:

I think the flashback portion is a modern addition- possible only within the prose/novel format. When the ancients used it, it mostly referred when a play started in the middle of a known story, such as Oedipus the King.

The book I am currently reading "Psycohistorical Crisis" by Donald Kingsbury follows the pattern.

Wolfe's Short Sun books also start in medias res, but get kind of complicated.

88:

However, the Odyssey begins with Odysseus stranded on a remote island. Later, when he is with the Phaiatians, he tells them how he got into that mess and lost his entire crew, starting with the fall of Troy- and I am sure we should believe every word, because he is a king after all.

89:

I'm looking forward to Bob's TV interview in The Delirium Brief. Will the interviewer ask him: "Were you born Bob Howard, or is that just an alias?"

90:

Relatively modern, perhaps, but Sterne used it.

91:

Actually the suspense is getting quite bad right now ... like when (if) is Charlie going to put a new post up?

92:

He's going to post the last paragraph of the next article tomorrow and then fill in the context over the course of a couple of weeks.

93:

I'm thinking of knocking out a SF story, about 12,000 words, in the next few weeks just to see if I can sell it

94:

The Unnoticables does a great job with its opening -- a scene from the perspective of an unknown character becoming something no longer human. Of course, it's hard to say that this is properly in medias res since the book interleaves two timelines, but the first passage arguably refers to an event that occurred late in one or the other timeline (and it's ambiguous which). Since the first scene describes the event that our protagonists are attempting to understand and avoid for the whole rest of the book, it adds a nice element of dramatic irony.

95:

This would be about the time that the audience starts trying to anticipate events or maybe starts betting.

96:

BTW, how many of you study the literary techniques an author is using when reading a book for pleasure?

97:

Beyond maybe saying "$writer is using $technique here"? Well, not me as such.

98:

Nope ... or at least I think that I read for the story (character, plot, setting, etc.). However, do find some techniques/writing styles off-putting for various reasons, so writing style for me is not so much an attraction/incentive as it is a distraction/disincentive.

99:

No, it doesn't have to be a climactic action scene, it just often is (the description "begins in the middle of the action" just means the plot is underway, not "action" in the contemporary sense of gunfights and explosions). It also doesn't *have* to then go back and show you the buildup to that point, it just usually does. A story that beings IMR just begins at some point later than the beginning (it literally just means "starts in the middle of things"), and there are other ways to bring the reader up to speed than an extended flashback, etc. John Shirley's Eclipse begins IMR, and does eventually explain most of what's led up to that point, but does so through dialogue and light exposition rather than flashbacks or any form of "going back" to show the reader what led up to the circumstances of the opening chapters.

100:

Since reading the (and (less so) others) authors blog and lots of TVTropes, I more often notice certain techniques, or at least think so. This let's me sometimes notice stuff I wouldnt otherwise. But studying would be something else (and would likely get in the way of me enjoying the read).

101:

I remember Robert Sawyer telling my students that one of the huge favours his wife did for him was learning how to read critically. It was a huge favour because she couldn't turn it off and did it for every book she read, so it greatly changed her enjoyment of fiction and she mostly switched to poetry.

102:

Always. It's part of the "pleasure". Those are the things that make the other things possible. Character, plot, etc, they are all just functions of "techniques". I feel like, for me, understanding those things just adds another dimension for me to appreciate. However: it also adds another dimension for me to see where a writer is weak, so it's not without tradeoffs.

@Robert Prior: not surprised she'd switch to poetry if she was reading Sawyer's work with a critical eye... Some good ideas, but the execution makes me shudder.

103:

"Hayden Griffin was plucking a fish when the gravity bell rang."

- The first line of Karl Schroeder's novel Sun of Suns

104:

She was apparently reading everyone's work with a critical eye.

105:

@55 Wooding opens Retribution Falls with a deal gone bad and a gunfight (in fact he might open every book in that series IMR but I'd have to check to be sure). And when I saw you mention him it sprang to mind as a cold IMR done just about perfectly IMHO.

Warm IMR's using existing characters or later books in a series (does it even count as IMR if it's a second book?) should be easier to capture the reader's sympathy for the characters but run the risk of loosing dramatic tension (if you're not GRRM most readers will be fairly confident nothing awful will happen to the hero in the opening scene). Good example here would be the opening of Red Seas Under Red Skies which features a mexican standoff - while I enjoy Lynch's writing the opening didn't really seem to fit the characters as established in the first book.

106:

I think the real issue here is that communication involves
context, and you can't develop context without saying *something*
first, so the initial things you say have to rely on pre-existing
shared context; the "hook" then is stuck relying on things that
seem base and primal (if played right) or trashy, horrible
cliches (if played wrong).

107:

96: that's besides the point. You read stuff, it works or it
doesn't, and you if you're so inclinced you think about why it
works or it doesn't (and if you're not so inclined you just
recite some critical cliches like "weak characters",
"unbelievable plot" that don't actually explain anything).

108:

Granted, you need to care about what's going to happen, but for
me personally the doctrine of "suspense" is really trashy and
off-putting (though I gather it's also really popular, so you
have to wonder "what do I know?"). Me, I think fiction is about
reader-identification with the protagonists problem, where the
reader sees the world the same way the protagonist does, and
ideally the reader knows no more or less than the main character
at every point. The Hitchcock example (that *you* brought up,
not me) is the kind of thing that always has me rolling my eyes:
when the audience knows the bomb is there and the protagonists
don't, there's a gigantic wedge driven between them, it
completely destroys that sense of identification.

109:

Re: 48

"Doorways in the Sand" was one of my favorite books when I was a teenager, and I've read it several times, but I hadn't noticed that every chapter starts with a flash-foward, though don't doubt that it's true (I can remember several of them without looking). At a guess: since Zelazny was experimenting with cranking out a book in a single draft, he decided to use this "IMR"-every-chapter as a structuring device.

This is a very odd book in many ways, it's superficially a "fun", "light-hearted" work, but not without a certain amount of heavier punch to it-- e.g. the primate-pride ranting near the end: "Beware the ape with the crooked thumbs!". It's one of my prime examples of fiction being a somewhat more complicated phenomena than we often credit... is it a silly, escapist work? Well, sort of-- but then why did it effect me so much compared to all the other silly, escapist works out there? Something about the main character's embrace of eccentricity? Was it just that I identified with his climbing inclinations? Protagonists that are both bookish and athletic are somewhat unusual...

(Come to think of it, it may be that it's just an excellent example of "monkey fiction", certainly it possesses the spirit of Monkey to a much larger degree than KSR's "The Years of Rice and Salt".)

But as far as the issue-at-hand is concerned: I often find suspense-fiction gimmickry to be stupid and off-putting (don't go near the closet, the murderer is in there!), but the IMR-structure of this book did not effect me that way. At a guess it seemed more like the van Vogtian hangup-and-resolution cycle: here's something confusing, now this is why it makes sense.

110:

My favorite use of in media res is Verne's "The Mysterious Island", at least in part because it's several layers deep. The initial layer, how our heroes found themselves in the balloon, is dealt with quickly. But the island's various secrets are another matter entirely...

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This page contains a single entry by Charlie Stross published on September 12, 2016 11:17 AM.

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