Beginning a Story or Scene ‘En Media Res’, or using a Wide Angle

Have you ever thought about the opening scenes of movies? If you pay attention, you will start to notice how they often begin with a sort of wide angle view of the world in which the story takes place.

In Star Wars, Episode IV, A New Hope, we get text scrolling which gives backstory, but then we see a planet, then two, then the edge of a planet, up close and personal, and then, WOW!, we see a ship fly by. Then it’s firing. Right away we know that this story is set in outer space and there is a battle or war going on. We get a ‘wide angle’ view of the setting and situation before it cuts to C3PO and R2D2 in the corridor inside one of the ships.

In True Grit, we get voice over giving backstory as the camera starts from a distance, then slowly moves in and gains focus on the porch of a house. Then we see a fallen man, and learn he was shot down. We see the girl from the voiceover in a train car, then we pan out again to see the train station, and the old west town. The setting has been clearly conveyed before we get to the first interior scene.

There are a lot of ways to begin a story. You can drop into a scene en media res (in the middle of the action already in play):

This is how I began Flour in the Attic, book 4 in my Bread Shop mysteries. There is no setting, and no setup. Bam, we’re just smack in the middle of a scene.

Emmaline Davis and I stood side by side, awed by the choices before us. “So, it’s happening tonight?” I asked.

She nodded, her expression a becoming compilation of nervous excitement. “At the beach.”

I cocked at eyebrow at Em, sheriff of Santa Sofia, a small coastal destination spot in California, and my hometown, and my best friend. “He’s pretty perceptive. He doesn’t suspect?”

Dropping in en media res is essentially what Orson Scott Card does in Ender’s Game. He begins with straight dialogue, giving no context at all.

Then there is a page break and we are dropped into a scene where Ender is having his monitor removed,

“I’ve watched through his eyes, I’ve listened through his ears, and tell you he’s the one. Or at least as close as we’re going to get.”

“That’s what you said about the brother.”

“The brother tested out impossible. For other reasons. Nothing to do with his ability.”

“Same with the sister. And there are doubts about him. He’s too malleable. Too willing to submerge himself in someone else’s will.”

“Not if the other person is his enemy.”

“So what do we do? Surround him with enemies all the time?”

“If we have to.”

“I thought you said you liked this kid.”

“If the buggers get him, they’ll make me look like his favorite uncle.”

“All right. We’re saving the world, after all. Take him.”

***

The monitor lady smiled very nicely and tousled his hair and said, “Andrew, I suppose by now you’re just absolutely sick of having that horrid monitor. Well, I have good news for you. That monitor is going to come out today. We’re going to just take it right out, and it won’t hurt a bit.”

Ender nodded. It was a lie, of course, that it wouldn’t hurt a bit. But since adults always said it when it was going to hurt, he could count on that statement as an accurate prediction of the future. Sometimes lies were more dependable than the truth.

Another method used to begin a story, scene, or chapter is to open with a wide angle lens:

You start by giving context about a character or characters or setting, then move in close and transition to your main POV character. This is an effective way to paint a picture of the world in which the story takes place, or to give key story/backstory information before zeroing in on the story.

In Murder in Devil’s Cove, the first Book Magic mystery, that’s exactly what I did. I started with a wide angle view of Devil’s Cove, itself, painting a picture for the reader of where the island is situated on the Outer Banks, moving in closer to show the colorful beach houses and small town charm, finally moving in to the sidewalk where Pippin and Grey Hawthorne are standing.

The island of Devil’s Cove lay between the mainland and the barrier islands on North Carolina’s Outer Banks, smack in the middle of four ocean channels. Albermarle Sound was to the north. Roanoke Sound flowed to the east. Croatan Sound was on the west side of the island. And to the south was the inlet of Pamlico Sound. It was connected to the mainland with a single swing bridge. A ferry carted people and their cars back and forth. It wasn’t the easiest of the islands to get to, but it was perhaps the most special.

Colorful beach houses overlooked the water. A protected cove was a favorite spot for kayaking and swimming. The quaint town welcomed tourists, but generations of families called Devil’s Cove home. The island drew fishermen, treasure hunters who chartered boats to explore the Graveyard of the Atlantic, and sun-worshipers.

And now Pippin and Grey Hawthorne, siblings born seventy-three seconds apart, were back after being gone for twenty years.

They stood on the sidewalk in front of a decrepit looking house that sported a combination of Cape Cod and old Southern Coastal architecture, complete with a million paned windows, a screened porch on the left side of the house, a wide sitting porch, and a lookout at the top of the structure with a view straight to the harbor. A Widow’s Walk, Pippin thought, where a wife could keep watch as she waited for her husband to return from sea.

Behind it was Roanoke Sound, Bodie Island with its lighthouse, and beyond that, the Atlantic.

The house was so much bigger than Pippin remembered, and she remembered it as huge. In its heyday, it had to have been a spectacular house. Now, it sat neglected, longing for fresh paint, new shutters, and some tender-loving care. A shiver passed over Pippin and her hand moved to her neck. She looked up at the widow’s walk. Had her mother stood up there, staring towards the horizon of while she waited for Leo to come home to her? 

Pippin let the thought pass. She was hypnotized by the overgrown property as much as by the house itself, although both were in dire need of repair and upkeep. Her gaze skittered over the lawn that was little more than a map of weeds. Over the walkway leading to the wrap-around porch, more weeds grew between the red bricks. Over the flowerbeds that had probably once bloomed with hydrangeas, hyacinth, daisies, and who knew what other plants, but which was now filled with an abundance of yet more weeds. 

Alternatively, you can begin in your book’s POV, but begin your story with a wide angle view. 

In Pleating for Mercy, the first in my Magical Dressmaking Mystery series, I begin with a wide angle view of the Cassidy women and their connection to Butch Cassidy with my alternate history. It’s only after several paragraphs that I move in close to Harlow’s current situation, begin back in Bliss, Texas.

Rumors about the Cassidy women and their magic had long swirled through Bliss, Texas, like a gathering tornado. For 150 years, my family had managed to dodge most of the rumors, brushing off the idea that magic infused their handwork, and chalking up any unusual goings-on to coincidence.

But we all knew that the magic started the very day Butch Cassidy, my great-great-great-grandfather, turned his back to an ancient Argentinean fountain, dropped a gold coin into it, and made a wish. The Cassidy family legend says he asked for his firstborn child, and all who came after, to live a charmed life, the threads of good fortune, talent, and history flowing like magic from their fingertips.

That magic spilled through the female descendants of the Cassidy line into their handmade tapestries and homespun wool, crewel embroidery and perfectly pieced and stitched quilts. And into my dressmaking. It connected us to our history, and to each other.

His wish also gifted some of his descendants with their own special charms. Whatever Meemaw, my great-grandmother, wanted, she got. My grandmother Nana was a goat-whisperer. Mama’s green thumb could make anything grow.

Yet no matter how hard we tried to keep our magic on the down-low—so we wouldn’t wind up in our own contemporary Texas version of the Salem Witch Trials—people noticed. And they talked.

The townsfolk came to Mama when their crops wouldn’t grow. They came to Nana when their goats wouldn’t behave. And they came to Meemaw when they wanted something so badly they couldn’t see straight. I was seventeen when I finally realized that what Butch had really given the women in my family was a thread that connected them with others.

But Butch’s wish had apparently exhausted itself before I was born. I had no special charm, and I’d always felt as if a part of me was missing because of it.

Moving back home to Bliss made the feeling stronger.

Meemaw had been gone five months now, but the old red farmhouse just off the square at 2112 Mockingbird Lane looked the same as it had when I was a girl. The steep pitch of the roof, the shuttered windows, the old pecan tree shading the left side of the house—it all sent me reeling back to my childhood and all the time I’d spent here with her.

I’d been back for five weeks and had worked nonstop, converting the downstairs of the house into my own designer dressmaking shop, calling it Buttons & Bows. The name of the shop was in honor of my great-grandmother and her collection of buttons.

In Kneaded to Death, the first Bread Shop mystery, I used this same technique. I give one paragraph about setting, painting a picture of Santa Sofia, before moving in close to Ivy Culpepper and her reason for being back home.

Santa Sofia is a magical town, nestled between the Santa Lucia Mountain Range and the Pacific Ocean on California’s Central Coast. I’ve always seen it as the perfect place. Not too big, not too small. Historic and true to its commitment to remain a family-oriented place to live. They accomplished this goal by having more bikes than people, concerts in the park, and a near perfect seventy degrees almost year-round. 

I had been gone from my hometown since college but had come back when a horrible accident destroyed our lives as we knew them, taking my mother far too young and leaving my father, my brother, and me bereft and empty. We were still struggling to make sense of what had happened and how a nondescript sedan had backed right into her as she walked behind it in the parking lot at the high school where she’d taught. 

Margaret Mitchell uses this wide angle lens approach at the beginning of Gone With the Wind. Instead of setting, she uses an omniscient POV to paint a picture of Scarlett O’Hara–both external and internal–, the Tarleton boys, life in North Georgia (as compared to the more refined August, Savannah, and Charleston), the niceties of life and what’s valued (which foreshadows all that Scarlett loses later), and the fact that Scarlett doesn’t have a care in the world. All this comes before we get directly into Scarlett’s POV with dialogue between her and the Tarleton boys.

Margaret Mitchell starts with a wide angle lens before moving in close to begin the story.

Scarlett O’Hara was not beautiful, but men seldom realized it when caught by her charm as the Tarleton twins were. In her face were too sharply blended the delicate features of her mother, a Coast aristocrat of French descent, and the heavy ones of her florid Irish father. But it was an arresting face, pointed of chin, square of jaw. Her eyes were pale green without a touch of hazel, starred with bristly black lashes and slightly tilted at the ends. Above them, her thick black brows slanted upward, cutting a startling oblique line in her magnolia-white skin–that skin so prized by Southern women and so carefully guarded with bonnets, veils and mittens against hot Georgia suns.

Seated with Stuart and Brent Tarleton in the cool shade of the porch of Tara, her father’s plantation, that bright April afternoon of 1861, she made a pretty picture. Her new green flowered-muslin dress spread its twelve yards of billowing material over her hoops and exactly matched the flat-heeled green morocco slippers her father had recently brought her from Atlanta. The dress set off to perfection the seventeen-inch waist, the smallest in three counties, and the tightly fitting basque showed breasts well matured for her sixteen years. But for all the modesty of her spreading skirts, the demureness of hair netted smoothly into a chignon and the quietness of small white hands folded in her lap, her true self was poorly concealed. The green eyes in the carefully sweet face were turbulent, willful, lusty with life, distinctly at variance with her decorous demeanor. Her manners had been imposed upon her by her mother’s gentle admonitions and the sterner discipline of her mammy; her eyes were her own. 

On either side of her, the twins lounged easily in their chairs, squinting at the sunlight through tall mint-garnished glasses as they laughed and talked, their long legs, booted to the knee and thick with saddle muscles, crossed negligently. Nineteen years old, six feet two inches tall, long of bone and hard of muscle, with sunburned faces and deep auburn hair, their eyes merry and arrogant, their bodies clothed in identical blue coats and mustard-colored breeches, they were as much alike as two bolls of cotton.

Outside, the late afternoon sun slanted down in the yard, throwing into gleaming brightness the dogwood trees that were solid masses of white blossoms against the background of new green. The twins’ horses were hitched in the driveway, big animals, red as their masters’ hair; and around the horses’ legs quarreled the pack of lean, nervous possum hounds that accompanied Stuart and Brent wherever they went. A little aloof, as became an aristocrat, lay a black-spotted carriage dog, muzzle on paws, patiently waiting for the boys to go home to supper.

Between the hounds and the horses and the twins there was a kinship deeper than that of their constant companionship. They were all healthy, thoughtless young animals, sleek, graceful, high-spirited, the boys as mettlesome as the horses they rode, mettlesome and dangerous but, withal, sweet-tempered to those who knew how to handle them. Although born to the ease of plantation life, waited on hand and foot since infancy, the faces of the three on the porch were neither slack nor soft. They had the vigor and alertness of country people who have spent all their lives in the open and troubled their heads very little with dull things in books. Life in the north Georgia county of Clayton was still new and, according to the standards of Augusta, Savannah and Charleston, a little crude. The more sedate and older sections of the South looked down their noses at the up-country Georgians, but here in north Georgia, a lack of the niceties of classical education carried no shame, provided a man was smart in the things that mattered.

And raising good cotton, riding well, shooting straight, dancing lightly, squiring the ladies with elegance and carrying one’s liquor like a gentleman were the things that mattered. In these accomplishments the twins excelled, and they were equally outstanding in their notorious inability to learn anything contained between the covers of books. Their family had more money, more horses, more slaves than any one else in the County, but the boys had less grammar than most of their poor Cracker neighbors.

It was for this precise reason that Stuart and Brent were idling on the porch of Tara this April afternoon. They had just been expelled from the University of Georgia, the fourth university that had thrown them out in two years; and their older brothers, Tom and Boyd, had come home with them, because they refused to remain at an institution where the twins were not welcome. Stuart and Brent considered their latest expulsion a fine joke, and Scarlett, who had not willingly opened a book since leaving the Fayetteville Female Academy the year before, thought it just as amusing as they did.

“I know you two don’t care about being expelled, or Tom either,” she said…

When you write the opening scene of your book, or transition to a new setting at a new scene or chapter, opening with a wide angle view before zooming in can be very effective. 

I’m beginning a database of book openings demonstrating books beginning en media res, and those beginning with this wide angle approach. Comment or email me with examples!

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