(Watch this essay as a video on YouTube.)
I’m looking at the openings of great books for inspiration on how to start my own novel. And in this essay, I’m diving into the first issue of the comic-book series Saga by Brian K Vaughan and Fiona Staples. Rather than gently introduce us to its huge story world, the series drops us into a story already in progress. So let’s first see what happens in Issue #1 of Saga, then figure out what we can learn about starting with action.
Summary of Issue #1
In the back of a mechanic’s garage, a young couple are having a baby. While Alana pushes and curses, Marko tries to be helpful and encouraging. Soon, Alana gives birth to a baby girl. The baby has wings like Alana, and horns like Marko. The parents are from different cultures, and can’t settle on a name. While they argue about rituals and ceremonies for newborns, there’s a pounding at the door. Military police from Alana’s people. They’re here to arrest Alana for desertion of her post, and Marko, who’s actually a prisoner of war. Then, people from Marko’s side magically teleport in. They’re here for Marko. Tempers between the two sides flare, there’s a firefight…and miraculously Alana, Marko and the baby survive. They escape and look for a way off this planet.
It’s only one of many planets caught up in the war between Alana’s people and Marko’s people. No one remembers what they’re fighting for anymore, but everyone’s picked a side. That includes the Robot Kingdom, who are allied with Alana’s people. A member of their intelligence service has orders directly from the king. He’s asked his son, Prince Robot IV, to find the traitor, Alana. We learn Alana was Marko’s prison guard, and that within hours of meeting each other, they escaped together. If anyone learns that Alana had a baby with the enemy, it would be a disaster. The Prince is ordered to deal with the problem.
Meanwhile, a bounty hunter named The Will is hired by Marko’s side to find and kill the parents, whose romance is a threat to their war propaganda. Oh, and bring back the baby.
Alana and Marko eventually make it to a valley; on the other side they hope to find the Rocketship Forest, and a ship. But the valley has been overrun by the frontline of the war. There’s no way out. Marko reassures Alana that they’ve survived worse scrapes than this. With nothing but their love, they vow to fight their way to safety and show their daughter the universe.
In medias res
Saga opens with what’s classically called in medias res or “in the middle of the action.” It’s a technique I’ve wanted to understand better. One recurring problem I have is that my stories start off slowly; I’m always trying to set up the rest of the book. And if something’s unclear, my solution is always to write more. More dialogue. More description. More metaphors. More information.
And when I pick up a comic called Saga, I have big expectations about an epic story with deep lore. So how does Saga balance the writer’s desire to share information with the reader’s desire for emotion? Don’t readers need to know something about the characters and world before they can care?
This tension between information and story is something playwright David Mamet famously talked about. He won a Pulitzer in 1984 for his play Glengarry Glen Ross. But in the 2000s, he was working on a TV show called The Unit, about a special forces team. Shows with cops or spies often have a scene with a chief giving a mission briefing, or a detective walking around a body. They explain a bunch of information to someone else, which is really exposition for the audience. And it was a problem the writers of The Unit were struggling with. So here’s some of what David Mamet wrote to them:
Everyone in creation is screaming at us to make the show clear. We are tasked with, it seems, cramming a shitload of information into a little bit of time. […] But note: the audience will not tune in to watch information. The audience will only tune in and stay tuned to watch drama. […] Every scene must be dramatic. That means: the main character must have a simple, straightforward, pressing need which impels him or her to show up in the scene.
And that’s exactly what Saga does. It starts with Alana giving birth. We don’t need any backstory for this — it’s one of the most inherently dramatic moments of life. It creates an immediate, empathic connection between us and her. She doesn’t have any doctors, any medication, or even basic hygiene — she’s in the back of an old body shop. She’s in pain, and there’s so much that can go wrong. When the baby comes out and there’s no sound, she looks at Marko’s crying face. Something’s up. But we turn the page and see everything’s OK. And soon their parental instincts kick in: protect the baby at all costs.
This kind of opening makes me think of how so many TV pilots now start with a teaser scene. Maybe it’s one of the reasons why, in an earlier part of writer Brian K. Vaughan’s career, he wrote for the TV show Lost during some of its middle seasons. So I went back to watch the pilot episode, which was written by Jeffrey Lieber, J. J. Abrams, and Damen Lindelof. (Yup, J. J. Abrams of Star Wars.) The episode opens with an eye. Then we see Jack lying in the middle of the jungle, dazed and injured. He stumbles out to the beach, hears people screaming, and sees the wreckage of a plane.
A more conventional opening would have started before the flight. We’d see Jack in his life, and we’d learn why he’s going on a trip. We’d see his status quo, and his strengths and weaknesses. Then he’d go to the airport or make chitchat with another passenger. Finally, mid-flight, an accident would happen. That would be the inciting incident in Jack’s story.
But Lost doesn’t open with that familiar pattern. Instead, Lost cuts straight to the aftermath of the accident. It’s a moment when the character has to do something, or has to make a choice: this disaster happened, so now what?
Like Lost, the inciting incident of Saga happens before the story. It happened months earlier, when Alana helped Marko escape prison. The birth, the shootout, the bounty hunters — these are all dramatic consequences of that escape.
It all reinforces to me how little we actually need to know in order to invest in a story. But, hey, I’m stubborn. I’m convinced every word I write is important, because it is to me. I want others to love all the cool details I’ve imagined.
What does cool actually mean, though? For one generation, it was a Star Destroyer invading the frame. That famous shot in Star Wars has a clear, oppressive geometry. That’s more powerful than all the CG and politics and midichlorians of the Prequels. It’s an in medias res opening that’s full of charisma, surprise and awe.
So don’t turn Chapter 1 into a dull, convoluted prequel for the rest of your novel. I mean, Saga — like Lost and Star Wars — puts the protagonists into an immediate crisis, one they quickly have to figure a way out of. Alana and Marko’s escape from that crisis is the vehicle through which the entire story world is built and dramatized. It’s the basic engine for the entire series, and that engine hums with energy from the first scene. That engine drives us from a birth and a shootout to crazy robot sex, exploding monster heads, war turtles, and Lying Cat. And, naturally, it’s what brings us back to Alana and Marko at the end of the issue. It’s why we follow these nutjobs across the universe. And it’s why Saga is one of the most beloved comics of the modern era.