Starting at the Beginning in the Middle

Notes on Artemis Fowl: The Lost Colony

A book that is part of a series still needs to have a beginning that sets the story in motion. The opening for this novel demonstrates how to set a story into motion while filling in back story for new readers. Because Colony is aimed at young readers, the story mechanics are accessible and transparent, and that makes it a good tool for teaching structure.

Chapter Title: Blast to the Past

This is a clever play on the line, blast from the past. This suggests a story that will go back in time.

Barcelona, Spain

This is a quick, fast way to establish a location. When I read some unpublished novel manuscripts, I have no sense of where the story is happening.

The first line…

Happy was not a word often used to describe Artemis Fowl’s bodyguard.

Saying what kind of person the bodyguard isn’t is a way to suggest what kind of person he is.

Jolly and contented were also words that were rarely applied to him or to people in his immediate vicinity.

Note the clever way this suggests the impact of this bodyguard on others. We’re getting the message he’s a larger than life, rough-looking man. Without saying that.

Butler did not get to be one of the most dangerous men in the world by chatting with anyone who happened to stroll past, unless that chat concerned exit routes and concealed weapons.

This passage not only suggests how dangerous Butler is, but the likelihood of violence happening around him. He’s a dramatic character. Like Bud in L.A. Confidential, we can anticipate what will happen if someone acts out around Butler.

Note also that this last sentences gives a name to Butler. The author has moved from the general to the specific. A problem in some manuscripts I read is that an introduction of a character will go from general to specific and back to general.


On this particular afternoon, Butler and Artemis were in Spain, and the bodyguard’s Eurasian features were even more taciturn than normal.

Now we get some brief description of Butler and a question, why was his appearance more ‘taciturn’ than normal? We can expect an answer shortly. That begins that process of question, answer, question that draws readers in and deeper into a story’s world.

His young charge was, as usual, making Butler’s job more complicated than it needed to be.

This raises a question of why? And it says something about the relationship between Butler and his charge.

Artemis insisted that they stand on the sidewalk of Barcelona’s Passeig de Gracia for over an hour in the afternoon sun, with only a few slender trees to provide them with cover from the heat or possible enemies.

An introduction to the ‘young charge’ here, a move from the general to specific about the location, and a question, why does Artemis insist on this location if they are in danger from enemies?

This was the fourth unexplained trip to foreign locations in as many months. First Edinburgh, then Death Valley in the American West, followed by an extremely arduous trek to doubly landlocked Uzbekistan. And now Barcelona. All to wait for a mysterious visitor, who had not as yet made an appearance.

This suggests back story, while also raising more questions; why didn’t the visitor show at these locations? Who is the visitor? Why is meeting the visitor so important?

They made an odd couple on the busy pathway. A huge, muscular man: forties, Hugo Boss suit, shaven head. And a slight teenager: pale, raven-haired, with large piercing blue eyes.

Here we move from the general to the specific about these characters. First we’re drawn in to be curious about these two, then we get the specifics about what they look like.  Some writers struggle because they start with details about characters ahead of drawing in readers to want those details.

This isn’t to say that describing characters can’t be a way to begin a story, just that the intent should be to set a story into motion and raise and answer questions that draw readers in.

The story now continues with a dialog between Artemis and Butler that conveys their relationship and something about the expected visitor. Artemis relates that the visitor will only appear for a second.

Very interesting. We get a kind of answer about the visitor that just raises another question.

Artemis refers to a ‘rift’ in time that he expected the visitor to appear from. Again an answer with another question embedded.

The exchange continues with Artemis mentioning that going through puberty is leading him to be distracted by any pretty young woman in the vicinity. Something he believes he can control, which would make him ‘the first’ to do so.

And here, the author steps in.

And it was true. No other teenager had kidnapped a fairy, rescued their father from a Russian Mafiya, and helped put down a goblin revolution by the tender age of fourteen.

More back story to bring new readers about to speed about the exploits of Artemis and the plot lines of previous books.

Then, as Artemis and Butler prepare to leave…

A shape formed in the air. From nothing came a cluster of sparks and the smell of sulfur. Inside the cluster, a gray-green thing appeared, with golden eyes, chunky scales, and great horned ears.

This is the anticipated visitor, who as soon as it appears, disappears with Artemis.

Artemis and the demon pass through several times and dimensions, and Artemis knows he’ll never be able to return home … except Butler has keep a grip on Artemis and he has a charm on his wrist, which enables him to pull Artemis back to the present time and place.

But Artemis notices that two of his fingers have changed places in his dimensional travels, which raises the question:

What will happen now?

End of chapter.

We know something more about the visitor, but not the reason of the visit. That will be for another chapter.

What this novel demonstrates is how a story can be set in motion while also leavening in back story. I’ve read openings to novels where a writer couldn’t get through a first sentence without trying to stop the storytelling and starting the lecture about past events.

The goal is always the same: set a story in motion in a way that your audience WANTS to know more about your characters and events. Fail at that, and all that information is just weights that sink your sentences into an impassable swamp.

The Lost Colony is an example of how it can be done.

Bill Johnson is author of A Story is a Promise and The Spirit of Storytelling, a writing workbook, and web master of, a web site that explores principles of storytelling through reviews of popular movies, books, and plays. Spirit is now available on Amazon Kindle at