7 Tips for Opening Your Story In Medias Res

In medias res is the useful but sometimes tricky writing technique of beginning your story “in the middle” of things. At its most basic, this is simply a solid reminder to begin your story with something happening. This might be action in the traditional sense, but it might also just be the character moving toward a scene goal. However, in medias res can cause confusion for writers who feel pushed to either manufacture action for their opening scene and/or open late in the story in a way that compromises the structural timing.

Last week, we discussed some of the confusion that can surround in medias res and particularly how to balance beginning “in the middle” with the need for a solid First Act that properly sets up the rest of the story. This week, I want to take a closer look at the technical side of in medias res, so you can better use it to craft gripping opening chapters that immediately pull readers in to the most interesting parts of your story.

The Pros and Cons of Using In Medias Res

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One of the main confusions about in medias res is that using it seems require writers to craft opening scenes stuffed with hardcore action and perhaps even with the main conflict already in full swing. Obviously, the former doesn’t work at all in certain types of story. And, as noted, the latter is extremely problematic from a structural perspective.

In medias res,  however, comes in many different flavors. In fact, most stories will open with some form of in medias res, even if it isn’t the full-blown type we often think of, in which the hero is already embroiled in some theatrical crisis. As shown in some of last week’s examples, such as Pride & Prejudice, beginning in medias res is as simple as opening with the characters having just piqued their own curiosity about some new development in their lives (i.e., an eligible bachelor moving in next door).

Pride & Prejudice (2005), Focus Features.

4 Pros of In Medias Res

The benefits of using even the subtlest of in medias res techniques are manifold.

1. Creates an inherent hook.

2. Offers the potential for vibrant characteristic moments for important characters.

3. Initiates the story with forward momentum.

4. Helps writers skip all throat-clearing and other unnecessary introduction.

4 (Potential) Cons of In Medias Res

When misunderstood or misapplied, in medias res can also create the opposite of the desired effect.

1. Interrupts the natural structural progression by starting too late in the story’s timeline.

2. Interrupts the natural structural progression via an irrelevant “action” scene tacked on the front of the book, before getting back to the “real” beginning in the next scene.

3. Focuses too much on physical action to the exclusion of development that would convince readers to invest in the characters.

4. Focuses too much on “sound and fury” rather than genuinely intriguing psychological hooks.

7 Tips for Opening Your Story With In Medias Res

The first challenge in using in medias res is knowing “how much” of the technique is right for your story. Whether you use it subtly as Jane Austen does in Pride & Prejudice or go full-bore as Robert Ludlum does in The Bourne Identity will depend both on your genre and the needs of your specific story. It is vital to understand both so you get the balance just right. Because in medias res is a technique that necessarily influences your reader’s first experience of your story, it must accurately set up your story’s tone and therefore reader expectations for everything to come.

You can use the following seven tips to refine your use of in medias res in any type of story.

1. Know Why You’re Choosing to Open In Medias Res

Again, most stories will open with some form of this technique. Particularly if you’re wanting to use it in a more immersive way by starting out with your character deep in a high-stakes situation, you’ll want to analyze why you’re using this approach and why you think it is most advantageous for your story.

High-stakes stories will often merit high-stakes openings. The difficulty here is that sometimes once authors get a story ramped up in that opening scene, they don’t always know how to slow it back down enough to do the proper set-up work of the First Act.

One option is to open with a high-stakes situation that the protagonist is not yet involved with. Then you can slow back down to introduce your protagonist, now that you’ve let readers know about the suspense on the horizon. Jurassic Park does this particularly well by opening with an intense scene in which an unseen monster kills a bunch of workers, before slowing way down to focus on its characters for the entire first half of the story.

Jurassic Park (1993), Universal Pictures.

However, this is a tricky approach in itself, since it means you’re opening with a framing scene that basically entails all the usual pitfalls of a prologue.

The two main issues are that:

1. You miss out on one of your best hooks, which is your protagonist, since you’re opening with supporting (and perhaps entirely expendable) characters.

2. You essentially have to write two opening chapters, since you still have to introduce your main characters and hook readers into caring about them.

Knowing your audience and how to set up their expectations for the type of story you’re writing is key.

2. Honor Scene Structure—and Use It to Your Advantage

One of the simplest and lowest-pressure ways to begin in medias res is simply to begin in the middle of a scene. Specifically, this means beginning with the scene’s structure already underway.

You can view the main part of a scene as being made up of three parts:

1. Goal

2. Conflict

3. Outcome

Analyzing the Dragon Scene Structure From Harry Potter and the Sorceror's Stone

Knowing this, you can then work the scene’s structure in your favor to begin at a point when the character is fully engaged in the scene’s most interesting action.

Opening in medias res is as simple as beginning with the character already working on trying to accomplish a scene goal (vs. sitting there deciding what goal he should work on). Getting right to the scene goal in the opening scene is the single best way to cut through any unnecessary throat-clearing. You can catch readers up on the “why” as you go or as needed.

You can see how this works even in stories that open long before the main conflict is encountered, such as Jane Eyre, which opens with the protagonist’s simple goal of hiding from her cousins so she can read by herself. This goal is then promptly and dramatically obstructed in a way that perfectly characterizes the protagonist and the stakes of her situation.

Jane Eyre (2011), Focus Features.

You can also open a little later in the scene with the conflict portion once your character has already run into an obstacle to his scene goal. This requires a little more finesse, since it offers the same challenges as opening smack in the middle of any type of action. You want to make sure readers have enough investment in the characters to actually care that they’re poor orphans with mean cousins. (You can imagine how differently Jane Eyre‘s beginning would have felt had it immediately opened with her hitting her cousin in the head with the book, rather than with her hiding away.)

3. Identify How This Scene Opens the Plot

As we’ve seen, opening in medias res does not require opening with the protagonist immediately embroiled in (or even aware of) the main conflict she will later engage in with the antagonist. The entire first quarter of the story (the First Act) is about setting up that conflict and leading the protagonist into direct engagement with it, via first the Call to Adventure at the Inciting Event (which does not take place until halfway through the First Act) and then the irrevocable First Plot Point that leads directly into the Second Act.

Like all scenes, the opening scene must contribute to the plot. It must be the first domino in a seamless row of dominoes, each knocking into the other, to create a causal progression of story events.

You will want to consider how the action you’ve presented in your opening scene offers the first event in your character’s journey toward the main conflict. Even opening scenes that focus predominately on character still need to create situational consequences that prompt the character’s next scene goal—which prompts the next scene goal, which eventually leads to an unavoidable entanglement with the story’s main plot goal and thus the conflict.

For example, Adventures in Babysitting opens with the seemingly random event of the protagonist’s boyfriend canceling their date for the night. In addition to introducing the protagonist and setting up her relationship with her boyfriend, this turns out to be the event that directly kicks off her crazy adventure in the wilds of Chicago with the three kids she agrees to babysit for the night.

Adventures in Babysitting (1987), Touchstone Pictures.

4. Focus on the Characteristic Moment

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Because in medias res usually offers an inherent emphasis of plot and action, it can be easy to let the all-important ingredient of character slide to the back burner. Your characters are your single greatest opportunity to hook readers. After all, if the characters aren’t interesting, why read the book? If the characters are interesting, then readers will happily be entertained by them while you get the rest of the story’s pieces set up for the plot.

It’s always optimal if your opening scene can set up the full trifecta of plot, character, and theme. However, if you have to choose just one, character is usually your best choice. This is why Characteristic Moments are one of the single best ways to use in medias res. Begin with your characters neck-deep in some situation that is relatively normal for them or at least the result of actions and attitudes that are normal for them.

For example, Treasure Planet (one of my favorite adaptations of Treasure Island) opens with teenage protagonist Jim Hawkins getting arrested (again) for showing off his impressive solar-surfing skills in a restricted area. This scene neatly introduces the character’s recklessness, his joy of life, his skills (which will become crucial in the Climax), his flirtation with delinquency (which directly contributes to his mother’s agreement that he go off for “a few character-building months in space”), and his troubled backstory as a fatherless boy.

Treasure Planet (2002), Walt Disney Pictures.

5. Choose a Thematically Pertinent Scene

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Sometimes choosing the right moment to open a story is difficult because so many aspects of the character’s life are dramatic and interesting. Narrow your choices by focusing on Characteristic Moments and scene dilemmas that are thematically pertinent to the story to come. Even if your opening scene doesn’t directly touch upon the story’s main conflict in any obvious way, you can still use it to thematically introduce what is to come.

One way to do this is to focus your protagonist’s Characteristic Moment on how she is currently being limited by the Lie She Believes. This limiting perspective will provide one of the main reasons for the protagonist’s engagement with the main conflict once it comes into view. We see this in the Treasure Planet example above and also in stories such as Jane Austen’s Emma, in which the titular protagonist opens by matchmaking her beloved governess (or so she thinks). This event perfectly sets up the character’s growth arc, as well as creating the circumstances that drive the main conflict (the arrival of her governess’s handsome and intriguing new stepson, Frank Churchill).

Emma (2009), BBC One.

6. Take the Time to Set the Stage and Identify All Players

When using in medias res to begin a story, it’s easy to feel you must rush the first chapter. Using this technique needn’t make your first chapter rushed or chaotic. Even if your opening scene deals with physical action and/or high stakes, you will still want to make sure readers are oriented within your story. You can’t go so fast readers miss out on knowing the who, where, what, why, and how of your scene.

Sometimes the technique of in medias res can be accomplished in as little as a paragraph or two—or sometimes even just a sentence, if that sentence packs a wallop of intrigue. Then you can pull back a bit to set the stage. Another little trick that can help is limiting the number of characters in the first scene. You have to be careful with this, since you need the characters you need, and also because character interaction is often one of the best ways to engage readers. However, if you only introduce two or three characters in the first chapter, you will have less information to juggle in the beginning. You can then draw in other important supporting characters in subsequent scenes.

Stories such as The Great Escape, which do begin deeply in medias res, focus on setting up the initial conflict situation (arriving in a new POW camp) along with the scene’s specific conflict (immediately attempting dozens of escapes), while carefully layering in multiple Characteristic Moments from its many important characters.

Great Escape

The Great Escape (1963), The Mirisch Company.

7. Carefully Plan Backstory Presentation

Finally, you will want to be careful with backstory. This is true of any opening scene, but it is even more true in stories that begin in medias res. By definition, these stories are firmly focused on the present moment. If they’ve begun “in the middle,” then something must have come before. It can be tempting to begin with a line such as “Harry had never found himself in such a fix before”—and then immediately zoom back to fill readers in on Harry’s entire backstory leading up to this moment.

Although it is important, as per Point #6 above, to make sure readers know enough to orient themselves within the scene, you must be particularly careful about not undoing all the good of an in medias res opening by spending too much time in the characters’ pasts. If you feel the need to keep rewinding in order to catch readers up to speed, that could be a sign that you’ve started too late in the story’s events.

In general, all but the most basic backstory is best shared as late in the story as possible. Tease it out until readers absolutely need to know what’s going on. In the beginning of your story, focus only on backstory that is necessary to properly set up the character.


Although in medias res will be used to one degree or another in most stories, it won’t be the right choice for every story. It’s important to understand exactly what it is, how it works, and how to avoid its pitfalls—so you can make an educated decision about the best way to hook readers into your story’s first chapter.

Wordplayers, tell me your opinions! Have you used any degree of in medias res in opening your latest story? Tell me in the comments!

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About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland is the award-winning and internationally-published author of the acclaimed writing guides Outlining Your Novel, Structuring Your Novel, and Creating Character Arcs. A native of western Nebraska, she writes historical and fantasy novels and mentors authors on her award-winning website Helping Writers Become Authors.


  1. In some ways, in medias res sounds like how Jeff Gerke suggests beginning your novel in his book, “Hack Your Reader’s Brain.” He uses the research of Paul Zak, whose laboratory experiments showed exactly how this worked. You can see a YouTube video of what Paul Zak did in a video entitled: Empathy, Neurochemistry, and the Dramatic Arc: Paul Zak at the Future of Story Telling. Here is the link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=I1CloIsIfA0

    In the first chapter of Gerke’s book he suggests that you begin your novel with an element of danger, or surprise, or better yet: both. And those two elements will produce chemicals in your reader’s brain that will almost guarantee that they will want to continue reading.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Interesting! I do think it may be too universal a statement to say all novels should open with an element of danger. Surprise is good, although that too can be tricky when readers aren’t yet oriented within the context of the story. I like the idea of opening with the character in a state of uncertainty, which can be leveraged to varying degrees depending on what is appropriately at stake for the genre. It’s all about simultaneously fulfilling and setting the readers’ expectations for the story to come.

  2. As always, fabulous advice. Beginnings are toughest for me. Decisions, decisions! I have a tendency to too much throat clearing. Thanks Katie!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Thanks for stopping by, Naomi! I agree: beginnings have always been the toughest part for me. There’s just so many things that need to be seamlessly accomplished in such a short amount of space.

  3. Whether in Short stories or novels, I always start with my MC facing some type of conflict. Incidentally, while you focus on novel writing, I think these tips are even more valuable in short stories because you really need to hook on the first page, and in short stories I do actually charge into the main conflict.
    For novels, I find starting with some conflict other than the main one. Mainly I’m using the hook to hopefully get the reader interested in my character and my world, and I think it’s better to craft a goal/conflict/outcome tailored to that. It also gives the author time to prepare the inciting incident.

  4. Great post. I missed last weeks. Just to let you know the link to it in this post is incorrect. It links to this one and not last weeks. I’m sure I’ll find it though. Thank you.

  5. Grace Clay says

    I recently read `At Home in Mitford’ for the first time. The book opens with the quiet conflict of a stray dog almost knocking Father Tim over as he walks across his front lawn. The incident is perfect for the story, setting the tone, and also showing the book in miniature. The central conflict is Father Tim’s desire for the comfort of routine, warring with his need to help everyone he comes in contact with -even though doing so leaves him feeling out of his depth. (And then trying to figure out how taking care of himself fits in with taking care of others…) it is a lovely book, and it does begin `in medias res’ even though there is not a car chase to be found. In fact, if the book had started with a more actiony incident (there are a couple) it would have been a lie, and left people frustrated -thinking the were getting a completely different type of story than what they were.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Perfect example of how this technique can be used effectively in a low-key way. Thanks for sharing this!

  6. Eric Troyer says

    Thanks Katie! You touched on this just barely, but I’m curious if you feel an opening scene should create a question in the mind of the reader. It seems this would work well with in media res.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Absolutely. I believe one of the single best hooks for any beginning (I’d even go so far as to say it is indispensable) is piquing reader curiosity through some sort of question, whether explicit or implicit.

      • Peter Moore says

        What a great post. First (and last) chapters are by far the most difficult to write. I use quite a few of your tips to open my manuscript. The first scene starts with the antagonist arguing with a main character over the plight of the protagonist, who happens to be all alone in the wilderness nearby writhing in labor. The antagonist prevents the MC from helping the protagonist, setting up a number of thematic and characteristic elements without going into excruciating detail of their complicated relationship. This allows me to get to the main plot instead of spending chapters upon chapters of backstory.

        One point I thought of while rewriting my opening was that In Medias Res is a great way to raise questions in the reader’s mind – which has its own sets of opportunities and pitfalls. You talked a little bit about that at the beginning of the post. I wonder what your thoughts are about how to balance this issue of confusing vs. intriguing readers.

        On a side note, I don’t know if you’ve read ‘The Bitches of Everafter’ by Barbra Annino. She uses In Medias Res to skip an entire book’s worth of backstory, sprinkling the information throughout her story.

        • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

          As you’ve already noted in your reference to Bitches of Everafter (great title!), our treatment of backstory when opening in medias res is really no different from any other type of opening. My fallback rule on backstory is always: wait to tell readers backstory until they *need* to know it in order for the story to make sense. Some things they will never need to know. But if you find yourself info-dumping at the beginning of an in medias res opening, you may want to examine whether or not you’ve opened too late.

          Here’s a quick list of “10 questions your readers shouldn’t have to ask” at the beginning of your book: https://www.helpingwritersbecomeauthors.com/10-questions-your-readers-shouldnt-have/

  7. “Interrupts the natural structural progression via an irrelevant ‘action’ scene tacked on the front of the book” I’ve seen advice that essentially recommends an irrelevant action scene. James Bond movies did this, but everyone was in on the joke. Using it for a characteristic moment etc sounds like a way to make a not-main-conflict scene work

    • Oh, James Bond is a great example of using in media res as to demonstrate the characteristic moments. The “irrelevant action scene” at the beginning was always supposed to end with a set piece where James Bond does something spectacular to let us know he can do impossibly cool things.

      The behind the scenes special for “Golden Eye” had the filmmakers explicitly state this as the purpose of the opening sequences to the James Bond movies; their goal was for moviegoers to get excited about what other impossibly cool things Bond might do in the rest of the movie.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      In my view, a detached action scene is fine, but “irrelevant” is usually a wasted opportunity. A good opening scene will set up the plot, as well as the character, even if only indirectly. I’m not thinking of a specific James Bond example off the top of my head, but I think most of his scenes (at least in the recent films) tie into the main mission in some way. There’s still that domino effect from scene to scene.

  8. As always, an excellent post and another example of you explaining it as well as it can be explained. Even having done it before and knowing what “correct” looks like, it’s still tricky to do. There tends to be a lot of growling and screaming on the way, along with a lot of tweaking later. Always I try to capture character, plot, and theme in the beginning. Even better is foreshadowing the ending too. That’s all difficult enough, but there’s the pesky tendency to want to either slip into backstory or ruminate about the present. I think they’re both so attractive because they’re so much easier.

    The novel I’m presently editing is Protecting the Pneuma Key. It opens with Zephtasha bursting out the back door of the cottage she’s housesitting. She’s also, seemingly, running for her life from the five little creatures (rylls) giving chase.

    The truth is much different. She’s a witch on probation, her shackled wrist blocking her magic. The rylls are giving chase because they’re worried about her. Her panic is literally a panic attack because the life she thought ahead is gone. Meanwhile, she’s become an outcast. Except, that’s the lie. There are hints in the chapter that a more suitable, rewarding life is hers for the taking if only she’d see it.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      “Always I try to capture character, plot, and theme in the beginning. Even better is foreshadowing the ending too. That’s all difficult enough, but there’s the pesky tendency to want to either slip into backstory or ruminate about the present.”

      This is so true!

  9. I had a major backstory problem in a first chapter, and took me an embarrassingly long time for me to recognize it. I thought it was the ‘minimum’ amount of backstory for the first chapter to make sense, but with some tweaking, it was possible to cut 90% of it and still have a coherent scene. The reader doesn’t need all the background about why the protagonist cares about this goal, they just need to see that she cares about the goal she’s pursuing. The details about why she wants this can wait.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Hah. I do this kind of thing all the time. It’s funny how our views of “minimal backstory” change the more time we have in between the actual writing of it!

  10. Wonderful article. I tend to use characteristic moments in my stories. I like showing the character either figuring something out or doing something in their typical way. I think it sets them up neatly for the conflict or changes they’ll encounter later.

  11. DAVID WOLF says

    My crime novel is all about a trial for murder. My opening scene (a prologue) depicts the murder taking place (in media res) between the named victim and the unnamed shooter. This is one page long. The first chapter has the court-appointed defense attorney interviewing the imprisoned spouse–who has been arrested for murdering her husband. But the wife, his client, offers an unusual defense–that she’s been framed. (Though the person she names as the real killer might not actually be a real person.) So no backstory, really, in that first chapter, other than a reference to the lawyer’s debts as justification for him pursuing this odd defense strategy.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      “the person she names as the real killer might not actually be a real person.”

      That’s the part that hooks me!

  12. Hey, Katie. I know this is a little beside the point of what you’re writing, but I’d like to challenge this statement:

    “It’s always optimal if your opening scene can set up the full trifecta of plot, character, and theme.”

    I very much understand the intuitive appeal of doing this: it means three major elements of a story are communicated early on… So why would that be a bad thing…?

    The truth is, I don’t have hard evidence to suggest this would ever be a bad thing… I only have an intuition. It may be a flawed intuition, but here’s what I think:

    … The reason I personally would settle for exploring character(s) alone when writing an opening scene — and as a bonus happen to tap into plot and theme, but only subconsciously and unintentionally on my part — has to do with the fact I am fascinated with characters who are “intellectual and philosophical”; characters who can go a long way to argue WHY they believe they’re right to do what they do — even if they’re villains.

    My intuition is that if I were to ask myself, “How can I bring character, theme and plot all into the opening scene?”, that I would then end up with a story that features more “simplistic” characters: characters who have “an obvious moral flaw”, so that they thereby give room for the theme of the story early on (if by theme you mean “the truth that the character (and the reader) would do well to learn and live by.”)

    So the question I am pondering: What if there are people like myself, who rather than to build a story around “the one moral takeaway”, would rather build a story around several heroes and villains — all with some level of persuasive arguments for their goals (which are in conflict)? Would it not be okay that the philosophical depth of a story, rather than to be centered on “the moral lesson,” is instead centered on “the moral dilemma?”

    … I am currently working on something similar myself — a fantasy story where, in simple terms, there is one group of heroes and two groups of villains. My focus when planning this story isn’t so much, “How can I establish the moral takeaway?”, but rather, “How can I establish the emotional vulnerability/motivation/perspectives/reasons of the characters?”

    I believe (and hope) that by showing how even the villains have a greater good in mind when doing “wrong things,” or by showing how they have an emotional vulnerability as the core of their motivation, that the readers/viewers (I’m a screenwriter) will not be disappointed by the lack of a clear theme (story message), but rather appreciate and be excited about the philosophical conflict that exists between the characters — to want to follow their “philosophical game of tennis.”

    … I would love for my audience to wonder for themselves about the true nature of goodness and justice, and how they would handle being in the shoes of these characters…

    … Couldn’t this be exciting as well…? 🙂

    I understand that what I’ve written here concerns a great deal more than the role of theme in opening scenes…

    In conclusion, I admit I might be wrong about my intuition on themes and opening scenes… I find it interesting to debate aspects to writing, and to continue developing my own “philosophy of writing” by considering the perspectives of people who have spent much time thinking through these things, yourself being a great example. 🙂

    Thanks for many great posts, Katie!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Everything you’re saying here falls under the mantle of what I would consider “theme.” Theme certainly doesn’t have to be, and often shouldn’t be, simplistic in its portrayal of moral complexities. Characters who are moving through their own ambiguities are the essence of fictional exploration. Indeed, theme lives at the heart of the characters’ “emotional vulnerability/motivation/perspectives/reasons.” In establishing those things, theme is, by extension, established as well.

      I believe an ideal opening scene (or any scene, really) will further the “trifecta” of plot, theme, and character. But this doesn’t necessarily mean the writer must mechanically manufacture all three. The truth is that if one of the three is well-played, the other two will almost certainly be solidly present by extension.

      I’ve talked about that in these posts:



      • Thanks for the links, Katie! I read those posts, and also searched the site for other posts on theme. It’s a fascinating subject! ^^

        From my understanding, you sometimes talk about theme as what I would call topics/subjects (e.g. love), and sometimes as how these topics/subjects apply to — or should be applied to — the lives of the characters (e.g. to truly love someone, means to put the needs of another before the interests of yourself). Perhaps the example I’m using is a thematic truth that not all viewers of a film/TV show would agree with, but one that a character in a movie/TV show would still come to believe in.

        I found much wisdom in your posts, and enjoyed reading them. But there are two things I’m unsure about…

        #1: It seems you make a distinction between thematic truths and the message of a story. My understanding of this difference, is that thematic truth is what a character realizes organically as the plot unfolds, and that the story message might be what a writer attempts to preach to the audience. I think you used Spiderman as an example to talk about how the message of that particual movie, if not preachy, would at least not be relatable to anyone but Peter Parker himself.

        So here’s the question: If a story message is either preachy or unrelatable to an audience, why would it matter to be aware of story messages as writers?

        I got the impression you saw some meaningful relation between thematic truth and story message, and that there’d be a benefit to identifying the message of a story. If so, this is a point I don’t understand…

        #2: I’ve been considering this: Is it really true that “theme is what a story is really about…”?

        I must first say that I can barely emphasize how much my taste in stories have developed since I was a teenager.

        Throughout life, I’ve mostly engaged with stories in visual mediums, particularly video games. As a teenager, I used to think that the story aspect of a game (and anything else) was all about “a number of cool, unpredictable events taking place.” That was my idea of good stories for several years… <.<

        … While today I certainly require something deeper than a good external plot, the external plot still matters to me: Once I have connected to the characters (heroes and villains), I will also be intrigued by the external stakes and by the heroes' adventure to solve the big problem facing society/the world. The external stuff of a story can be very exciting!

        It may be that theme is the most important aspect of why I enjoy stories. But I know it is not the only aspect…

        … While I am fascinated by characters who have deep wounds and strong reasons to do what they do, I'm not necessarily choosing to pick up a story because I am first thinking, "I really want to discover a new thematic truth I can apply to my life…"

        … Actually, it often starts with that "superficial" desire for entertainment — but here's the TWIST:

        What I find to be "the most important part of entertainment", IS the exploration of the characters' souls and their journey of emotional struggles! Things you'd say are part of story theme.

        This confession of mine could perhaps be used to further your point that "a story is really about the theme." But if so, this statement may not be be true for the reason that "the audience primarily picks up a story because they want to learn a new truth about life."

        … I don't think you ever stated that explicitly… It just became my intuitive interpretation of that statement.


        I guess my own answer to what a story is really about — or should I say, "what my reason to read/watch/play a story is really about" — is to connect with characters.

        Once I'm connected to characters, I can enjoy examining thematic questions and truths, as well as be entertained by the characters' journey and the dramatic/comedic interplay between the characters.

        … PLUS! The entertainment in "stories whose characters I care about," can come from BOTH their internal and their external struggles! 🙂

        • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

          The distinction I’m making about “theme” vs. “message” in the post you’re referencing is a principle that (as far as I know) originated with Michael Hauge. “Message” is a directive about *how* to accomplish the thematic truth.

          The important distinction lies in how the story is conveying a moral message. If a story is directly informing an audience *how* to live a good life, versus simply arguing that one *should* live a good life, then it starts to err too far into promoting its own message rather than offering a thematic exploration.

          My stance of “theme is what a story is all about” is pointing to how, within any type of story, theme is what readers are left with. It is the statement the resolution of the plot makes about the world, however consciously or unconsciously, explicitly or implicitly.

          • Thanks, Katie!

            I like talking to you because you’re so passionate about this! 🙂

  13. Thanks for this! My struggle is definitely to the spectrum end of leaping right in…*backstory? what backstory?*
    ‘Structuring Your Novel’ was a life-changer, and it’s brilliant now to get a specific break down of the issue. Thank you, I love your work… and I love becoming an author instead of being at stuck as a wannabe. That’s all because of your resources. I can’t thank you enough:-)

  14. Rosemary Brandis says

    I have started my story with in medias res, but with the antagonist, mainly because his action directly affects the whole story and the protagonist which is only two years old at the time, but she is in the scene. He stabs her faher and kidnaps her. To put her at the top of he scene, i’d have to cut the whole first chapter. But when i tried to do that, I found that there was too much in back story I’d have to make up. I’ve built in foreshadowing, and story questions and hooks that i couldn’t get back. Basically, it sets up the story.

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