In Medias Res: How to Do It and How Not to

This week’s video discusses, not only how to avoid the potential pitfalls of in medias res, but how to take full advantage of its awesomeness.

Video Transcript:

Nowadays, it’s kind of hard to be a writer and not know about—or at least have heard of—in medias res. This, of course, is the Latin term for “in the middle,” which is applied to idea of beginning a story in the middle of things. In a nutshell, this basically just means “cut the throat clearing.” Readers don’t need a long introduction to your character and your story world. They just want to get right to the good stuff.

But despite the prevalence and modern popularity of the technique, in medias res can be tough to pull off. Sometimes authors get so intent on eliminating the throat clearing that they begin their stories too late, and readers have no idea what’s going on and no reason to invest in the character. The action may be good, but it lacks the context that would make it interesting. Beginnings are absolutely about hooking readers, but they’re also about introducing characters, settings, and stakes. If our pursuit of in medias res is endangering any of those, we’d do well to back it up and start a little north of the actual middle of things.

So caveats aside, let’s talk about how awesome in medias res can be. Whenever I read a book in which it’s done right, I heave this big inner sigh of relief, because I get to get right to the good stuff. I don’t have to slog through long introductions.

One of the best examples of in medias res I’ve ever seen is William Golding’s classic The Lord of the Flies. His story is about little boys on an island. How they ended up on that island is crucial info, but it’s not part of the story—and, quite frankly, it would have been tedious to read through. Golding obviously had a handle on this, because he eliminated all his throat clearing and began the story exactly where it gets interesting—with the boys’ reacting to their dilemma. Readers are immediately introduced to characters, settings, and stakes, in a manner that in no way mitigates the raw power of the hook. We, as authors, could do a lot worse than to mimic Golding’s example.

Tell me your opinion: Have you opened your story in medias res?

In Medias Res: How to Do It and How Not to

Sign Up Today

hwba sidebar pic

Sign up to receive K.M. Weiland’s monthly e-letter and receive her free e-book Crafting Unforgettable Characters: A Hands-On Introduction to Bringing Your Characters to Life.

Email:
About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland lives in make-believe worlds, talks to imaginary friends, and survives primarily on chocolate truffles and espresso. She is the IPPY and NIEA Award-winning and internationally published author of the Amazon bestsellers Outlining Your Novel and Structuring Your Novel. She writes historical and speculative fiction from her home in western Nebraska and mentors authors on her award-winning website.

Comments

  1. Evelyn Berry says:

    In all of my stories, I end up having different beginnings. The original beginning seemed right at the time, but I have to remind myself to start with some ACTION, so I end up changing them to where characters interact with other characters. Adds more show and brings out aspects of the characters.

  2. I’m struggling with the current wip. It’s my first futuristic novel. I’m not sure if I should start with the event that sent my character wandering across the post-crash America or get right to his first crisis. I intend to make it a series so I want to set the stage. But I worry I’m starting too soon.

    • K.M. Weiland says:

      When in doubt, go ahead and start at the earlier juncture. You can always go back and trim later if it feels too bulky. Also, it’s always valuable to get some input from beta readers. Do they like it long – or are they bored?

  3. Great post, Katie!

    I write mysteries, so I like to open with prologue that is a murder or the POV of the villain. That part is easy. It’s the next step that get tricky for me. What to open with. It’s a delicate balance between showing the characters and jumping right into the action.

    • In essence, stories like this allow you to hook the readers with non-protagonist-oriented material. It gives you just a little more leeway in selecting your first scene *with* your protagonist, since you can at least scratch the major part of the hook off your checklist of beginning to-dos.

  4. This does take a deft hand to pull off. I think your example of Lord of the Flies is a great one, and, yes, we could all learn a lot re-reading that book. Thanks for an interesting post.

    • K.M. Weiland says:

      The best way to learn how to write well is to read, both good books and bad – but mostly good. Most of the classics have reached that status for a reason.

  5. What a great example of a story that begins in the middle of the action. And it’s amazing that even though I wondered how the boys got onto that island, once I got into the story (which was right away, because of the place it began), the backstory or lack of it didn’t even matter anymore.

    I usually begin my stories with too much intro and throat-clearing, then trim it down on following drafts.

    • One of the reasons in medias res works so well in Lord of the Flies is that the backstory is essentially very straightforward. The boys were on a boat; the boat sunk. Simple. So it didn’t require lots of in-depth explanations to satisfy reader curiosity.

      • I love this book and taught it for many years. The boys were being taken away from England and the war in a plane. The plane crashed on the island leaving a huge mephorical scar on this paradise. It was an anti-war novel, rich in symbolism, and the plane crash was really important to that.

  6. In my third MG adventure (The Temple of the Crystal Timekeeper) I opened with the young heroes crash landing in the Mexican jungle on the first page and meeting with an uncontacted tribe about four pages in. It really pushes the reader headfirst into the adventure. This is the first time I have tried this tactic and I love it.

    • K.M. Weiland says:

      Great example. You could have started earlier with the heroes boarding their ship, etc., but readers would probably just have been impatient to get to the good stuff.

  7. Golding did have a great example of In Media Res, thanks KM! It was a great video. I always love stopping by here.

  8. When I started my story I cut to the chase immediately, but later I built up to it a little since it would have been too rushed otherwise. I honestly can’t stand The Lord of the Flies. I’ve tried to read it twice and I could never make myself finish it, but that doesn’t have to stop any of you from liking it. I don’t know if Ender’s Game counts an In Medias Res, but I am reading it right now and I love how the story moves quickly, and yet the author doesn’t pull any lame tricks like using one page chapters or random twists just to win a page turner award.

    • K.M. Weiland says:

      Ender’s Game is another great example. It’s a book with a *ton* of backstory, some of which directly involves the protagonist and most of which doesn’t. But Card neatly excises all the extraneous stuff and cuts right to the chase – the moment when Ender’s monitor is removed from his neck.

  9. In the previous two books I had them at the airport etc, setting up the quest, and since all the backstory is already established, I thought this would be a good opening with a bang. I think one has to take each story – regardless of genre – on its merits and follow the dictates of the story.

  10. Structuring my novel according to the Hero’s Journey suggests that a disturbance take place after the introduction to the Protagonist’s world. I tend to start with the Pro reacting to the disturbance, only to wrestle with whether or not to include an introduction/lead-in. Instead of the opening scene’s typical: goal>conflict>disaster>reaction>dilemma>decision; I seem to jump in at the Pro’s reaction filling in the gaps for the reader as the story hits the ground running.

    Of course I’m a newbie at this and despite the frustration, am actually enjoying the challenge of structuring a novel. Thanks Katie for your tutelage.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Beginning the opening chapter with a sequel (reaction) is only a good idea if a new goal immediately presents itself. Readers want to see the character in action, rather than *having* to be filled in on details right away. Of course, there will always be some details that will have to be shared upfront. But it’s important to introduce a goal and an obstacle right away, so you can get right to the conflict.

  11. Opening with a good scene in movies often means starting with a big scene and then going back to explain how you got there. Is this really backstory or is the first scene just a teaser. I’m really struggling with this one.

  12. I just hate the ‘in media res’
    Whan i read a story that starts that way, I tend to put the book aside. It makes me feel that I’m in late, I often ask to myself ‘why I should care for those characters’ businnes?’

  13. Pizzafishjedi2 says:

    In the original outline for my novella, the first chapter explains how two of the protagonists became fugitives. But when I started writing, it just didn’t work, partially because there was no “hook”.
    So I started with what I originally planned to be the second chapter, and it was much better! Starting in media res fit well with my story, allowed for a good hook, and I was able to quickly explain how the characters had gotten into their situation without it being an info-dump.
    And Star Wars: A New Hope had a fantastic in media res opening.

Trackbacks

  1. […] that is in media res. If you want more information, you can find some great articles/podcasts here and here. If all else fails, consult Dr. […]

Speak Your Mind

*