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.
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.