Clearing Up Some Misconceptions About In Medias Res

One of the most significant challenges for writers is crafting a beginning chapter that immediately grabs readers. Most commonly, writers are advised to accomplish this via two different methods: the hook and the technique of beginning in medias res, or “in the middle of things.” But are these really two different techniques? And if not, how exactly do they work, either in tandem or separately?

Most readers have limited time and are not interested in reading just anything. These days, many readers make their purchasing decisions based as much on first chapter previews as on book descriptions. This means your first chapter needs to convince potential readers of two things:

1. This is exactly the type of story they’re personally looking for.

2. Your writing is solid enough to promise a good tale throughout.

Quality of writing has much to do with both these factors. If I’m browsing books and I feel the writing style in the first chapter is solid and evocative, I will very likely try it even if it hasn’t given me a gripping hook in the first few pages. My first consideration is always whether or not I will enjoy the writer’s style (because if I don’t, I won’t enjoy putting in the time to appreciate whether the plotting is aces). But good style and a solid hook in the first chapter? That’s gold.

One commonly touted technique for accomplishing this is the use of in medias res. This is a Latin phrase roughly translating “in the middle,” which is generally meant to suggest one of two things to writers:

1. Don’t begin the story before the story’s events (i.e., skip the setup).

2. Do begin with action of some sort (i.e., yeehaw!).

Both bits of advice are solid, but taken by themselves they can also be misleading.

How Can You Use the Technique of In Medias Res in a Three-Act Structure?

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In medias res means beginning “in the middle of the opening scene” with the character already embroiled in that scene’s action.

It does not mean opening “in the middle of the story structure.”

The only exception to this would be the gimmick of the “flashforward,” in which you open with a scene from later in the story, then return to the true beginning of things (as in, for example, It’s a Wonderful Life, which opens at the Third Plot Plot when Clarence the Angel is briefed about his mission to go save George Bailey).

So the short answer to the question of whether or not in medias res is compatible with the Three-Act Structure is that, yes, it totally is. The secret lies in understanding what is meant by the terms and particularly how the First Act functions structurally.

As regular readers of this site will know, the First Act is all about setup. The First Act sets up the main conflict, but this main conflict will not fully initiate until the Second Act. To open your story with events that should properly be in the Second Act will very possibly have the opposite of the desired effect. Readers will have no reason to care about what happens because they have not yet been given an opportunity to care about the characters.

More than that, the events will ultimately lack resonance and perhaps even realism, since the story’s pacing wasn’t constructed to allow these important story ingredients to develop naturally. This doesn’t mean you need to rewind all the way to the beginning of your character’s backstory and start there. But you do want to identify and start at the best structural beginning for your story.

All that said, we do, of course, see stories that seem to open deep within their own action—and, usually, they are action stories. The Bourne Identity and Captain America: Civil War are two examples, as are many mysteries, such as Feet of Clay from Sir Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series.

Stories such as these get right to the point of the conflict with little to no initial character introduction or development. However, an examination of their structural pacing shows that all the parts are still there. Each story has an intact First Act setting up the main conflict, even though the main conflict is not fully engaged with until a bigger event at the First Plot Point.

For Example:
  • The Bourne Identity plunges us (literally) into the main action right away, showing its gunshot protagonist floating in the ocean just as he is rescued by a fishing schooner. However shocking (and hooking) this may be, however, it is not the main conflict. That will not come into view until the amnesiac protagonist realizes someone is after him.

  • Captain America: Civil War opens with the protagonist and his team already on an undercover mission, seconds away from engaging with their targets. When the mission goes bad, it sets up events to come, but the main conflict doesn’t arrive until Cap goes rogue to pursue and protect his old friend Bucky—a decision that splits up the Avengers.

  • Feet of Clay, like most mysteries, opens with an unexplained murder. And as in most mysteries, the entirety of the First Act concerns itself with routine investigation, until finally the detectives discover a shocking clue when a likely suspect mysteriously turns himself in.

It’s also worth noting that the latter two examples—Civil War and Feet of Clay—are sequels. This means much of the hard work of introducing characters and getting readers to identify with them has already been accomplished in previous installments. Indeed, if you look at The First Avenger, the first movie in the Captain America series, you can see how, after opening with a flashforward, it then spends the rest of its First Act dutifully introducing characters and setting up its main conflict.

What’s the Difference Between the Hook and In Medias Res?

I’ve posted about emotional hooks and structural Hooks many times. I’ve also written a little bit about in medias res. This new post came about after I received an email from someone wondering about the difference between the two. If you’re supposed to skip the setup and begin your story smack “in the middle” of the plot conflict, how does that square with the idea of carefully constructed structural timing?

So what’s up here? How can you use in medias res to grab readers in the beginning while still honoring the principles of story structure? For that matter, do you need to bother with in medias res at all?

What Is “the Hook” in Story Structure?

First off, what’s the difference between “a hook” and “the Hook”?

Simply put, a hook is anything anywhere in the story that grabs readers’ attention. However, unless otherwise specified, the word usually refers to the first hook in a story, the one that grabs readers on the first page and convinces them to keep reading. In perhaps its simplest definition, a hook piques readers’ curiosity by asking a question, whether explicit or implicit. Something isn’t quite clear, and readers want to know what’s going on.

The Hook (always capitalized) is the term I use to specifically indicate the first beat in a story’s structure. This Hook naturally includes that first “hook,” but it is also the first beat in the story’s plot. It is the first domino in the line of dominoes that will create your story. It is not random. Via the cause and effect of good scene structure, the Hook will affect the scene to follow, setting off a chain reaction—which will create your story.

Your structural Hook will be causally related to the main conflict. However, keep in mind that the First Act is about introducing the characters and the personal dilemmas that lead to the main goal and therefore the main conflict. This means it is totally possible (and usually imperative) to hook readers in the beginning of the story without needing to directly reference the main conflict. What you will do is thematically foreshadow and setup the elements that will come together to create that conflict in the Second Act.

For Example:

  • Iron Man opens not with the main conflict between billionaire arms dealer Tony Stark and his main antagonists—first the terrorists in Afghanistan, then his mentor Obadiah Stane who is funding those terrorists—but simply with a classic Characteristic Moment, in which he blows off the ceremony for some award he just won and goes to play at a casino instead. This doesn’t directly introduce the main plot. What it does do is set up his character—his potential for outside-the-box brilliance, his disregard for the establishment, and his determined irresponsibility. The story hooks us through character, not through plot or action.

  • Pride & Prejudice opens not with the main conflict between Elizabeth Bennet and her would-be love interest Mr. Darcy, but rather with a delightfully stylistic sketch of her family and home—and the intriguing question of “who has let Netherfield Hall?”—and why does it matter so much to this quirky family?

  • The Book Thief opens not with the main conflict of trying to hide and protect a pursued Jew in wartime Nazi Germany. Indeed, at the beginning of the book, the war hasn’t started and the main character Liesel hasn’t even arrived in the main setting, where she will live with her adopted parents. Rather, it opens with a musing vignette from its wistful narrator Death, introducing Liesel’s proclivity for stealing books while at her little brother’s funeral.

What Is In Medias Res?

In medias res is the hook technique of opening a story “in the middle of things.” The idea here is to hook readers by plunging them directly into an interesting circumstance. It is one way to cut through any “throat clearing” or “warming up” the author may be doing on the way to finding the best place to begin the story. Rather than starting with a bunch of setup that readers don’t care about, we instead jump right to the good bits.

In some ways, this is always a good idea. Most characters are not interesting enough for their morning routines to properly hook readers. This does not, however, mean you must open with full-on conflict or action. Somewhat counter-intuitively, conflict and action do not necessarily make for the best hook. Until readers are oriented in the story and care about the characters, full-on action or argument can often feel confusing or even (shockingly) boring.

However, it’s almost always best to begin your story with something happening. At the very least, you’ll want to try opening with movement. For example, if your story demands a slower opening with a solitary character, at least get him up and moving. A character pacing in his office is instantly more interesting than one who is sitting at his desk.

Usually, when you see a story that properly begins in medias res, it features the protagonist in the middle of an action-oriented Characteristic Moment, which thematically foreshadows the rest of the story and/or introduces the character’s experience in the First Act’s Normal World. For example, if a character is a spy, she may be introduced in the middle of a mission but not the mission that will comprise the main plot conflict. This technique is also frequently used in sequels, which may open with the character in the middle of a mess left over from the previous story, but which isn’t the structural “middle” of this new story’s conflict.

For Example:

You’ll notice none of our three previous examples opens with full-on action or conflict, but they all do open in the middle of things.

  • Iron Man begins when the awards ceremony Tony Stark skipped is already almost over, while Tony is already collar-deep in enjoying his craps game. More than that, the deal that will send him off to face the true plot conflict in Afghanistan is already underway.

  • In Pride & Prejudice, Netherfield Hall is already let, Mrs. Bennet already knows about it, and Mr. Bennet has already accomplished that all-important first meeting with the new and eligible tenet.

Pride and Prejudice 2005 Donald Sutherland

  • Technically, The Book Thief opens after all the action of the story is finished, as the omniscient narrator now reflects back on when he first encountered the young main character. The opening scene itself begins in the middle of an important event in Liesel’s life: the funeral of her brother, just before she is sent to live with adoptive parents in Berlin.

You can see from these three examples that none of them shortchanges the story’s proper structural timing or the First Act’s opportunity to set things up. This means that when the main conflict does arrive (Tony getting kidnapped, Elizabeth meeting Mr. Darcy, World War II starting), readers are already invested in the characters and ready for the importance of the events to come.

***

Full-on in medias res is not a technique you’ll want to use in every book, but when properly understood, it is an extremely valid and useful technique for hooking readers in the first chapter. That is why, next week, we’ll extend this discussion to explore “7 Tips for Opening Your Story In Medias Res.”

Wordplayers, tell me your opinions! How do you feel about using in medias res in your stories? Tell me in the comments!

Click the “Play” button to Listen to Audio Version (or subscribe to the Helping Writers Become Authors podcast in Apple Podcast or Amazon Music).

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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.

Comments

  1. Thank you for such a simple explanation of ‘in media res’ and how it differs from The Hook.

  2. I started the first book in my new paranormal romance mystery series with a dead body scene that also introduced some qualities of one of the MC’s and his Lie. For the sequel, I began with a scene showing the two main characters at work on a case unrelated to the Main Conflict, but demonstrating, not only the love the MC’s share, but also foreshadows their Lies. (Hopefully.)

    I think I might actually be doing this right!

  3. An important distinction. Any hook depends on being a situation that seems to have conflict and consequences — but In Medias Res blows that up to a full-on struggle (if not always action) that’s already waging. It’s mostly that scale that’s different; Tony walking out of that award *could* be a Medias Res if there were real attention to the pressure and consequences of getting him to it.

    But like you said, it’s important that “in the middle” means in the middle of *something* exciting but not deeply into the real conflict of the story itself. That’s why it’s often a separate or introductory struggle that doesn’t depend on us knowing the real issues yet (that’s what the rest of the tale’s for) — plus it’s such a favorite for sequels where the actual protagonist doesn’t need another introduction.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Exactly. The trick is making that “something separate” still intrinsic to the story.

  4. Eric Troyer says

    Another thought-provoking post! If you want to get all philosophical about it, any opening would be In Media Res, unless you open with the First Cause, whatever that is.

    I think what makes a good In Media Res opening is that it provokes one or more questions in the reader’s mind. But the balance has to be right. Too many questions can be overwhelming. Questions with obvious answers or that are answered too quickly, reduce the tension. But if you get the balance right, it makes the reader want to keep going.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      “If you want to get all philosophical about it, any opening would be In Media Res, unless you open with the First Cause, whatever that is.”

      Totally agree. And it really is all about balance.

  5. Jenna Lynn says

    I am so happy to finally be at the point in my “understanding story structure” journey that I don’t have to go change a bunch of stuff in my WIP whenever you post a new blog!
    I’m actually having a lot of fun with this one at the moment… my opening scene has my poor MC struggling through his usual routine with a broken nose AFTER the implied inciting incident of his best friend punching him in the face AFTER a medical experiment that gave all his friends superpowers but didn’t (seem to) work on him. When I was in the outlining stage, I had them all sitting in the clinic getting the injections and TALKING (shudder) as my opening scene, which could arguably be called *in medias res,* but didn’t have the capital H Hook the story needed.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Yay! That’s super-exciting. Nothing beats those moments when the story is just working out and you’re having fun with it.

  6. Sylvia Taylor says

    I think I am doing this right. My latest effort begins with extreme action, which hopefully gives the reader some of an idea of how the character acts, his compassion, however later as a result of his experience his world falls apart.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      For me, as a reader, solid characteristic moments are among the best Hooks. Nothing grabs me faster than seeing what a character is really made of.

  7. Busy Izzie says

    This article was super helpful! Thank you! I had been struggling to find a properly interesting Hook for a while. All this time I had been attempting to use “In Medias Res.” I’m so glad that what I tried to do has a more specific name. It really explains a lot. Now I have a picture of what to focus on and fix! I’m excited for next week’s post! Thank you!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Yes, seven specific tips coming up next week! I originally, intended them as a single post, but ended up having too much info for just one post.

  8. John Timm says

    A note on throat clearing. Recently downloaded a film that seemed interesting from the description. But it started out with the morning routines of three characters, alarm clocks, tooth brushing, breakfast and all. I was fascinated by how bad it all was and probably kept watching longer than the average viewer.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Morning routines are notorious for being amongst the worst opening scenes. This is not to say they can’t work, but only when the writer understands the trope well enough to subvert it.

  9. This took me back. Thank you for clarifying the “in medias res” concept. My second writers’ workshop (2013) the person leading my group commented I should *never* start a story in media res without clarifying what the term meant or why he did not like mine (I had started with my main character climbing a rocky upthrust overlooking the remains of a recent battle and reflecting on how poor the tactics of the new alien masters were, how they could have better planned the attack, and how fewer of his tribesmen could have died (3/4 of his people had just died following the commands of the new leaders).

    I still do not know if he was correct, but now I have a better idea of what he was talking about.

    Incidentally, your e-mail mentioned you did not know how to pronounce “in medias res.” Latin vowels are very similar to Spanish or many other languages. “I” has the sound of the “ee” in “meet”, a/k/a the long E in English. When by itself, the letter “E” is always short, as in “met”. A solitary “A” is soft, as in “father”. Thus, “in medias res” is more or less “een mehdeeahs rehs” with some Hs indicating softer sounds.

    And not that I am a Latin-speaker, but “res” means thing (feminine noun), “media(s)” means middle (feminine adjective), the preposition “in” is the same as in English, and Latin does not use a definite article (the).

    Thank you for the information!!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Thanks for sharing that! I think I’m pretty close, but I’m never sure I’m saying it right, even after looking it up multiple times. 😉

      • Lew Kaye-Skinner says

        If your listeners understand what you said, you’re pronouncing it right. If they don’t understand, it doesn’t matter how close you are to proper, standard, textbook pronunciation. For me, at least, the point is to USE the term correctly, not to pronounce it correctly.

      • What can I say? I was exposed to languages early and do love them. I just wish I could claim to be more fluent — the most I have ever claimed was quadrilingual; although, I do occasionally work my way through some others. Sadly, lack of practice and age has stolen much of my linguistic ability.

        My children are all at least bilingual and I try to expose my grandchildren. Earlier they learn, the better.

        Plus, it helps my writing be more realistic, in my opinion. Grammar impacts how characters think.

        • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

          Absolutely. I’ve studied French in the past and loved it, but I’ve unfortunately already forgotten a lot of what I learned.

  10. I think that the best approach here depends on the type of book you’re writing. If you’re in the action/thriller genre, there’s a lot to be said for coming with some powerful action up front and taking the in medias res approach. But the further you move to the literary end of the spectrum, the more appropriate it is to dig into character, or possibly setting. I think you can almost always safely lead with character if you have interesting characters, and if you don’t – perhaps you should rethink your book! Also as you say, it’s possible to lead with character and not go immediately to the main conflict, but have a scene with conflict/tension. I do think that, unless you are writing a very literary book, you should have some time of conflict very early in the book. But it’s entirely acceptable to select conflict that reveals character rather than something that takes you write to big problem of the story. Though, if you can find a way to tie that back subtly at the end, you’ve got a nice touch.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      True. It’s really about using that first scene as a preview to whet the reader’s appetite for what is to come. In a romance, readers want romance. In an action story, they want action. In a contemplative literary novel, they want contemplation.

  11. That was so helpful, showing with examples the difference between starting in the media res and the plot’s main conflict. Thank you!

  12. I think the best example I’ve seen of this technique is from the books Beau Geste and Beau Ideal. The author used it in a brilliant manner and it really gave huge interest to the book. It was fascinating.

  13. Not that I had a clue in media res was a thing, though I’m glad to know it now, because my debut novel starts w/the protagonist inserting a flash drive to watch her and her husband’s funeral.

  14. Helen, I love that so much!

  15. Karena Andrusyshyn says

    Wow! Talk about right place at the right time: right post at the right time. I have a very complex mystery I have been building, but could not decide where to start. There are several major plot actions and the character around whom the story revolves is in a coma at the point I have chosen to start. I will begin inside her mind as she experiences a single car auto accident which kills her husband. Then I will switch to the scene where the ambulance and police arrive on the scene and follow their processing of the scene. For most of the book information about that beginning character will be through others. I think this will work. That she does not die is one of the problems for the murderer who is responsible for the “accident”. I think I can build some empathy for this character and decide later if she lives or dies. There are two other characters in the way of the murderer’s aims that are not known at this point, with one introduced soon and the other to follow later. I see how to make this work now. Thanks,

  16. My story begins with the main character trying to sneak out through a squeaky screen door when his clothing snags on the fabric of the screening. Since no one reprimands him that early a.m., he thinks he has accomplished it, but as he begins his walk to work the reader learns what he doesn’t know, that someone lets the interior curtain fall shut. Mostly what happens is he has a coffee on the front porch before leaving, but several of his personal habits appear, such as scratching bug bites, and the rest is his thoughts about those he left behind in the house, why he had to sneak out, and what his goals are for the day. As he proceeds to work, the sneaky one inside the house begins displaying personality, waking others who also emote. Everyone is emotionally damaged and slightly weird, so I’m hoping that is enough excitement to keep folks going.
    The huge main action is in several parts, action from the MC’s life to the opening point. There is a lot of action but it is just daily stuff, except for the cause of the weirdness, and its cure. How he lost his parents, what his grandparents’ life was like, other conflicts including how he found his wife and … things like why he has an irrational fear of pickup trucks, all gradually appearing sort of in layers or a spiral.
    Not sure if it’s a psychological novel or just a book written by an author who is a psycho. Ha!
    Does this sound even somewhat plausible? Thanks!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Generally, I would caution writers against opening with the “daily routine.” There are exceptions to this, particularly when the narrative voice is very strong and unique, but usually it’s better to open a little deeper in the action. I wrote a post on this a long time ago, which might be helpful in determining whether it’s advice that’s useful in this situation: https://www.helpingwritersbecomeauthors.com/stories-that-begin-too-early/

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