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In Medias Res: Tips, Examples, and How to Do It Right


Most of us probably recall learning about the in medias res literary technique during our high school English classes, writing workshops and other classes. Just in case you needed a refresher, the Latin phrase, meaning "the midst of things," is used to describe a story that kicks off right in the middle of the action.

No mounds of exposition. No in-depth explorations of characters. No elaborate descriptions of the setting. A story uses the in medias res technique when it dives straight into an event that unfolds from the first words the reader engages with—one that has vital implications for one or more characters, or the plot, moving forward.

The technique is pretty common and its use goes back a long way in literature. Homer's epic poem The Iliad drops the reader in right into the middle of the Trojan War with Achilles and the other Greeks besieging the city walls. The first parts of this classic of the western literary canon are littered with fighting and death, as you'd expect from any story set on a battlefield. In medias res, used to great effect in The Iliad, wastes no time in grabbing the attention of the reader and holding onto it.

So effective is the technique in its ability to reel in the reader that its use well exceeds literature, with it being popular in movies, TV shows, and sometimes even music. But a writer should approach the use of in medias res carefully. When reading a story that uses the technique, the reader has no choice but to immediately navigate all the action you've served them while grappling with any open questions you have created, or not answered.

Below are some tips to help you craft a story that makes use of the in medias res technique, and maximize the effect it has on your readers.

Choose your opening carefully

Selecting the scene with which to open your story is obviously a vital part of using the in medias res technique well, but nonetheless it's a point that needs highlighting. You should choose a crucial and emotional scene to begin—something that you know will hook the reader.

You may feel compelled to choose your car chase scene, your bank heist, or your shootout with the cops to open up. Any would make for a good choice, because the tension is heightened in these types of scenes. Starting with a description of characters preparing for a robbery or detailing the thoughts going through their head could work equally as well as a beginning, but is not going to grab the reader in quite the same way.

Give it some urgency and stakes

The in medias res scene you choose to open with will benefit from setting high stakes for the main character or characters, in turn directing the plot for the next several chapters if not for the rest of the story.

Readers need to be firmly seated right on the edge of their chairs when witnessing what is happening on the page, the energy in the writing propelling them through your words as much as the questions in their mind. They need to be drawn into the action, but also wondering how and why it's happening, and what is going to happen next to all the characters who are caught up in the event you've written.

In the final play of Shakespeare's career, The Tempest, the first scene of the first act opens on the sea, in the middle of a huge thunderstorm.

SCENE I. On a ship at sea: a tempestuous noise
of thunder and lightning heard.
Enter a Master and a Boatswain

Master: Boatswain!
Boatswain: Here, master: what cheer?
Master: Good, speak to the mariners: fall to't, yarely,
or we run ourselves aground: bestir, bestir.

The Tempest by William Shakespeare

The bigger picture stakes don't need to be obvious to the reader straight away, but the event that you open the story with, whatever you include, should have implications for your plot somewhere down the line.

Move the middle to the start

If you feel compelled to write all of your exposition, explore character backstories, or provide rich details of the setting and environment early on, let yourself do it. Get it out of your system—then get to the action. Use the middle chunk of your story to write the pivotal event and heighten tension. Make it action packed. When you've taken care of both your opening and the middle, move the middle to the beginning. You could try this either by switching the start and middle, or removing the start altogether. Now, don't panic. Edit and tweak the new beginning of your story to fit the in medias res approach—rework the action you created for the "middle" to become the draw you need for an in medias res opening.

While no one can be certain of how Homer's other epic poem The Odyssey was written, especially given it was performed orally rather than read, its beginning is a famous example of a story starting in the middle of things. It kicks off with Odysseus held captive on an island by the goddess Calypso and later retreads its steps for the audience, clarifying how Odysseus came to be in the situation he is in. This effectively exchanges the middle for the beginning.

Tell me, Muse, of the man of many ways, who was driven far journeys, after he had sacked Troy's secret citadel. Many were they whose cities he saw, whose minds he learned of, many the pains he suffered on his spirit on the wide sea, struggling for his own life and the homecoming of his companions. Even so he could not save his companions, hard though he strove to; they were destroyed by their own wild recklessness, fools, who devoured the oxen of Helios, the Sun God, and he took away the day of their homecoming.

The Odyssey by Homer

Have a plan for revealing the backstory

It's all well to take the in medias res approach and kick things off with a bang in your story, but that action needs a payoff, and the open questions you've fostered in the minds of your reader need answering.

Without much or any exposition, an in medias res opening needs to eventually give way to a revelation of details. If you start off with a vital event, then you should create a well thought out plan for how you'll reveal information that is necessary for the reader to understand what preceded your story's beginning.

First and foremost, whatever you write in the remainder of your story must solve puzzles and answer lingering questions that the opening created in the reader's mind. The only exception to this rule should be if you want to keep certain details concealed for a narrative purpose. Be careful in doing this, however, as your reader will be expecting payoffs to most if not all of the questions you leave them with via the beginning of the story.

Stephanie Meyer's incredibly popular Twilight begins with the following in medias res opening:

I'd never given much thought to how I would die — though I'd had reason enough in the last few months — but even if I had, I would not have imagined it like this.

Twilight by Stephanie Meyer

With this opening the reader is quickly primed for something as drastic as the potential death of the narrator. Pulling off this kind of drama in the opening means taking the time to plan out the remainder of the story to ensure you capitalize on the drama to satisfy readers.

One other tactic for following up on the in medias res opening is to spread bitesize pieces of backstory throughout the remainder of the story. It might be tempting to do an exposition dump immediately following the opening, and that might work; however, you can maintain some of the momentum from the action-packed beginning by sprinkling pieces of the backstory across different points in the remaining narrative.

For example, you could dive into a character's criminal past following the opening as a brief interjection, switch back to the ongoing action driving the plot, then return to the character's past to also explore a portion of their childhood. Breaking it up this way and scattering it through the story can be tricky, but if you can get the balance right, your reader will feel drawn into the plot while feeling sated with the details necessary to understand why things are happening the way they are.

If you decide to head down the in medias res path—or would you be starting in the middle of the path?—there are two important things to keep in mind. The first is that the technique is most successful when it lures the reader into the story, attracting them through the action like a bee is drawn to citrusy scents. The opening event must be gripping to do this. The second thing is that a beginning that locks the reader in like this will inevitably mean open questions. A story is not just its beginning—if you want the reader to be satisfied with your storytelling abilities, you need to answer their questions with some details at some point. Whether that comes sooner or later is entirely up to you.

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