And…ACTION!

You know, I don’t think I’ve had words begin with lowercase letters since I first started writing this blog. Except for “the”, “a”, “is”, and words like that, but that’s beside the point.

In media res is Latin for “in the midst of things” and it is a literary technique where a story begins in the midst of action rather than beginning with some background or exposition. It also details my semester at the moment, but that’s tomorrow’s post and it’s very beside the point! The point is, I noticed that a lot of stories I write tend to start in media res.

Even if we don’t know it, a lot of books we’ve read and movies we’ve seen begin with in media res (and plenty don’t).  They often use flashbacks to help fill in backstory and background information. A prime example of a book that uses in media res is the first book in the Bartimaeus trilogy, The Amulet of Samarkand. Anyone read that? No? Well, for those of you who haven’t read it, the story is about a world where magicians who summon and bind demons into their service rule over modern England. However we don’t find out all that information at the beginning. Instead we see human protagonist Nathaniel summoning the titular demon Bartimaeus into his service before he’s sent to capture the Amulet of Samarkand, and then through flashbacks (and footnotes) we find out that the magicians rule England and its colonies, and that they use demons to do their bidding.

That’s an example of in media res. A good example of a work that doesn’t begin that way would be Charles Dicken’s A Tale of Two Cities, which all of us have probably read in high school or college. “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, etc.” Only after we realize how much like our current era the era of the novel is do we find ourselves on a dark road in the middle of the night, and the story begins. And believe it or not, the first few lines of Harry Potter were exposition in nature: “Mr. and Mrs. Dursley of Number 4, Private Drive were proud to say they were perfectly normal, thank you very much.” Rowling makes sure we know how absolutely, perfectly, horridly normal the Dursleys are before we realize how weird things are the day before they find Harry on their stoop. That is the exact opposite of in media res.

Now why am I bringing this up, you might be asking. Firstly, I just want to make sure everybody who’s not an author on this page knows what in media res is before I talk about it. And now that I’ve explained it all, I want to get back to what I said previously, which is that a lot of the work I write begins in media res.

This show’s pilot (and several of its episodes) utilize in media res. It is also my most recent TV addiction.

If you’ve read my collection of short stories The Quiet Game: Five Tales To Chill Your Bones, all but the short story I’m Going To Be The Next James Bond start out in media res. Take The Quiet Game itself: “It was a tranquil Saturday morning at St. Dunstan’s School for Girls as Traci opened her eyes and stretched.” I don’t spend a moment explaining that St. Dunstan’s is a Catholic school in the middle of the country, that it’s girls stay on campus, that it’s run by priests and nuns, or that it has a darkness within it. I let that come out later in the story.

And not just The Quiet Game, but most of my other work is told this way. I could begin Reborn City (out November 1st, by the way) by explaining that several years before the story begins, there was a conflict between Western civilization and several radical Islamic terrorist organizations and some Muslim nations that led to a third world war and the devolving of many nations into independent city-states, and then go into how my protagonist Zahara and her family get caught up in some violence in the West side of Las Vegas-style Reborn City. Instead, this is the first paragraph of RC:

Reborn City, former Nevada
28 Anno Bombus (2056 CE)
June 28

Zahara and her family had decided to eat out at a restaurant in North Reborn that served kosher meat, the closest they could get to halāl. “I know it’s for Jews mostly, but it’s a very nice place and the Jews were very nice to us in New York.” Zahara’s father, Emir Bakur had said when he’d suggested it. “They know they don’t have to fear Muslims anymore. And the Chaplinsky family in 4F was nice enough, right?”

Full action, no exposition or backstory. I leave that to the flashbacks I use throughout the story. And it’s the same with my other novel-in-the-midst-of-getting-published, Snake. The first four chapters are a single scene of the Snake taking his latest victim and then leaving the body out. I use several flashbacks throughout the book to explain why he’s doing this, but I don’t say it all in the beginning. I wait, and reveal it at certain points in the story through flashback and characters telling other characters about past events.

Now why am I saying all this? Because I think it’s an interesting stylistic choice that I decide to start most of my stories in the midst of the story and use flashbacks to get into past events that may have led to the current events of the story. In media res requires readers to put themselves right in the action of the story. No time to catch up, just plunge right in and fill in the details along the way. I think that’s a much more fun way to tell a story.

It also allows me to write in a way that keeps readers from getting bored with my work. Instead of explaining everything slowly at the beginning, I impart a bit of mystery instead and task the reader to play detective, to keep going through the novel to piece together how events of the novel came into being. The readers love it, they love unraveling how we got to where we are by reading and seeing what happened before the story and how those events correlate with what the story in their hands (or on their audiobooks).

So the next time a movie/TV show/book starts out like this, you’ll know what it’s called.

So yeah, I like in media res. And I’ll probably use it in the future. But I’ll be conscious of its use., and when I see other writers using it, I’ll wonder if they’re conscious of why they’re using it. Because the story requires it? Because they find that much exposition boring? Because it’s fun to tell a story that way? It’s almost as intriguing to guess why they use that method as reading the story to find out what happens, even if we might not ever know why that author does it. At least, that’s my opinion.

If you are a writer, do you ever use in media res in your fiction? And if so, why? If not, why

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