About three years ago, I wrote a post on in media res, a plot device often utilized across various media of fiction. I’d like to revisit the subject, because I’ve had some thoughts on this particular writing tool since then and I wanted to write about them. And since I’m running this blog, talk about it I shall!
So if you’re not familiar with in media res (Latin for “into the middle things”), it’s a plot device in literature where the story opens in the middle of the action, rather than beginning with exposition. Background information is usually filled in through dialogue, flashbacks, or having a nonlinear narrative. An example of a story that starts in media res is Raiders of the Lost Ark: you don’t get a Star Wars screen crawl, or an opening narration, but you just hop into Indy heading into a temple to get a famous statue. Another great example of the usage of the plot device is A Game of Thrones by George RR Martin. No history on the Seven Kingdoms, just getting plopped into a patrol with three brothers of the Night’s Watch, and some Others attacking them.
I’v used this device in a lot of my works. Reborn City starts out with Zahara and her family going out to dinner, with backstory and world-building reserved for Chapter 2. Snake begins in a church, with information being dropped through exposition and flashbacks throughout the book. My short story Travelers of the Loneliest Roads literally starts on the road, and a lot of works that I’m working to get out to you, dear Followers, start out this way.
Overall, I feel it’s a good way to start a story. In fact, it might be my favorite way to start a story. Rather than doing a bunch of backstory, like “Forty years from now, the war on terror spirals into a chaotic Third World War that leads to a bunch of new countries and city-states. In one city-state, Reborn City, which is ruled by the Parthenon Company, there’s a powerful gang called the Hydras. Now onto the story of Zahara Bakur,” we start with Zahara and the events that lead her to becoming a Hydra.
However, in media res has to be done delicately. I realized this as I was editing a short story of mine last night.The story started out with the protagonist running for her life, then flashed back rather quickly to how she ended up running for her life, and then went back to her running her life. I was like, “Why did I think this was a good idea in the first draft?” I actually had to go back and rearrange the story so that everything goes into chronological order. The story moves much better now (though I may nix that beginning part and have it start in the meat of the story. We’ll see after the second draft’s done).
So with that in mind, I thought I’d list some tips to starting a story in media res and doing it well, with the hope other writers might avoid some of my mistakes with this plot device:
- Make it easy to slide in for the reader. When I first read A Game of Thrones, I had to go over the first chapter twice just to make sure I understood what was happening. After a bit of examination, I understood what was happening a bit better, though I still was a bit confused. Not a good way to introduce me to Westeros, but the rest of the novel made up for that.
Point is, when starting a story in media res, make sure that all readers, whether they’re expecting one thing or another thing or nothing at all, that they can dive into the story without wondering what the heck they’re reading or if they missed something. You don’t need to be overly-simplistic with your language or story, you just have to make it easy to follow so that readers have a good idea what is happening while they’re reading.
- Don’t move too quickly into the information. Remember that short story I just mentioned? I had a quick beginning, and then I dived right into a flashback. Made no sense on a second look. Wait for a moment where it won’t throw people off, and then try and make the segue into the flashback make sense.
- Whatever’s happening has to hook the reader. By definition, in media res starts a story in the middle of the action, so you want to make sure that the first line is catchy. It doesn’t have to start with running for your life, gunfights, or anything like that, but it has to be somewhat catchy. This could be something as ordinary as a girl walking into a classroom with soda in her hair (my own short story, Tigress Lizzy), as long as it’s interesting to read. How you do that depends on language and skill as much as what is happening in the story, though with practice you can get very good at it.
However you want to begin a story, the point is to hook your readers so that they’ll read the rest of the book. In media res is just one way to do that, but it’s a fun way to do it. And with time and experience, you can get better at it. You might even learn a thing or two in mid-edits.
How do you feel about in media res? What tips do you have for doing it well?