Opening Scenes With Oomph: Writing In Medias Res
“I think the best way to tell this story is by starting at the end, briefly, then going back to the beginning; then periodically returning to the end, maybe giving different characters' perspectives throughout. Just to, you know, give it a bit of dynamism. Otherwise it's just sort of a linear story.” –Sir David Ershon, The Other Guys
There isn’t just one way to start a story. The most common practice we see, at least in most story structures, is to slowly introduce the reader to our protagonist’s ordinary world—that is, what their everyday life and current situation is like.
Now, “everyday” means different things to different people. For me, it’s walking my dog, making breakfast, and sitting down with a cup of coffee before working on something for DabbleU.
For members of the Rebel Alliance fighting Darth Vader and the Galactic Empire, a casual stroll and coffee might not fit into their morning routine. But do we need to establish an ordinary world at all?
People who use and love in medias res say no.
This literary technique forsakes the traditional way of starting a story and plunges a reader right into the middle of the action itself (even in non-action-oriented genres). And we’re going to learn all about it, including:
- What in medias res is
- Why you might want to use it
- Examples of this dynamic opening in books and film
- How to open a story in the middle of things
- Common pitfalls and different variations of in medias res
But enough introductions, let’s get into the action.
Note: Because in medias res is Latin, it should be italicized every time it’s written in this article, as it has been so far. I’m not doing that going forward simply so your brain has one less jarring thing to process. Am I a hero? Some would say so.
Understanding In Medias Res
As I mentioned in that little note above, in medias res comes to us from Latin. Translated, it means “in the midst of things.” And that’s exactly where it is you’re starting when you use this literary device.
Instead of providing your reader with a nice, comfortable introduction to your character’s ordinary world, you plunge them right into the midst of an important conflict.
This could be an intense action scene. In a thriller novel, this might be in the middle of a police chase. In fantasy, a sword fight or magic contest. In a mystery, it could be the first murder investigation that sets the whole thing off.
But this narrative technique even works in genres like romance, where the opening scene is a break-up that devastates our protagonist. Or a historical fiction novel that opens with a country-changing vote.
More often than not, you will circle back to establish an ordinary world later and fill in some gaps with properly sprinkled exposition and flashbacks (if the latter is your thing), but in medias res provides a launchpad for the rest of your tale.
Where Does In Medias Res Come From?
In medias res might be Latin, but it stems from Ancient Greece. Most notably, we can thank Homer and his work. Both The Iliad and The Odyssey make use of in medias res to grab the reader's interest, even thousands of years later.
In The Iliad, for example, the poem opens with a fight between Achilles and Agamemnon. This is in contrast to the actual start of Achilles’s tale when he was born years earlier, a form of storytelling that Latin poet Horace called ab ovo or “from the egg.”
Ordinary world openings don’t need to start literally “from the egg,” and that’s the last time I’ll write that term out, but showing us the normal that your protagonist experiences is a form of ab ovo.
But imagine how different The Iliad would have been if it started with “Achilles was born on…”
The Benefits of In Medias Res
If an ordinary, ab ovo opening is the more common way to open a novel, why would we want to start in the midst of things? What does in medias res actually do for us and our stories?
It might seem like such a simple thing—just changing when your story starts to slightly later than most tales choose to—but it can have profound effects.
Create Immediate Intrigue
More than anything else, in medias res presents an opening that is utterly captivating, especially compared to stories that open by establishing an ordinary world.
Again, there’s nothing wrong with an opening that lends to a build-up, but starting your book in the middle of conflict or tension sinks literary hooks into your readers. They need to keep reading to satiate a need to resolve whatever you plunged them into.
I’m no psychologist (legally speaking), but there is a profound psychological impact of starting this way. Human beings like you and I are drawn to intrigue and excitement, and we feel the need to find the resolution to those same alluring situations.
On top of that, an in medias res opening allows you to establish and maintain a faster, more engaging pace. This is particularly effective in genres like thriller and action-adventure, where there’s a race against time or a ticking clock forcing our characters forward.
That’s not to say you shouldn’t give your characters and readers some breathing room, but it gives you leeway to skip the build-up and get right to a heightened pace that can jive with your novel.
Establish Dynamic Characters and Settings
Exposition can be powerful when used properly and in the right doses. It can ease your readers into your world and drip-feed them information about your characters and the places they live. But having this much opportunity for exposition can lead to a lot of telling rather than showing.
Contrast that with an in medias res opening. You don’t have the opportunity to drop little pieces of information here and there. You’re in the thick of it from the get-go. If you want your readers to understand something, you need to show it.
“Show, don’t tell” is a fundamental rule of modern writing. It’s the difference between a good book and a great book. It also is essential when writing in medias res, and thus lends to you creating more dynamic locations and fictional people while you’re penning your masterpiece.
Generate Suspense and Curiosity
We know an in medias res opening creates intrigue from the get-go, but it also helps generate suspense and a sense of reader curiosity throughout the rest of your book.
Starting in the midst of things naturally creates questions and mysteries. And guess what? You aren’t going to answer those until later.
Depending on exactly what the middle of things looks like in your story, it might lead to questions like:
- How did we get here?
- Why are these folks fighting/competing/arguing/chasing each other?
- What is the impact of this scene on the larger world?
- Can we learn more about the people, places, and conflicts involved?
The key is introducing enough questions and then balancing when and how you answer them throughout the rest of the story, if that’s what you’re using this kind of opening style for.
On top of all that, in medias res gives you the flexibility of non-linear storytelling. You’re going to need to address what led us to the action at the start of the novel, meaning you can wield flashbacks, multiple timelines, and different perspectives to paint the entire picture as your story progresses.
Examples of In Medias Res in Literature and Film
Just to make the power of in medias res a little clearer, let’s take a quick look at some of the best uses of this kind of opening.
In Medias Res in Books
The Odyssey by Homer - One of the earliest and most celebrated examples of in medias res is Homer's epic, The Odyssey. The story begins in the middle of Odysseus's journey, with his return from the Trojan War and the various trials he faces.
Not only is this useful for grabbing the audience’s attention but it also allows Homer to start piecing together a complex narrative that explores themes of heroism, loyalty, and human resilience. By bypassing a linear recounting of the Trojan War, Homer focuses on the personal journey of Odysseus, making the epic a timeless study of character and adventure.
Nearly 3,000 years later and it’s still a perfect example of why this style works.
Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut - Just to throw a little curveball in, I want to focus on the opening line of Chapter Two of this book and why it works as a powerful version of in medias res. Vonnegut’s novel presents a fragmented story that mirrors the protagonist's, Billy Pilgrim, time-traveling experiences and PTSD.
The second chapter opens like this:
Billy Pilgrim has come unstuck in time.
Billy has gone to sleep a senile widower and awakened on his wedding day. He has walked through a door in 1955 and come out another one in 1941. He has gone back through that door to find himself in 1963. He has seen his birth and death many times, he says, and pays random visits to all events in between.”
Is it a true in medias res book opening? No. But does it ever do a good job of plunging us right into the midst of what’s happening to Billy.
In Medias Res in Film
Thor - Way back when the Marvel Cinematic Universe was just getting started, Odin laid over a bit of exposition as we were shown frost giants attacking people a thousand years ago in Norway. But, arguably, the real start to this story occurs when Jane Foster hits Thor with her van, launching her into a tale where she has no exposition to help her out.
Almost anything Christopher Nolan makes - Nolan seems to be a big fan of in medias res. Batman Begins starts with Bruce Wayne in a cold prison in Bhutan. Memento starts with a Polaroid black-and-white photo of a dead man that slowly reverts to an undeveloped state, while the rest of the movie jumps between black-and-white and color formats to tell a non-linear story.
National Treasure - Though we get a little bit of exposition at the start of the film, the first scene plunks us in Alaska with no explanation as to what the team is doing at this shipwreck or why we’re in Alaska in the first place.
How to Write In Medias Res
Since writing is an art, there’s no formula or exact template I can give you for writing in medias res. What “the midst of things” means to some writers can be and usually is completely different from others.
However, there are some fundamentals I want to throw your way to help you wrap your brain around this kind of story opener.
The Basics: When and What
The most important choice you can make is exactly when you’re plunging your reader and characters into your book. This might seem like an obvious statement, but that doesn’t mean it’s an easy choice to make.
You want to choose an event that is intriguing and engaging, but one that still leaves room to show the parts of exposition you need to get across. You don’t want to choose a point where the next five chapters will just be confusing because your reader simply doesn’t have enough information to understand what’s going on.
When crafting your opening scene, focus on creating immediate engagement that can build momentum and open opportunities to introduce other elements of your story in the next chapter or scene. This could be a pivotal moment of conflict, an unusual situation, or an emotionally charged interaction.
Balance Action and Exposition
Finding the right balance between action and feeding information to your readers is essential. Unfortunately, it’s also something that will probably take practice and revisions.
With in medias res openings, you don’t want your important scene to be bogged down by infodumping. However, you can’t just craft a meaningless action sequence that’s devoid of information.
Remember, we’re still introducing our readers to our world and story, we’re just doing it in a more gripping way.
That means integrating exposition through dialogue, character thoughts, or actions that naturally reveal or at least hint at important information or past events.
Remember how Billy Pilgrim “went to sleep a senile widower and awakened on his wedding day”? That’s action, but it also tells us that Billy lost his partner and some of his cognitive ability before the story started. It means he’s suffered pain (which we can all relate to) while making us wonder how he’s become unstuck in time.
You can use an in medias res opening to kickstart character development, too. The actions your characters take in this first scene give us some insight into who they are (by showing, rather than telling), then you have the opportunity to slowly reveal their backstory as your book progresses.
Whether you’re introducing conflicts, characters, or settings, set up just enough info to hook your audience, then use the rest of your story to add in more detail.
Structure the Important Elements
It’s not that in medias res shouldn’t be used by pantsers, but it shouldn’t be wielded without intention. If you want to open in the midst of things, I strongly suggest putting together at least some sort of outline.
This will help you see how your stakes continue to be raised after the pulse-quickening start, which is undoubtedly important. But it will also ensure you’ve mapped in some beats that give us backstory and the exposition your readers need to understand your story.
Genre Considerations for In Medias Res
Just as each author handles this style of writing differently, so too do different genres.
I can’t give you every option for every genre, but here’s a quick look at popular ways to use in medias res in some of the most popular genres of writing.
Mystery and thriller - These genres are where this opening shines. Plunge your readers right into the middle of a harrowing or suspenseful situation. That might be an early murder that establishes the stakes of the book or the ruthlessness of the killer, or it might be a chase that sets up a clue for the third act of the book while showing us the intellectual prowess of a detective.
Fantasy and sci-fi - Tossing your reader into an unfamiliar or alien world is one of the best ways to start getting them familiar with it. An action scene like a sword fight or hoverbike race can introduce characters, settings, conflicts, and more, while interacting with magic or a unique piece of tech can draw your reader in without overwhelming them with exposition.
Romance - For these more character-driven stories, in medias res can be effective in starting at a crucial point in a relationship or emotional conflict. This might be the break-up that spurs on the entire plot (and justifies why our protagonist is so against love) or a chance encounter that provides a spark you can fan into steamy flames later on.
Horror - One of the best ways to start horror in the midst of things is to give us a glimpse of the big bad spooky thing our protagonist will be haunted by later on (sometimes literally). This lets the reader know something the main character doesn’t, and that sort of dramatic irony can really mess with your audience. In a good way, of course.
Common In Medias Res Pitfalls and How to Avoid Them
Despite how effective it can be, writing in medias res isn’t intuitive or natural to us. It’s not what we’re taught growing up, since it skips the whole foundational part of storytelling. That’s to say, it takes some getting used to.
I would be doing you a disservice if I didn’t send you into your literary journey forewarned and forearmed for these pitfalls. That way you’re ready to meet them head-on or, even better, avoid them altogether.
Disorienting your reader - If you aren’t thoughtful about your opening, you risk disorienting your reader when you plunge them into the unfamiliar. Include contextual clues, show your exposition through action and dialogue, and get beta reader feedback on whether or not the opening worked.
Overcomplicating the plot - Even if you successfully pen an action-filled introduction, this style of writing can lead to an overcomplicated story riddled with too many flashbacks and non-linear tales. Use an outline to make sure you aren’t bogging down your reader with too many jumps throughout your plot.
Neglecting character development - Without easing your readers into their new relationships with your main characters first, you might risk shallow character development. Focus on showing your character’s personality through actions and dialogue and gradually reveal their backstory.
Balancing exposition and action - We’ve touched on this before, but think about ways to integrate information about your world, characters, and conflicts through the action you’re using to really start telling your story. This will give readers a foundation to start on.
Resolve the initial hook - I mean this in two ways. First, the resolution of this big, exciting opening should be as satisfying as the conflict or action itself. Second, it should have some later payoff. We aren’t using in medias res just for the sake of it, remember. Why are you wrapping up that action the way you are?
Do You Know How Your Story Unfolds?
Like any good narrative hook, an in medias res opening is only as good as the rest of the story that follows. It’s just one part, one scene in your great novel.
And that’s the exciting part.
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