In medias res is the useful but sometimes tricky writing technique of beginning your story “in the middle” of things. At its most basic, this is simply a solid reminder to begin your story with something happening. This might be action in the traditional sense, but it might also just be the character moving toward a scene goal. However, in medias res can cause confusion for writers who feel pushed to either manufacture action for their opening scene and/or open late in the story in a way that compromises the structural timing.
Last week, we discussed some of the confusion that can surround in medias res and particularly how to balance beginning “in the middle” with the need for a solid First Act that properly sets up the rest of the story. This week, I want to take a closer look at the technical side of in medias res, so you can better use it to craft gripping opening chapters that immediately pull readers in to the most interesting parts of your story.
The Pros and Cons of Using In Medias Res
One of the main confusions about in medias res is that using it seems require writers to craft opening scenes stuffed with hardcore action and perhaps even with the main conflict already in full swing. Obviously, the former doesn’t work at all in certain types of story. And, as noted, the latter is extremely problematic from a structural perspective.
In medias res, however, comes in many different flavors. In fact, most stories will open with some form of in medias res, even if it isn’t the full-blown type we often think of, in which the hero is already embroiled in some theatrical crisis. As shown in some of last week’s examples, such as Pride & Prejudice, beginning in medias res is as simple as opening with the characters having just piqued their own curiosity about some new development in their lives (i.e., an eligible bachelor moving in next door).
4 Pros of In Medias Res
The benefits of using even the subtlest of in medias res techniques are manifold.
1. Creates an inherent hook.
2. Offers the potential for vibrant characteristic moments for important characters.
3. Initiates the story with forward momentum.
4. Helps writers skip all throat-clearing and other unnecessary introduction.
4 (Potential) Cons of In Medias Res
When misunderstood or misapplied, in medias res can also create the opposite of the desired effect.
1. Interrupts the natural structural progression by starting too late in the story’s timeline.
2. Interrupts the natural structural progression via an irrelevant “action” scene tacked on the front of the book, before getting back to the “real” beginning in the next scene.
3. Focuses too much on physical action to the exclusion of development that would convince readers to invest in the characters.
4. Focuses too much on “sound and fury” rather than genuinely intriguing psychological hooks.
7 Tips for Opening Your Story With In Medias Res
The first challenge in using in medias res is knowing “how much” of the technique is right for your story. Whether you use it subtly as Jane Austen does in Pride & Prejudice or go full-bore as Robert Ludlum does in The Bourne Identity will depend both on your genre and the needs of your specific story. It is vital to understand both so you get the balance just right. Because in medias res is a technique that necessarily influences your reader’s first experience of your story, it must accurately set up your story’s tone and therefore reader expectations for everything to come.
You can use the following seven tips to refine your use of in medias res in any type of story.
1. Know Why You’re Choosing to Open In Medias Res
Again, most stories will open with some form of this technique. Particularly if you’re wanting to use it in a more immersive way by starting out with your character deep in a high-stakes situation, you’ll want to analyze why you’re using this approach and why you think it is most advantageous for your story.
High-stakes stories will often merit high-stakes openings. The difficulty here is that sometimes once authors get a story ramped up in that opening scene, they don’t always know how to slow it back down enough to do the proper set-up work of the First Act.
One option is to open with a high-stakes situation that the protagonist is not yet involved with. Then you can slow back down to introduce your protagonist, now that you’ve let readers know about the suspense on the horizon. Jurassic Park does this particularly well by opening with an intense scene in which an unseen monster kills a bunch of workers, before slowing way down to focus on its characters for the entire first half of the story.
However, this is a tricky approach in itself, since it means you’re opening with a framing scene that basically entails all the usual pitfalls of a prologue.
The two main issues are that:
1. You miss out on one of your best hooks, which is your protagonist, since you’re opening with supporting (and perhaps entirely expendable) characters.
2. You essentially have to write two opening chapters, since you still have to introduce your main characters and hook readers into caring about them.
Knowing your audience and how to set up their expectations for the type of story you’re writing is key.
2. Honor Scene Structure—and Use It to Your Advantage
One of the simplest and lowest-pressure ways to begin in medias res is simply to begin in the middle of a scene. Specifically, this means beginning with the scene’s structure already underway.
You can view the main part of a scene as being made up of three parts:
Knowing this, you can then work the scene’s structure in your favor to begin at a point when the character is fully engaged in the scene’s most interesting action.
Opening in medias res is as simple as beginning with the character already working on trying to accomplish a scene goal (vs. sitting there deciding what goal he should work on). Getting right to the scene goal in the opening scene is the single best way to cut through any unnecessary throat-clearing. You can catch readers up on the “why” as you go or as needed.
You can see how this works even in stories that open long before the main conflict is encountered, such as Jane Eyre, which opens with the protagonist’s simple goal of hiding from her cousins so she can read by herself. This goal is then promptly and dramatically obstructed in a way that perfectly characterizes the protagonist and the stakes of her situation.
You can also open a little later in the scene with the conflict portion once your character has already run into an obstacle to his scene goal. This requires a little more finesse, since it offers the same challenges as opening smack in the middle of any type of action. You want to make sure readers have enough investment in the characters to actually care that they’re poor orphans with mean cousins. (You can imagine how differently Jane Eyre‘s beginning would have felt had it immediately opened with her hitting her cousin in the head with the book, rather than with her hiding away.)
3. Identify How This Scene Opens the Plot
As we’ve seen, opening in medias res does not require opening with the protagonist immediately embroiled in (or even aware of) the main conflict she will later engage in with the antagonist. The entire first quarter of the story (the First Act) is about setting up that conflict and leading the protagonist into direct engagement with it, via first the Call to Adventure at the Inciting Event (which does not take place until halfway through the First Act) and then the irrevocable First Plot Point that leads directly into the Second Act.
Like all scenes, the opening scene must contribute to the plot. It must be the first domino in a seamless row of dominoes, each knocking into the other, to create a causal progression of story events.
You will want to consider how the action you’ve presented in your opening scene offers the first event in your character’s journey toward the main conflict. Even opening scenes that focus predominately on character still need to create situational consequences that prompt the character’s next scene goal—which prompts the next scene goal, which eventually leads to an unavoidable entanglement with the story’s main plot goal and thus the conflict.
For example, Adventures in Babysitting opens with the seemingly random event of the protagonist’s boyfriend canceling their date for the night. In addition to introducing the protagonist and setting up her relationship with her boyfriend, this turns out to be the event that directly kicks off her crazy adventure in the wilds of Chicago with the three kids she agrees to babysit for the night.
4. Focus on the Characteristic Moment
Because in medias res usually offers an inherent emphasis of plot and action, it can be easy to let the all-important ingredient of character slide to the back burner. Your characters are your single greatest opportunity to hook readers. After all, if the characters aren’t interesting, why read the book? If the characters are interesting, then readers will happily be entertained by them while you get the rest of the story’s pieces set up for the plot.
It’s always optimal if your opening scene can set up the full trifecta of plot, character, and theme. However, if you have to choose just one, character is usually your best choice. This is why Characteristic Moments are one of the single best ways to use in medias res. Begin with your characters neck-deep in some situation that is relatively normal for them or at least the result of actions and attitudes that are normal for them.
For example, Treasure Planet (one of my favorite adaptations of Treasure Island) opens with teenage protagonist Jim Hawkins getting arrested (again) for showing off his impressive solar-surfing skills in a restricted area. This scene neatly introduces the character’s recklessness, his joy of life, his skills (which will become crucial in the Climax), his flirtation with delinquency (which directly contributes to his mother’s agreement that he go off for “a few character-building months in space”), and his troubled backstory as a fatherless boy.
5. Choose a Thematically Pertinent Scene
Sometimes choosing the right moment to open a story is difficult because so many aspects of the character’s life are dramatic and interesting. Narrow your choices by focusing on Characteristic Moments and scene dilemmas that are thematically pertinent to the story to come. Even if your opening scene doesn’t directly touch upon the story’s main conflict in any obvious way, you can still use it to thematically introduce what is to come.
One way to do this is to focus your protagonist’s Characteristic Moment on how she is currently being limited by the Lie She Believes. This limiting perspective will provide one of the main reasons for the protagonist’s engagement with the main conflict once it comes into view. We see this in the Treasure Planet example above and also in stories such as Jane Austen’s Emma, in which the titular protagonist opens by matchmaking her beloved governess (or so she thinks). This event perfectly sets up the character’s growth arc, as well as creating the circumstances that drive the main conflict (the arrival of her governess’s handsome and intriguing new stepson, Frank Churchill).
6. Take the Time to Set the Stage and Identify All Players
When using in medias res to begin a story, it’s easy to feel you must rush the first chapter. Using this technique needn’t make your first chapter rushed or chaotic. Even if your opening scene deals with physical action and/or high stakes, you will still want to make sure readers are oriented within your story. You can’t go so fast readers miss out on knowing the who, where, what, why, and how of your scene.
Sometimes the technique of in medias res can be accomplished in as little as a paragraph or two—or sometimes even just a sentence, if that sentence packs a wallop of intrigue. Then you can pull back a bit to set the stage. Another little trick that can help is limiting the number of characters in the first scene. You have to be careful with this, since you need the characters you need, and also because character interaction is often one of the best ways to engage readers. However, if you only introduce two or three characters in the first chapter, you will have less information to juggle in the beginning. You can then draw in other important supporting characters in subsequent scenes.
Stories such as The Great Escape, which do begin deeply in medias res, focus on setting up the initial conflict situation (arriving in a new POW camp) along with the scene’s specific conflict (immediately attempting dozens of escapes), while carefully layering in multiple Characteristic Moments from its many important characters.
7. Carefully Plan Backstory Presentation
Finally, you will want to be careful with backstory. This is true of any opening scene, but it is even more true in stories that begin in medias res. By definition, these stories are firmly focused on the present moment. If they’ve begun “in the middle,” then something must have come before. It can be tempting to begin with a line such as “Harry had never found himself in such a fix before”—and then immediately zoom back to fill readers in on Harry’s entire backstory leading up to this moment.
Although it is important, as per Point #6 above, to make sure readers know enough to orient themselves within the scene, you must be particularly careful about not undoing all the good of an in medias res opening by spending too much time in the characters’ pasts. If you feel the need to keep rewinding in order to catch readers up to speed, that could be a sign that you’ve started too late in the story’s events.
In general, all but the most basic backstory is best shared as late in the story as possible. Tease it out until readers absolutely need to know what’s going on. In the beginning of your story, focus only on backstory that is necessary to properly set up the character.
Although in medias res will be used to one degree or another in most stories, it won’t be the right choice for every story. It’s important to understand exactly what it is, how it works, and how to avoid its pitfalls—so you can make an educated decision about the best way to hook readers into your story’s first chapter.
Wordplayers, tell me your opinions! Have you used any degree of in medias res in opening your latest story? Tell me in the comments!
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