In media res

In Media Res

From Wikipedia (

A narrative work beginning in medias res (Classical Latin: [ɪn ˈmɛdɪ.aːs ˈreːs], lit. “into the middle of things”) opens in the midst of the plot (cf. ab ovo, ab initio).[1] Often, exposition is bypassed and filled in gradually, through dialogue, flashbacks or description of past events. For example, Hamlet begins after the death of Hamlet’s father. Characters make reference to King Hamlet’s death without the plot’s first establishment of said fact. Since the play is about Hamlet and the revenge more so than the motivation, Shakespeare uses in medias res to bypass superfluous exposition.

“…bypass superfluous exposition.”

I finally figured out why so much classical fantasy bores me to tears. They start by expositing. All over the scenery. Several chapters of it. Huge, globby paragraphs that seem to go on forever and ever and ever. Until I forget why I picked up the book in the first place.

As some of you have noted, I tend to start stories kind of in the middle. That’s an outcome of using Lester Dent and the 7-point-plot-structure. A Character, in a Setting, with a Problem.

Generally, you want your first five hundred words to be Setting, which is not description of what the character sees, but their emotional response thereof. Maybe one sentence of plot or foreshadowing, then you dive headlong into story.

This is different from Pulse Pounders, which frequently begin with a gunshot or a bomb exploding or something that starts a mad dash car chase immediately, with everyone only slowing down a few chapters later after the immediate crisis has passed.

I want to hook you. Pull you in. Make you see the world and start engaging in it. Many classical works (I pick on fantasy because it has been bad about this historically from Tolkien and others) think that you first need several chapters of the main character being perfectly ordinary in their perfectly dull home, doing utterly mundane things. At least until a chorus of singing dwarves breaks in. If you were still awake to hear the opening notes.

In media res assumes that you can just start telling the story, and then go back later and fill in “what happened before.” In many ways, this is telling instead of showing, but it also picks up the pace because the main character and their problem are in motion, and they have to talk to other people about what the hell is going on. Or to figure it out at all.

Think of a Corellian Blockade Runner coming into view, pursued a few moments later by an Imperial Star Destroyer. We’re in the action. We immediately know somebody is running and somebody is chasing. We have a promise of space opera action on a grand scale. Two droids argue about whose fault it is as they Laurel and Hardy their way around, exiting stage left pursued by a bear.

Does your opening chapter serve any useful purpose as far as your plot itself goes? Or is it an information dump of all the neat things you thought up in the process of doing your worldbuilding? Would all the information speed up your story if you used micro-setting to insert a clause here or a sentence there instead, as the hero runs?

Got to talking with Renaissance Babe™ today during the Wednesday Mastermind and had to explain to her that I had an entire novel’s worth of material that happens prior to the beginning of the story I was coming up with, just because the two main characters were not “born on page one” as the old saying goes. Stuff will start in the middle of a problem, caused by a whole slew of other problems and try/fail cycles that happened off-stage years ago, the outcomes of which are only now starting to come to roost.

You’ll be emotionally engaged in these two characters before you really understand just how messy things were that they even ended up meeting.

It changes the emotional signature of the entire story this way. In a bad case of (semi-)mistaken identity, she breaks him out of jail, thinking that he’s someone else. (Technically, she’s both right and wrong, which is even better.) She wants him because he owes her money, him having stolen her share earlier.

Except it wasn’t him. That comes up pretty quickly, but the how and the when make it fun to explore. Because we started in the middle, rather than having an entire novel where the main character turns out to be a real prick to everyone around him. He gets to be the villain in this novel because all of the chickens eventually come home to roost, in one of the weirdest ways I’ve thought of yet.

Action. That’s one of my signatures. Much less talking heads, and even then, talking to a point or a purpose, usually followed by moving.

I’m not writing a literary piece about how dysfunctional my family was. (And bubba, it was pretty nasty, for nobody ending up in prison.) I’m trying to entertain you. That means grabbing the reader by the lapels on page one and dragging them (as Dean instructs us) to the bottom of the lake and holding them there. You are in the moment, being pulled along as the story unfolds before you ever have a chance to stop and admire the wholesome banality of the shire.

If I did that, you might put the book down and walk away. Instead, you have to read just one more chapter, as my brother-in-law complains about when he tries to keep useful bedtimes.

Start in motion. Stay in motion. Bypass superfluous exposition for micro-setting detail that adds tastes and textures without ever slowing the action.

(She also accuses me of using food descriptions and fashion porn to great offensive use, but that’s grounding the reader, because a good biscuits and gravy with chicken fried steak means your stomach rumbles while you read, if I’ve done my job.)

Character, Setting, Problem. In media res, rather than spending chapters explaining your world and how some prince or magic sword was lost and how an oracle rose to prophesy the coming chosen one child. Screw that. Gimme the old fart wizard grabbing the kid by the arm as he walks out of the bar with a gruff “hey, we need to go save the world.” line to start things with a bang. (Seriously, I’d eat that shit like candy.)

Readers like a mystery, if you dangle it just right in front of them. Draw them in. Entice them.

Drag their silly asses to the bottom of the lake before they know what happened.

You do that by starting in the middle of something much bigger.

One thought on “In media res

  1. Henry j Matchen

    Couldn’t agree more. I’ve gotten to the point where I’ll hit the initial exposition and think to myself, “Here’s someone who failed high school English!”, then chuck the book. Granted, it’s much simpler to do with Amazon KU, but the number of times I’ve been snookered into buying a book with this failing have fallen drastically. I consider blending worldbuilding and background information into the plot as a sine qua non (since we’re exercising our Latin) of a good story. Yours are excellent, by the way.

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