Authors (or rather, poets) have been starting stories “in media res,” or in the middle of things, since Homer sang the Odyssey and the Iliad in Ancient Greece.
Beginning “in media res” is still common today: though of course, there are many examples of great stories and series that begin at the beginning, with “once upon a time.”
Starting in the thick of the story, in the thick of action, can have a lot of benefits. It’s not for every author and every story, of course, and I think there are degrees of starting “in media res.”
- My first published novel is about a resistance movement, one that starts when a socerer-noble kills the king and takes the throne.
- I start the action after the villain’s in power but before the protagonist joins up with the rebels.
When you’re plotting out a story, or editing and rearranging things, there are some reasons you might consider beginning “in media res” in some form or other.
YOU CAN START WITH SOMETHING EXCITING (IF YOU WANT TO)
When you truly open “in media res,” you can start in the middle of a battle. In the middle of a duel. In the thick of a lover’s quarrel. With someone fleeing from a pursuer meant to kill him or her…. The options are endless.
That will give your reader questions you need to answer at some point, of course. But if you write well, those questions will serves as hooks to engage your reader and keep him or her going.
It’s not a foregone conclusion that a reader who has questions is confused and frustrated.
When you start “in media res,” you don’t have a boring build up to something exciting and fun. You don’t have all that “introductory material” weighing you down…. You get right to the awesome stuff.
Every story that starts “in media res” becomes a bit like a detective novel. At least, it can pilfer the detective novel’s strengths.
The reader is left with a puzzle to figure out.
- What’s going on?
- Why is this happening?
- How did it come about?
- Who is behind it?
- Are these people the good guys or the bad guys?
The reader becomes a detective, and formulates theories about how the situation he or she was thrust into came to be. Part of the fun of that is reading on to see if you were right!
YOU CAN BE CREATIVE AND HAVE FUN PLAYING WITH STRUCTURE
You always have some hefty backstory to deal with when you start in the middle of things. And that might be a dealbreaker for some people.
For others it’s a fun challenge. Some writers LOVE being experimental, and doing new things, and being artsy.
Playing around with time and temporality is one of the most common ways to be experimental, because there are so many ways you can do it. Your imagination is truly your only limit.
IMMERSION REQUIRES INVESTMENT AND ATTENTION
Ask any student who learned to speak a foreign language by immersion, and they’ll attest to this.
Starting “in media res” immerses your reader into the heart of your world and its people. And that means the reader must invest time and energy in finding some kind of footing. As long as this isn’t too cumbersome a process, this is GOOD.
Why? We care about stuff we invest energy in. Think of how awful it is to be bored…. We all hate that. We hate brainless, mindless tedium. We like things that are challenging to some degree, that require we put a little something in in order to get something out.
We also assign value to things we have to “work at,” and that’s because we have put something of ourselves in them. (We value ourselves, after all). We’d be stupid to waste our energies on something that wasn’t worth it.
Tomorrow I want to explore some of the difficulties and dangers of starting a story “in media res,” just to round out the discussion. (Because it can definitely backfire if you don’t do it right.)
That doesn’t mean it can’t be done. So, what do you think? Would you start a novel “in media res”? Do you like reading such stories?
Does starting in the thick of the action annoy or intrigue you, generally?
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