Starting Your Novel – What the F**k does ‘In Medias Res’ Mean, Anyway?


“In the Midst of Things,” as defined by Wikipedia. Clears that up, right?
Maybe not. I tried beginning this article in Medias Res and look where it got me. Whether you begin your narrative in its middle or not is a stylistic choice, but I’m a firm believer that you should begin each individual scene in medias res. And I’m not the only one—it’s a rule of thumb in screenwriting (though I can’t find any sources to cite right now [leave me some sources in the comments and I’ll stick ‘em in here later {what do you want?! This isn’t a damned mid-term; I’m not being tested here, sheesh!}])

Some examples of works which use ‘in medias res’ effectively:
Oedipus Rex
Star Wars
Game of Thrones
Star Trek TOS

“Okay, so why is it a good idea?” you may ask.
One fair question. I’ll give you THREE answers.

Firstly, and at its most basic level it’s about cutting out boring parts of every story. You know the ones—if you’ve had some practice editing you’ll recognize those parts where your main character is driving to something or other, thinking to themselves, or sitting in the lobby of the doctor’s office, or standing on the front porch and hasn’t rang the doorbell yet.
In the healthcare biz, they call them ADL’s or activities of daily living. You can look up the list if you want to, but a general rule of thumb is to gloss over the stuff that’s ‘ordinary.’  Do you read a lot of books that open when the main character wakes up in his own bed and brushes his teeth? No? That’s because we as the readers can figure out that he’s done that already; we don’t need you to tell us he dresses himself.

The reasoning is that you need to “murder your darlings” and cut all but that which is ABSOLUTELY ESSENTIAL to your novel.

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Secondly and more importantly is conflict. Ah, Conflict. That elemental force of narrative. It surrounds us, penetrates us, and binds the galaxy together… Well okay, that’s THE Force from Star Wars, but it’s actually pretty similar. Conflict is what drives your story and brings the characters together. Without some form of conflict your plot loses tension and without tension it is BORING.
Beginning in medias res forces you to cut straight to the conflict and thereby get straight into tension. Conflict is so integral to good narrative, some say EVERY scene you write should have some conflict. Only a Sith would deal in absolutes, so that should be your call, but I will say 99.9% of scenes you write should begin and end with conflict.

Here’s an example of how to cut straight to conflict: instead of your character waiting in the lobby, he’s in the doctor’s office and the doc says, “You have six months to live.”

And the last reason? THE HOOK!
In medias res can be a great way to hook your readers—being plunged into a situation and having to figure out what’s going on is one of the most rewarding things there is for a reader. Starting in the middle of something  and forcing the reader to figure out what’s happening is like a fun puzzle. That said in order for the reader to be rewarded, YOU the writer have to make the payoff. That is, you have to reveal to the reader what’s going on, at least gradually.
But!” you protest, whining, “how will my audience know what’s going on if I don’t set it up for them? Don’t I need to TELL them about the conflict and EXPLAIN who they should root for?
NO—and you just ended a sentence in a preposition—bad writer! Bad!
If you want to TELL people things and explain shit, you go start writing essays. In fiction we SHOW the reader things. We illustrate with linguistic imagery and allow the action of the story and characters to expose things to the reader for us. Give your readers some credit; humankind has been solving puzzles since time immemorial. You’re not gonna stump them as long as you use good writing and SHOW what’s going on bit by bit.

Again, no rules in art are absolute and there are SOME instances when telling can be used effectively. But be sparing and get some damned good beta readers or editors to make sure it’s working if you choose to tell.

So in medias res is not the only way to tell a story, but it is effective and has been used since ancient times. Now get in the middle and write, writers!

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