Today, (due to some comments in last week’s posts) we’re going to tackle a highly confusing subject for many writers—In medias res. In medias res quite literally means in the middle of things. This is a literary tactic that has been used since the days of Odysseus. It’s a tactic that forces the writer forward, to begin the story near the heart of the problem.
The Trouble with In Medias Res
Ah, but this is where we writers can get in trouble. I see writers beginning their novels with high-action gun battles, blowing up buildings, a heart-wrenching, gut-twisting scene in a hospital or at a funeral, all in an effort to “hook the reader” by “starting in the middle of the action.” Then when they get dinged/rejected by an agent or editor, they’re confused.
But I started right in the action! What is more “in the action” than a high-speed chase through Rio as a bomb ticks down to the final seconds?
Bear with me a few moments, and I will explain why this is melodrama and not in medias res.
Commercial Fiction Ain’t A Tale of Two Cities
For many centuries, there was a literary tendency to begin “in the early years” leading up to the story problem. Authors would wax on rhapsotic about the setting and spend 10,000 words or more “setting up” the story. The reader was privy to “why such and such character” became a whatever. There was a lot of heavy character development and explaining the why of things.
This, of course was fine, because in the 18th century, no writer was competing with television, movies, Facebook, or Angry Birds.
Thus, if a book was a thousand pages long, it just meant it must have been extra-awesome. Also, authors, back in the day, were often paid by the word, thus there was a lot of incentive to add extra fluff and detail, layer on the subplots and pad the manuscript more than a Freshman term paper. Writing lean hit the author in the piggy bank, so most authors lived by the motto:
No adverb left behind.
Then Hemingway came on the scene and…well, let’s get back to my point.
In medias res was not employed by many early novelists. They started the book when the protagonist was in the womb (being facetious here) and their stories often took on epic proportions.
Modern writers can’t do this. Yes there are exceptions to every rule, so save the comments/e-mails. Just trust me when I say that modern readers have been spoiled by Hollywood and iPhones. They are used to instant gratification, and most modern readers will not give us writers 20,000 words to get the the point.
These days, especially in this current publishing climate, we need to get right into the heart of the action from the get-go. But if “the heart of the action” doesn’t involve a gun battle, funeral or cliffhanging scene, what the heck does it look like?
There Needs to Be Normal World
We have to know who the players are, thus what’s at stake.
Case in point. I just edited some sample pages from a new writer. The story began in a whitewater raft, with a family careening toward the rocks. Well, it took me a half a page to figure out they were in a raft, then an entire page to realize there was more than the protagonist, and two pages to realize it was a family, but then the raft flipped and dumped everyone out, the water hurling them toward the rocks.
I hadn’t spent any time with the characters, so I didn’t care. They had no faces or names so, to me, they were “red shirts.” This wasn’t a story, it was what Les Edgerton calls a bad situation.
Bad situations are not authentic drama.
There Needs to Be a Hint of the Story Problem
In this instance, the writer had a great story idea, but she began right in the river with the family hurdling toward doom. Okay, but we’re too far in. Had the writer started a bit earlier, the story would have been fine. Perhaps we could have had an argument between Mom and Dad as they unloaded the kids and gear from the family mini-van.
Dad says the rapids are only a Category 1 and Mom argues there were flash floods in an area upstream that could affect the water level and intensity of the rapids. She wants to go hiking instead. She doesn’t trust this river to be just a lazy day on the water with the kids, but Dad insists she is just a neurotic worrier.
See how we aren’t yet in the river, but we are tense. We KNOW Mom is right and they shouldn’t go anywhere NEAR that river.
There Needs to Be an Opportunity to Make a Decision that ENDS the Story
Now, we know that family isn’t going to listen to Mom, because then that would be a really short (and sucky) story. But it doesn’t stop us from hoping they will go hiking instead of rafting.
The writer had a good idea for a story, but she started too far into the story.
We don’t need the family waking up, eating breakfast, packing, loading the mini-van, driving to the State Park. That’s too far back. But, if we begin with them in the river, we are too far in. No one will care. We need to begin in medias res. What is the story problem?
The rapids are much higher than the family realizes, and they’re all in jeopardy. Thus, we need to begin as close to that fateful decision as possible. It could be at the gate, when the ranger warns them of the floods, but Dad really wants to use his new $1500 worth of equipment and thinks they’ll be fine.
Just get as close to that decision as possible, but still give us 1) time to get attached 2) an opportunity to see the story problem 3) a chance for the characters to walk away and end the story.
I hope this helps you understand in medias res a bit better. I know it confused the Charles Dickens out of me for a long time. What are your thoughts? Opinions? How do you figure out your in medias res? Any tricks? Tips?
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So I ditch the “I am born” chapter. 🙂 Thanks for this post!
I would assume this doesn’t apply when the action lead-in sets up the story?
Thrillers often have a high-action lead-in, but still have to be careful. Often the scene with the protagonist is Normal World + time to get attached. In Tess Gerritson’s novels, we begin in the murders, but then when we meet Jane or Maura, they are embroiled in Normal World.
Even in The DaVinci code, the protagonist is interrupted at a lecture to come address the crime.
This post is so timely, it speaks exactly to the problem I’m facing with my current WIP and pointed me to where I need to start my story. Thanks
Nice post! There’s–as you say–both the modern media influence and the constant pressure for dropping characters into the middle of action and layer in the backstory, and a lot of writers are confused or erring on the wrong side now.
Kristen, how did you know I needed help in this department? Thanks much for your helpful explanation of tricky beginnings. I’m a new Follower to your blog and am grateful to have discovered you.
Still trying to figure out how far in is too far in. This helps, though, and so, I suppose, will be the edit my ms. is currently getting. Gulp.
Good, very helpful post, thanks Kristen. What I do is write the story exactly how it comes to me. It may start with the protagonist in nappies, I have to write it that way. When I’m finished and the story is told, I look at my structure and the beginning . Often it’s only a matter of throwing away the first chapter.
As for Hemingway, maybe his writing was wonderfully concise because he didn’t write when he was drunk
I get it. James Bond movies get away with “in medias res” in their opening scenes because we already know and love James Bond. We have come to expect the films to throw us into the action at first frame.
Thrillers usually begin with the high-action scenes. But to make an accurate comparison, you would have to look at the original James Bond books. Movies get away with a lot of stuff that books can’t.
That’s right! And the original Star Wars (now called Episode IV) opens with the ship Leia is on being chased and fired on by an Imperial battle cruiser. We don’t even know who she is yet.
But Leia isn’t the protagonist. Luke is. We begin with him on the moisture farm with his uncle and aunt on Tatooine. The ship being chased would count as the novel equivalent of a prologue, and that is very common in certain genres.
Oh, hey! I think I got this one! Older sibling editor can sit her butt down on chapter one of WIP. Thanks Kristen
Ding. Ding. Ding. Light bulb moment. Thanks!
This is exactly what I needed to read right now. My WIP begins with a traumatic scene that I not only saw as the hook, it foreshadows the real story (hence I saw it as very clever!). Your article helped me see that if no one knows and cares about my main character yet, the scene could fall flat. I’m already thinking how to improve the beginning. Thank you!
This point IS tricky and it’s why a lot of us struggle. Not too far back, but yet not too far forward. It’s where practice and good critique can really come in handy. Just keep writing! Eventually you will get a feel for what is right or you will be able to spot the problem in the revisions stage.
Excellent post, as always. Long-standing link to your blog from mine.
Ugh, yeah, I hate it when we just get dumped into something and are expected to care.I pray to the muses I never fall prey to that mistake myself.
Sometimes I have to write the entire manuscript before I realize what’s truly at stack and then I can identify the opening scene.
Very helpful post. I have struggled with this in my current WIP. Even the subject of prologue has been hashed through.Showing the “normal life” was the key for me. There can be action in the normal life that sets up the “Big action” to come. Most helpful. Thanks.
My WIP doesn’t begin in medias res but this post has me wondering if I’m taking too long setting up the story. Another helpful post. Thanks again Kristen!
Thanks for the great post. Honestly, it’s the first time I’ve heard in medias res explained so well. The strong example illustrating the problem of starting too far into the story was very helpful. I’ve been struggling with an opening to a historical novel. It doesn’t go for pages, but it’s not in action. I illustrate the problem between two characters as well as the setting on the very first page. The action heats up later.
Wonderful post, as usual. It gives me a lot to think about.
Interesting post, thanks for sharing. I’m not much a writer, but as a reader, I can totally relate to this. This was also the first time in medias res was explained to me…I think it could be helpful for bloggers to know too!
I’m not certain what often drives me to add a commet on your blog. A Tale of Two Cities was fairly short…like my memory. Good post.
This is very helpful. Thank you.
I’ve always been fond of the detours in 19th century novels.
Loved this post, by the way. Very, very helpful. I have a feeling that it may be one I’ll come back to again and again. Thanks!
I’m thinking of starting a story where someone is waking up in the hospital after having had a terrible accident and miraculously emerging uninjured. Would that be too in-medias-res? Or would you suggest starting the book a bit before that, right before the accident, and then continuing from there?
Read “Hooked” by Les Edgerton. I hyperlinked to it in this post. That book taught me SO MUCH, and I think it will be better at answering your question than I could. My recommendation would be no. There is no Normal World. We don’t know what has been disrupted. If you look at the movie “What Dreams May Come” we meet the family in their daily world before a car accident alters their lives forever and thrusts us into the story problem. But read Les’ book anyway. One of the best craft books available and I recommend it as a must for all new writers.
Okee dokee 🙂 I’ll check it out!
Balance, balance, balance. You are so right about setting up just enough so we care about the characters and then getting into that action scene. It is also important to remember that opening will vary depending on genre, and even sub-genre. A cozy mystery, for instance, might have a much softer opening than a hard boiled crime thriller.
A perfect example is the movie titanic. We don’t begin already on the boat at the sink. We begin with it looming in the background and in a card game that if jack loses there won’t be a story. And with rose on the dock admiring the imensity of it, lamenting over her own situation. Memorable as any gun battle or car chase; but 10 times more effective.
I made this mistake early in my writing career. Two editors who critiqued my manuscript kindly told me that I needed to start in my character’s world before jumping into the action. Once I made the change, my critiques and story were much better. Thanks for explaining this so well.
Love the quick, 3-point break down at the end. Quick and to the point. Thanks for sharing!
Really enjoyed the scale through history here, from 18th century stuff to Hemm and beyond, its damn hard to give advice about writing but really appreciate the angle here, much enjoyed! cheers!
Great post, Kristen… I have been looking at my opening and reading it and going over it… and good as it is I kept feeling like it was jarring… in fact i have had that comment from some of my beta readers…. in their own way they have expressed the same thing. I think you have just helped to show me what it is about the situation that is unsettling them. They have not had a chance to get attached to the characters and so they do not know how to feel about the action they are witnessing…now I am going to rewrite it and see what kind of a reaction i receive. Thanks for the help! 🙂
Kristen, this was AWESOME! I agree with everything you mentioned about the do’s and don’ts of beginning a novel. It’s tough to come up with a first chapter or even a first page that makes you care enough for the character of characters that are initially introduced, interested enough in whats going on in their lives to continue reading and hooked enough not to put the book down after a page or two.
It’s enough to make an author crazy.
But posts like this help novices and seasoned writers alike to get it right and make readers happy.
Thanks for your wisdom!!
Have a great evening,
Thanks for this timely advice.
What I learned; it depends on the type of story or novel (genre). And how you want to tell the story would also determine the beginning. Many who go to meetings set up by groups for writers probably had the fifteen minute talk on the very important first sentence and paragraph referred to by some as the “hook” to get a reader in order for the person who reads to read the entire chapter. I am outlining a YA of wining the state championship. I am using the five Ws for an outline, but it is very important to me in telling the story of HOW my hero won the state championship. It is not right away action in the middle with flashbacks. But for a political action thriller there are those who suggest in getting across early that it is an action thriller. It might be for suspense as well or it will be mainstream or contemporary. The editor might have rejected it because it did not fit the genre learned from the first two paragraphs or assumed and in your synopsis or cover letter you wrote that it was a political action thriller. The publishing house might be a concern as well. Random House might be different than a house, which seeks specific genres like mysteries and romance.
Great post. I’m working on a sequel right now and I’ve been struggling with the opening chapters. I agree 100% that the reader needs some type of connection with the main character(s) if they are going to care about what happens when action is brought into play. I belong to several peer review/critique sites and I’ve read many, many opening chapters that dropped straight into action, and I felt nothing because I didn’t know the characters. I must have gone through 20 versions of chapter 1 in my first novel before I felt it was right. I thought it would be easier in book 2. It’s not.
Reblogged this on Denna Holm.
Thank you so much for the shout-out, Kristen, and if I may, I’d like to offer something additional that may help. Part of the problem in writer’s instruction and advice is that we borrow our terms from the lay language. That’s part of the misunderstanding here in that when we use the word “action” in writing, we don’t intend the lay definition of action. Anything that happens that includes movement is “action,” including dialog, a quiet argument, anything. Often, the beginning writer thinks we’re speaking of physical action and often, action like murder, kidnapping, shooting and stabbing and the like. That’s just one form of action in literary terms. A woman receiving a letter that her son has been wounded in wartime is just as much “action” as a firebombing in writing terms. In “Sonny’s Blues” one of Baldwin’s best stories, the “action” of the story begins with the protagonist on the subway, reading a newspaper and coming upon an article about his brother. That’s action, in literary terms. This is a real problem in literary craft instruction–participants assuming the words we employ mean the same as they do in everyday life and more often than not, they carry other meanings. Hope that helps!
Since you have been reading the comments, you do see that you now have a guest post on how to write FABULOUS dialogue now due *insert cute face here* :D.
very helpful explanation. l have the book on my list to buy now. l can see how these explanations…yours, Les, and Kristen’s, will be much discussed in my writing group. Thanks
I use the “diamond outline” instead of the “hour glass outline” and I write from point to point. I try to start the novel usually with the same point of the ending point. I have been critiqued being too chronological, but between points I have to add light flashbacks like how the murder happened, which occurred in the first paragraph or the first page, somewhere in the later chapters if not to discuss clues of solving the mystery by using flashbacks.
The other novel I am outlining is about giving up on a missing person, but is distracted to find someone else with the ending finding the original missing person, after finishing the outline on winning a high school basketball championship fictional story.
It is how my mind works. I cannot finish a Time Travel Romance planned on for Valentine’s Day unless I give in to jotting notes of other works, which materialized in my mind while working on a WIP.
It is the reason I like JANO Writers and NaNoWriMo because I am somewhat forced to focus by intent for 31 days and 30 days, respectively.
2013 will be a banner year to finish works I really want to write instead of following trends in the marketplace.
I had not heard of en medias res, but what you have described makes perfect sense. We want the reader to fall in love with our characters, our voice, and our novel. En medias res will certainly push the writing in that direction. Thank you.
Oops, what I meant to say is, we need to avoid en medias res. (Agh!). 🙂
No you want in medias res. Start as close to the problem as possible ;).
Great post. This helped me to re-write the beginning of my story 🙂
Thanks, Kristen. I want en medias res. 🙂
Brilliant post, Kristen! Thanks so much for explaining this in a way I finally get. In Hunger Games, we start with her going through a normal day, although in the first paragraph we learn of the impending day of the reaping — and that hint of something to come carries us through the daily routine (though her life the world itself is not ordinary).
Great post. Yes, the story should start right before an initiating event and not with the reader going, “Huh? What? Who are these people? What’s going on?” Fifty pages later you have that information and decide the opening would have been more enjoyable if you’d had it at the start. This is wonderful news because it looks like I’m doing something right.
So the challenge is to find the sweet spot – the Goldilocks moment of time when everything is just right. Right now I’m slogging through ‘The First Circle.’ It’s one of those Russian gulag novels and aside from the fact there are about eight-dozen characters to keep track of and the plot moves at a glacial pace, and the fact that I’m half-way through and am still not certain who the main character is, making it unfit (though I think unfit isn’t the right word) as modern, popular fiction – the way it starts, with one of the characters making a critical phone-call, keeps me reading in order to find out what is going to happen to the poor soul who just wanted to warn a friend.
This makes a lot more sense now. Thanks. 😀
Just reading through the comments here has made me realise a couple of things. The first is that Bond movies AREN’T an example of in media res— I’d always used them as my example, but in actual fact the action in opening is nothing to do with the plot generally, but rather is establishing Bond’s normal world(!), so it doesn’t count.
Secondly I’ve realised how close to the mark I cut it with my first book. I think I had only three pages of ‘normal life’ before things got really weird—although happily no one has ever raised it as an issue…
Certainly given me some food for thought…
Back my freshman year in high school, the Freshman English teacher was encouraging the class to read more so you can graduate and go to college. Reading was valuable for success. He brought up that James Bond movies were novels at one time. It never occurred to me while watching those to TV. I wanted to write screenplays because of watching Bond movies and Barefoot in the Park with Jane Fonda and Robert Redford shown on TV. In grade school of the seventies the talk was Neil Simon became rich writing screenplays, and novels were written by stuffy college professors, boring people. After hearing that Bond movies were novels, I did not want to read one. I wanted to write one. I started barnstorming of ideas for future novels, which I could write in my old age post college and a career. I never graduated from college and I never had a career. But almost 40 years later I have written my own James Bond novels and outlined a romance, which I thought off that school year. It is about nobody that I knew back then. But the hateful will bring up that I hardly dated in high school and in college so how can I write a romance – IMAGINATION, like writing essay papers in high school.
I’m late to the party here, but I just had an “aha!” moment. Thanks, Kristen.
From the writing course I completed recently, the teacher (and possibly I also read it in Les’ book too) mentioned that you need to have an “inciting incident”, which drops you in some action, but not the main plot point of the novel. This incident helps build to the conflict without overpowering the other important parts of the novel such as character development, subplots and so on. This was really handy advice, because I realised I had started with an “information dump” and had killed my story on the first page. After thinking for a moment, I was able to change the situation and create a situation of moderate tension, which really kicked the story into gear.
Aw! But it’s so easy to build rapport with an ickle baby 😛 I’d appreciate some advice on how a prologue should interact with the opening scene?
If you can remove it and no one cares? Ditch it :D. Prologues have uses, but they get skipped a lot. I have a post called the Seven Deadly Sins of Prologues you can get in the archives that details how to use prologues effectively.
On my way – thanks 😀
I’m so happy to be able to read your blog, Kristen! Your hints and advices are worth pure gold! Thanks for sharing all these and teaching me a lot!!!
I agree there is a prevailing temptation to Hollywoodize the beginning of stories, but we writers have to remind ourselves that not every movie starts with a gun fight, and even video games — where action traditionally trumps story — have come to favor drawing the audience in with strong characters and tension-driven stories before the blood begins to splatter.
To sum it up: give your reader exactly what he or she needs to care about the people in your story and, above all, what happens next.
We won’t always get it right, but the better we get at objectively looking at our work and producing the fiction we ourselves would want to read (and, in essence, forgetting what we KNOW will happen later in our work and rewarding our readers all along the way), the better writers we will be.
I just joined the world of writing and blogging (better late than never). I’m very happy to have found your blog and expect to learn a lot from your posts. Thanks!
Great to meet you, Traci!
Thanks for the info! I will definitely put this to mind starting this new first chapter. I’ve been having a lot of issues with 1st chapters lately, and I think this will help me mend that issue.
Good article. My novel starts in medias res, the problem is where to go from there. How far back? Should any other scenes be out of sequence?
I am writing my first novel, and as a result, I find myself surrounded by the opinions of well-meaning crit group members. My story begins with my MC performing her early morning chores. I did this specifically so you would see a glimpse of her normal life, so you would know who she is.
Most of the members in a crit group immediately informed me I should have begun two pages later, where the action turns into what will become a defining moment for the MC. How does the audience know this event is significant if they haven’t any idea of who she was before?
Good to know my gut was right.
Every time I am stuck, you have the answer waiting with wit, humor and plain old good writing sense.