Starting the Story "In the Action"—Understanding "In Medias Res"

Image via Flickr Creative Commons, via Stupid.Photos

Image via Flickr Creative Commons, via Stupid.Photos

Last week I gave FIVE editor tips to help you guys know if you needed revision. One of the most CONFUSING mistakes (in my POV) is the notion of “Starting with too much action.” I know all of us have heard the “Start in the action” “You have to HOOK” and so we devise car chases, bombs, funerals, etc. in hopes that we will engage a reader.

Before we start, I will add a caveat. Genre might affect the first pages of your novel. In a thriller, mystery, mystery-thriller or suspense, it is common to begin with a body or a terrible act.

In The DaVinci Code, we begin with a horrible murder in an art museum.

BUT, this scene is often NOT a scene with the protagonist. When it comes to the protagonist, we need to begin in what is called in medias res.

The first scene with the protagonist in The DaVinci Code involves the hero at a lecture, which is interrupted by a problem.

Protag’s Goal: Complete lecture, sign some books and maybe have a nice dinner in Paris and go to bed early.

Antag’s Goal: Drop everything and come check out this crime scene. We need your expertise and you don’t have an option of declining.

Note the scene antagonist is not a bad guy but his agenda trumps what the protagonist wants.

The Trouble with 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 is a tactic that forces the writer forward, to begin the story near the heart of the problem.

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 are confused.

But I started right in the action! What is more “in the action” than a high-speed chase through Monte Carlo 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 or Facebook.

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 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 15,000 words to get the the point.

These days, especially when readers are deluged with choices, our sample pages are more vital then ever. 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?


Example from Life

In medias res is the front gate of Six Flags over Texas.

Do we need to start in the years that Kristen was too young to go to Six Flags? How she would see her teenage cousins leave for a day of roller coasters and cry herself to sleep in her toddler bed for not getting to ride the roller coasters? How she vowed at four that she, too, would one day brave The Shock Wave?


Do we start the story on the biggest loop of the roller coaster? The screams and terror mixed with glee?

No, that’s too far in. If we start the story on a Big Loop (HUGE ACTION–like car chases, bank heists, etc.) then we risk the rest of the book being anti-climactic. If we blow up a building in scene one, do we later blow up two? Three?

So where do we begin?

We begin at the gates of Six Flags over Texas.

We see young Kristen in the back of the station wagon and as her parents pull into the giant parking lot. We are present when she catches a glimpse of the Shock Wave (story problem) in the distance. Wow, it is bigger than she thought. We walk with Kristen through the line to get into the amusement park, and get a chance to know her and care about her before she makes the decision to ignore the Tea Cups and take on the roller coaster (Rise to Adventure).

Kristen could have totally chickened out and stayed on the baby rides, but that would have been a boring story. Yet, because the Tea Cups are in the context of the larger ride, it means something when she decides she MUST ride the roller coaster.

In medias res means we start as close to the overall story problem as possible.

Beginning With Action

This term “action” is often misunderstood, so I hope I can clear it up. There are two components to fiction, the scene and the sequel. The scene is simple. Our character has a GOAL, then someone stands in the way of that goal (antagonist) and there is a setback (or a victory). Most often there will be setbacks because setbacks ratchet tension. The protagonist needs to be one step forward, ten steps back.

The sequel is the processing of some event/setback that just occurred. This is where our character can do some thinking, emotional processing or even discussing with others.

What new writers often do is they begin the book with the sequel, yet a sequel can only come as a result of a scene.

Scenes are action. The character is wanting, needing, doing something. This is a place where we as readers can empathize with the character and connect with the protagonist and begin to root for him or her.

For instance, Les Edgerton is a pal of mine and his book Hooked is the bible of beginnings. He was kind enough to look at the first chapter of my novel and…he SLAYED ME. But, the cool part about Les is he teaches WHY he kills what he kills.

Now, I thought I got into my “action” quickly. I began with my character, Romi, cooking half to death in a parking lot. She’s dreading the Unemployment Office. She is funny, self-deprecating and we do feel sorry for her.

Les chopped off ALL OF IT.

Though only about three pages, Les told me that I began my story in the wrong spot. He chastised me and told me that, while my writing was hysterical, it had to GO.

My actual story began when Romi pushes through the door to the Unemployment Office and realizes Angry Bird (what she’s named a dreadful bureaucrat who treats her like dirt) is working that day. She wants a job. She wants an ally, someone who will help and not judge her. What she gets is a roadblock.

We feel sympathy for her. Most of us know how badly it sucks to look for a job, and that the Unemployment Office is humbling and even humiliating. This is a small event, but one that pulls the reader to the side of my protagonist. Within five pages, she meets another setback.

She finds out she has been blackballed because she was engaged to a man who pulled an ENRON and stole over a half a billion dollars then vanished (and also wiped out all her bank accounts leaving her so broke she can’t even afford to eat).

She’s given a challenge. “Find your ex. Find the money or you will never work anywhere that doesn’t involve a toilet brush and being paid in cash.”

Thus, I hope you can see how the initial setback isn’t massive. It isn’t a funeral or a car crash. It’s gutting it through the front doors of the Unemployment Office and dealing with someone who is supposed to help, but who is sarcastic, rude and a tad cruel. The scene gives us time to empathize, yet it is interminably linked to the major story problem.

Protagonist’s Goal: Get a job before being evicted.

Antagonist’s Goal: Keep her from finding work to starve her into finding missing money.

When Romi enters the Unempolyment Office, she is hopeful this day will be different. She will find a job. She leaves ten steps back. Not only is she unable to find a job, but she never will and has no clue where the missing money is or even where to begin looking. She’s out of money and is out of options. She has to fall back to the ONE place she vowed she’d never return…home with her crazy trailer trash family who resents her for leaving home to go to college.

Also note, (again) that the antagonist isn’t necessarily evil. His father was one of the investors fleeced out of millions. He believes Romi knows where the money is, and he’s using what sway he has for “justice.” Problem is, Romi really is innocent.

I hope this has helped you guys understand what makes a great hook. Begin with a problem (scene), not THINKING (sequel). The problem doesn’t need to be earth-shattering, and if it is, make sure it’s something you can outdo later. Don’t have the biggest loop of your roller coaster at the front of the ride or everything else will be anticlimactic.

What are your thoughts? Any lightbulbs? Did this technique confuse you guys as much as it did me?

To prove it and show my love, for the month of APRIL, everyone who leaves a comment I will put your name in a hat. If you comment and link back to my blog on your blog, you get your name in the hat twice. What do you win? The unvarnished truth from yours truly. I will pick a winner once a month and it will be a critique of the first 20 pages of your novel, or your query letter, or your synopsis (5 pages or less).

If you want more help with plot problems, antagonists, structure, beginnings, then I have TWO classes coming up to help you!

Upcoming Classes


A seasoned editor can tell a lot about your book with only five pages. Learn to hook hard and hook early. I am running the Your First Five Pages Class. Use WANA10 for $10 off. This is the perfect class for diagnosing bigger story issues or even getting a work agent-ready in time for conference season. This class is April 25th 6:00-8:30 PM NYC Time. Gold Level is available if you want me to critique your 5 pages.

Also, if you are struggling with plot or have a book that seems to be in the Never-Ending Hole of Chasing Your Tail or maybe you’d like to learn how to plot a series, I am also teaching my ever-popular Understanding the Antagonist Class on May 10th from NOON to 2:00 P.M. (A SATURDAY). This is a fabulous class for understanding all the different types of antagonists and how to use them to maintain and increase story tension. Remember, a story is only as strong as its problem 😉 . Again, use WANA10 for $10 off.



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  1. I’m sorry, Kristin, but too much damn analysis. Just tell the damn story. If you can’t get them on the train…they ain’t gonna make the trip.

    1. The point of this is “Get them on the train.” Don’t start with why they want to be on a train or thinking about trains. ACTION.

      1. Works for me.

    • Melinda Primrose on April 23, 2014 at 5:27 pm
    • Reply

    Once again, you have cleared things up so nice and neat for your reader. I was worried about where to start my novel. I’ve heard start in media rez but not before the reader cares about your characters. You have explained that so very nicely and I’m no longer confused.
    So, I guess that means I have to stop procrastinating now and write!
    Melinda Primrose

  2. I find your advice to be very helpful to me. I’m happy that I didn’t place my main character or any of my characters in the Prologue of my book. I used the Prologue to introduce the horror of the story and the evil house. These characters were disposable.

  3. What a great photo for this post! Yikes! What happened? How did it get there? Is anyone hurt! What’s the story?
    Thanks for clearing this up.

  4. Putting “Hooked” on the shopping list…

    At the moment my WIP starts with the protag’s yen for excitement being thwarted by her helicopter guardian – a small thing, but in rebelling against that control she lands herself in the world of trouble (i.e. running for her life) that said helicopter guardian was trying to save her from.
    Not sure if that counts as “as close to the overall story problem as possible”.

    Still, many drafts to come, no doubt. Unbelievably, one of my earlier drafts started with a geography lesson I still can’t believe I did that (although mercifully I don’t think anyone else saw it)!

    • Humaira Khan on April 23, 2014 at 5:39 pm
    • Reply

    This was the most useful post on beginnings I’ve read (and I’ve read hundreds of those!). Thanks Kristen!

  5. Reblogged this on I am an Author, I Must Auth and commented:
    Kids get in the front seat now!

  6. Excellent post, and as usual, very timely for me with my WIP. Thank you Kristen.

  7. Thanks for explaining how the beginning of a story should go. I am revising a story right now!

  8. fascinating post for me at this moment as I rake my poor, bloodied ego over the coals repeatedly with a new editor who is “helping me” (read: flogging my muse into submission) with a completely new project (for me)–a thriller I hope to use to snag an agent. He is ADAMANT about my first 3 chapters being not only in medias res, but short, to the point, sans extraneous characterization buildup and completely devoid of backstory. He says I “can do it” and it “must be this way.”

    I have revised the first 3 chapters for him 4 times and now we are working our way backwards to the first chapter, the first page, the first paragraphs and the opening lines….it’s brutal. But necessary. I hate it. But It’s good. Sort of like Bikram Yoga.

    “You are only as good as your next hard edit.”

    shared this online, great post as usual!
    Love ya

  9. At WANA. Quick question or two, please.
    Format. From a typical 8-1/2 X 11 Word doc, double-spaced? Or 6X9, single-spaced?
    Gracias por todo, ma’am.

  10. Great explanation, Kristen. I think that’ll help some of the questioners.

  11. Kristen, you have a talent for explaining the stuff that seems so complicated. It’s been a while since I’ve read anything on “In Medias Res”, so thank you. I’m reposting to my blog, Jaye’s Days.

  12. Reblogged this on ~ Jaye's Days ~ and commented:
    Kristen Lamb explains a writing technique, “In Medias Res”, like no one has before. Everyone should read her post, so with her permission, I’m sharing it here. Take notes, people!

  13. I’m beginning to think I’m going down the wrong track with this story I’m writing. Your posts are very informative and helpful, but now I’m doubting what I’ve been doing. Then again, if I’m doubting maybe I do need to fix things.

    • netraptor001 on April 23, 2014 at 6:57 pm
    • Reply

    I’m currently reading Death Masks, the fifth Dresden book by Butcher. It opens in media res–Dresden is on a live talk show with an obnoxious host, a guy he came to talk to who refused to meet anywhere else–and a surprise guest appears, who is a Red Court vampire hired to kill Dresden but is willing to negotiate. All in the first scene. Naturally it all goes to crap quite quickly. But it introduces the character and the way the world works in a tasty, potato-chip fashion. Someday I hope to write something just as tasty!

  14. I think many writers confuse action with meaningful action. Especially in screenwriting. The action needs to show the main story problem and why it is such an intractable obstacle. Many just opt for flash and zing, but it’s meaningless and soon forgotten.

  15. As always, great post! This really helps me to know that I am on the right track with the novel I am working on and even gives me a clearer picture of exactly where to start. Thank you!

  16. Very helpful. Now I need to run and look at Chapter One again and see how I measure up.

    I’m going to link to this post over at the Critique Circle ( and get them discussing what you’ve said, here. There a more than a few die-hard “Must Start with a Bang” people there and I’d like to show them an alternative.

  17. Reblogged this on ugiridharaprasad.

    • Anna Erishkigal on April 23, 2014 at 8:21 pm
    • Reply

    This is a timely and helpful post. Thanks Kristen!

  18. Great post, as always. 😀

    As much as I loved reading Les Miserables, I’d often wondered (till I found out about him getting paid by the word), why on earth Victor Hugo felt the need to go on and on about the priest at the start of the story. A whole book in the first volume is devoted to describing how righteous this man was. You’d think he was the hero of the story. But he’s merely the catalyst for Valjean’s change. I seriously doubt Les Mis would be published if it had been written today.

    But it doesn’t mean that it isn’t an AWESOME story.

  19. Thanks for responding so clearly to my question in the earlier post, Kristen! I had a feeling it would make a fab topic for you to address. This helps so much! 🙂

  20. Yes! Finally someone who agrees with me or maybe I should say, I agree with you!

  21. Reblogged this on Author Mandy White and commented:
    A good read for authors:

  22. Yes! It’s subtle but yes. OMG it’s so subtle I have to go back and read it again. Thank you.

  23. Reblogged this on M.T. Miles.

  24. I need all the help I can get – and this was helpful; very helpful. Thank you.

  25. Brilliant post, thanks for sharing. Will be very helpful in future writing 🙂

  26. I struggled with this in my first novel. However, I think I nailed it with my second since I got requests and a wonderful review from an editor. This post was by far the best I’ve ever read on the all important “First Five”. I’d still LOVE a review of my first twenty pages, though. Can you write a post on synopsis writing? There is so much conflicting advice out there… Well, I just plain don’t get it.

  27. Thank you Kristen for explaining this further. I’ve heard of and been told to start In Media Res but no one has ever explained it the way you just did. 🙂

    • sao on April 24, 2014 at 9:52 am
    • Reply

    Very good advice. I’m going to bookmark this. The key is to start with *meaningful* action and the story problem, not just frenzied action.

  28. Hmm hmm. I just left you a comment on your other blog post (Five warning signs), in which I wondered, whether I had a serious problem with this or not. Now I’m a bit confused, lol. I think I may have an issue with medias res with this prologue I have, no fast paced action, but it does build up to it. And yes, I’ve had issues with the rest of the book measuring up to the prologue (I’ve received some nice comments about it, like it’s a really compelling read, but a bit too compelling now it seems, although, I might just have the solution for it.)
    Also, the newbie mistake, starting out with thinking (sequel), man oh man, I feel greener than a raw banana lol. The book, I’m finishing my first draft for, starts out somewhat like that, although the saving grace of it may be the first sentence, which should state the problem in a nutshell that the rest of the book expands on: “There are seven windows and three doors in this apartment to walk or jump out of, but I’m still stuck here –” …. And so forth, I really need to get the first draft in shape so I can start looking for an editor. So happy I saw your posts though.

  29. This is -hugely- informative! Thank you so much for sharing!

  30. Thanks for a very helpful post, Kristen. I’m on my third book, but still unsure of the beginning of my WIP after reading this…

  31. Well done, again. Film can get away with chases and gun battles at the opening because it’s a visual medium. Besides, you just spent a lot of money to plop yourself down in a dark theater. In a book we want more depth, we want to care a little, to have at least a little glimmer of understanding of the protagonist, or at least believe we understand.

    • Stephanie Scott on April 24, 2014 at 12:49 pm
    • Reply

    The examples here really helped. Even though I know to start with action, it’s still really hard (for me). I frequently do not start in the right place, and I have a current MS that I’m still puzzling over which scene to begin with. I think this shed some light!

  32. Reblogged this on dunjav.

  33. Very helpful, actually. My problem, I think, is more that I start things off a lot like older stories where they set up character development in the beginning. Not the years and years before sort of thing, but definitely a fair bit from problem start, you know? It’s just the sort of books I got used to reading and have influenced me a lot. But I added Hooked to my wishlist on Amazon and, when finances pick up a bit, I’m definitely going to have a look and basically butcher my first draft. Thanks so much for sharing, I really appreciate it.

  34. Excellent explanation, thanks so much for laying it out in a way that’s understandable. I have seen this technique used as an all-too-predictable device that turned me off as a reader. I’ve read lots of books that hook me from the get-go with deep background. But in general, “begin with a problem, not with thinking” is a litmus test that any writer, no matter her style, can put into immediate practice. Re-blogging this!

  35. Reblogged this on cyndiperkins and commented:
    “Begin with a problem, not with thinking”: Worthy advice for any novelist. Kristen Lamb lays out the interplay between protagonist and antagonist goals with examples to help you create a true page-turner.

  36. Excellent post! I just recently discovered your blog and love it. Am following it faithfully.

    It was definitely a light bulb moment when you explained that the story began when your character goes through the front door and not while she was waiting in the parking lot. I would’ve started in the parking lot and now I know better. Dive right into the action!

  37. Cars also fly at times it seems here

  38. Hi, Kristen. I think your points are well taken. I just published a novel, Skyscrapers, and it follows my personal rules which are that you start just before all hell breaks loose for your characters, so the reader knows the character well enough to suffer along. But very very little story before all hell breaks loose, just enough to make the character clear to the reader. You can add any necessary backstory as the character is reacting to what is going on, either in his or her head, or as revealed by his or her reactions. That keeps the reader engaged and can also further define the antagonist. Thanks for your blog! Jill Wilson Brennan

  39. You helped. I wish I could spend forever listening to you. But…I would never get on with my own life. Thank you, Silent

    1. Best compliment…ever, 😀 . ((HUGS))

  40. Thanks for clarifying this, Kristen. I was also confused about the “in media res” concept before reading several craft books. Your succinct post explains it well.

    1. It confused the crap out of me FOR YEARS. So I studied it until I “got” it. Les was invaluable for learning what it truly meant.

  41. Reblogged this on Mrs C Writes and commented:
    Great advice – especially for anyone out there entering #PitchSlam

  42. Reblogged this on Dara Rochlin Book Doctor and commented:
    Kristin Lamb does it again. Great explanation of in media res, and how to start the story “In the action”. If you don’t follow her, why not?

  43. It makes perfect sense, it’s just not easy! I could definitely use a 20-page critique. 🙂

  44. I see what you’re getting at. I see now I’ve begun my novel in the right place. However, what my protagonist is up against isn’t as clear as it should be and how she is knocked back ten steps — seems like I only knocked her back a couple . . . Thanks!
    Beyond Acadia
    Swamp Lily Review

  45. Call me naive, but this is the first time I’ve heard of the term Media Res, and this post didn’t really clear it up for me. Since this is apparently something important, my confusion is good news… when you’re coming into port you sometimes have to go through fog before the dock shows up. So now I’m on a quest to understand Media Res. Thanks for the intro.

    1. Kristen – I linked back to your blog in a post on my writers blog… I’m hoping to get my name in and win your honest opinion! Thanks. Debbie Marcussen

  46. I knew it was wrong to start with too much action… but then… I hardly ever have a plan for one of my stories anyway… probably I’m doing it completely wrong… but I just get my pen and paper ready, set the pen onto the paper and let go… at the end there is a book… unconventional, isn’t it?

  1. […] right starting point is critically important in engaging readers early. (See Kristen Lamb’s post on this topic). Locate that magical point where the antagonist’s agenda intersects with the […]

  2. […] Starting the Story “In the Action”—Understanding “In Medias Res”. […]

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