We’ve curated our best editorial secrets and industry insights into a series of articles. They range from getting started through staying on track and grasping the publishing business. Put those fuzzy slippers on your feet, pull up a cushy armchair, and enjoy.
Begin at the beginning: what in media res really means
I have been making an unofficial list of the world’s most commonly used writing axioms, and I’m pretty sure in media res needs to be on there. In media res means “in the middle of things.”
What is in media res?
Writers are advised to start their stories with an action that will capture the reader’s attention. This action should be compelling—it cannot waste too many precious words on exposition or setting the scene. This action should inspire curiosity.
So far, so good. In the past twenty years, however, in media res has taken on a much narrower definition. Now, it means something like, “Start with a scene from the middle of your narrative (chronologically speaking); then spend the next chunk of the story leading up to it again until the reader can figure out exactly what the first scene meant after all.”
In media res was originally used as a tool to help Greek playwrights figure out where to begin their narrative. Presenting a scene first indicates its importance to the whole, just as deciding which scene will come last indicates the dramatist’s moral intent through the fate of the characters.
But the dramatists did not go back and fill in the details of what had happened previously. They assumed that the audience would already have this information (which battle had been fought, who had been the victor, what situation these characters found themselves in, etc.).
Where in media res goes wrong
By contrast, today’s writer who begins in media res starts us off with a lone, out-of-sequence scene, then tells us a flashback, in essence, for what can amount to half the book. Readers can find this approach disconcerting because, basically, we forget about the scene that started everything off. At best, we may harbor a mild curiosity about why the author has given that scene such special placement and when it might recur.
Selecting the right scene to begin with
I would argue for two ways out of this current dilemma.
If you are going to begin with a scene from the middle of the narrative, why not continue to utilize the narrative possibilities of flashbacks and multiple concurrent timelines to ensure that your first scene does not look like an ugly duckling?
Perhaps a simpler solution to the in media res dilemma, once you have begun in the “thick of it,” is, don’t backtrack. If your first scene engenders interest, if it implies a world where something is at stake and immediately transports the reader into a situation with dramatic tension, why not just continue from there?