Want to make sure that your novel starts off with a bang? Not every story needs to begin with a slow first act. Instead, it can start in medias res.
While you may not be familiar with this Latin term, you’ll likely have seen plenty of films and read many books that use this concept. In this blog, we’ll discuss what in medias res means, famous examples of it, and how to use it in your own writing.
Definition of in medias res
In medias res is a Latin phrase that means “in the middle of things”. In relation to literature and other forms of storytelling, it’s used to refer to stories that begin in the middle of the action.
This means that the first act doesn’t have to follow what might be considered more traditional conventions. There’s no slow introduction to establish your character’s backstory, their normal world, and their relationships.
Instead, the story skips straight to the actions, bringing the reader into an exciting moment of the story within the very first pages.
How can a story start in medias res?
An example would be of your hero running away from a monster in the opening scene, in the middle of a fight, or rowing away from a sinking ship.
The action doesn’t even have to be especially dramatic. The main protagonist might be just about to sit an exam or have dinner with an estranged family member.
Any of these are examples of in medias res. These opening scenes mean the story skips over a slower beginning completely, or they could be taken from a later part of the narrative such as the first stages of a final showdown.
Origins of in medias res
Narrative works beginning in the middle of the actions have existed for thousands of years, with origins in oral tradition. Epic poetry of antiquity often started in medias res, and Roman poet Horace first used the term to describe what made a good epic poet.
Examples of in medias res
To better understand how you can start your own story in medias res, here are some examples from film and literature.
Homer’s Odyssey is one of the most famous pieces of literature and it begins in medias res with the hero Odysseus being held captive. From there, parts of the story are told through flashback.
The Tell-Tale Heart
Edgar Allan Poe’s ‘The Tell-Tale Heart’ is a popular example of a short story that starts in medias res. It opens with a dialogue between a narrator and another character. The narrator claims they are sane, but it’s then revealed that he murdered someone.
In Danny Boyle’s 1996 film Trainspotting, the opening scenes show Mark Renton (Ewan Mccregor) being chased by police. The energy is frantic and exhilarating, and it effectively introduces the audience to the film’s frenetic style and world.
The Thin Red Line
Many war films begin with domestic scenes to show their characters’ normal world before it’s torn apart by conflict, but in The Thin Red Line (1998) the protagonists are already in combat from the very beginning.
How to use in medias res
If you want to start your own story in medias res, there’s more to it than just beginning in the middle of an action scene. First of all, not every narrative benefits from one, so you have to know when it’s most effective and how to pull it off.
When to use in medias res
- To make the opening exciting – sometimes a slower start isn’t necessary!
- To create tension – starting in the middle of the action and then using flashbacks means that the reader is constantly waiting to return to that opening moment.
- To create a sense of confusion – diving straight into the action can be disorienting for readers, but that can work if it reflects the experiences of the main character.
- To emphasise a theme – an opening scene can introduce your core theme well if it’s not bogged down by introducing backstories and setting the scene.
- To save time – short stories and flash fiction especially need to cut to the chase due to having limited word counts.
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Tips on using in medias res
Whether you’re writing a short story, novel, or film, if you’re not sure if you should start the narrative in medias res, you should make sure to have a clear outline of the plot first. Then, test out different ways to begin it. Does it make more sense to start slow or in the middle of the action? Which one feels right to you?
Going with your instinct can be the best way to decide about how to begin. But if you do start this way, don’t slow down the momentum of the story straight after by then going into long sections of exposition. Trust the reader to put the pieces together and create their own meaning from the ways characters are introduced.