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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.”

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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 last twenty years, however, in media res has taken on a much narrower definition. Now it means something like: Choose a scene from the middle of your narrative (when approached in a chronological sense), then spend the next chunk of the story leading up to it again until the reader can figure out just exactly what the first scene meant after all.

Really?

In media res was originally used as a tool for selection. It helped 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.

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But the dramatist did not go back and fill in the details of what 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 what can amount to half the book is told in essence as a flashback. Readers can find this disconcerting because, basically, we forget about the scene that started everything off. We may harbor a mild curiosity as to why that scene has been given such special placement and when it might recur.

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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,” don’t backtrack. If your first scene engenders interest, if it implies a world where there is something at stake and immediately transports the reader into a situation with dramatic tension, why not just continue from there?

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