Setting is one of those tools that helps writers to do more showing than telling. Today, we are 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 is 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 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 for traditional publishing, 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?
For Those Who Have Slept Since Seeing Star Wars
It 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. 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.
In my little example, the GIANT roller coaster represents the story problem. We have a choice to start far earlier than in the parking lot of Six Flags….but we risk losing the reader in the Land of “Who Gives a Crap?”. We, as the narrators, can also choose to start on the actual ride, but then we have a different problem. The readers are then hurled into the action after the decision (rise to the adventure) has been made. Thus, we didn’t get time to give a gnat’s booty about seven-year-old Kristen.
Also, since Kristen is already locked down and can’t walk away, there is no conflict. It isn’t like Kristen can step out of the coaster on the first loop and take on the Tea Cups instead. As long as Kristen cannot make the wrong choice or give into her fears, there really is no story. Kristen MUST have a chance to fail….to walk away and go play the Ring-Toss instead.
Likewise, our protagonists MUST have opportunities to fail or to walk away. This is why they are eventually called “heroes.” Anyone else would have waved the white flag in the face of such circumstances. This is why we read fiction. We like bravery, courage and resilience.
What Star Wars the New Hope Can Teach Us About In Medias Res
To give you guys another example, let’s pretend it is 1977 and we are sitting in the theater watching the movie Star Wars. Star Wars (The New Hope) is a PERFECT example of in medias res. When we start the story, wars have been fought and we are in the heart of the conflict. The twins are grown and living separate lives and Anakin has already whined himself over to the Dark Side and become Darth Vader.
My theory is that you can only call a guy “Annie” so many times before he just snaps. Anyway…
Begin on Tatooine
So if you don’t want to start at the Gates of Six Flags, then feel free to Begin on Tattoine.
Star Wars begins (with the protagonist) on the planet of Tatooine just before his life will intersect with the antagonist’s agenda. We meet young Luke in his Normal World and get a chance to meet his aunt and uncle. We get a chance to see his normal life, so we have a basis for comparison when everything goes sideways. We care when Luke’s family is senselessly slaughtered. We are there when Luke is given a choice. Ignore everything that’s happened and return to moisture-farming OR step on the path to adventure.
What NOT to Do
We DO NOT begin the adventure with Little Luke looking at the stars wondering who his father is or longing for exciting adventures in space. It is too early and we aren’t close enough to the story problem–when the Emperor’s agenda intersects with Luke’s life and alters it forever.
We also DO NOT start the story with Luke whizzing through space on the Milleneum Falcon dodging bad guys. That would have been exciting, but jarring and we wouldn’t have cared about any of the passengers. We also wouldn’t have had time to see the overall story problem—The Emperor, Darth and the Death Star.
I feel part of why the prequels
sucked were not as good is because Lucas tried to go back and explain the story that we already had loved and accepted. Among many other reasons.
We really didn’t need to know WHY Annakin Skywalker turned evil or even HOW the Force worked or WHAT it was to enjoy The New Hope movies. In fact, we kind of liked the movies better before we “knew.”
The Force was better before it was explained.
Some of you are starting too far into the action, which is jarring. But others might feel the need to go back and explain everything. Why your protag is thus and such. Why the world is la la la. How the magic did whatever. Guess what? You really don’t need to explain.
I have used this example before. What if you went to a magic show? The magician makes a woman float. As the audience, we cry out, “How can he DO THAT?” What if the magician stopped mid-show, flipped on the lights and pointed out all the mirrors and wires? What would it do?
It would ruin the magic.
Keep Your Literary Magic
Same with our writing. Sure, some things (backstory) can be explained. But, I will be blunt. Most backstory can be explained in dialogue, real-time in flow with the narrative. Flashbacks and prologues really just bog down the narrative more times than not. Yes, you might want to explain why your vampire is dark and brooding, but why? Many readers will keep reading in hopes they can piece together enough hints to figure it out. Just because readers might want something, doesn’t mean it is in our best interests as authors to give in.
Sure. Star Wars fans all thought they wanted to know WHY and HOW, but once we got what we wanted????
Finding the Literary Sweet Spot
Thus, as writers, we are looking for that literary sweet spot, just close enough to the inciting incident to make readers feel vested, but not so far that we are basically beginning our book with a scene that should be the Big Boss Battle at the end. In medias res is tough and we aren’t always going to nail it on the first try. The key is practice and study. Movies are really wonderful to study because in screenplays, Act One is brutally short.
Watch how the best movies introduce the characters and the problems and see how efficient they are at relaying backstory in dialogue. And sure, some movies use flashbacks, but we always have to remember that the visual medium is different. We can “see” differences and don’t have to “keep up with” a zillion characters. We are passive and watching with our eyes. We don’t have to recreate the world in our head.
Reading is very active, so flashbacks always risk jarring the reader out of the narrative. Also, if you study screenwriting, great screenplays, much like great novels, do not rely on flashbacks. Heavy use of flashbacks is generally a sign of an amateur screenwriter. Highly skilled writers, whether on the page or the screen, are masters of maximizing every word and keeping the story real-time.
So what are your thoughts? Does this help you understand in medias res better? Do you have anything to add?
I LOVE hearing from you guys!
To prove it and show my love, for the month of July, 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).
NOTE: My prior two books are no longer for sale, but I am updating them and will re-release. My new book, Rise of the Machines–Human Authors in a Digital World is NOW AVAILABLE.
At the end of July I will pick a winner for the monthly prize. Good luck!