How to Use in Medias Res to Tell Your Story
Choosing to begin in medias res is a great way to buy yourself time and goodwill when it comes to providing your audience with character exposition. It also creates high-stakes tension and an element of surprise.
However, if used poorly, this technique can detract from the story’s effectiveness. Here, The Urban Writers discuss how to use this narrative device effectively.
As the name suggests, in medias res means ‘in the middle of things’. It’s a common story-telling technique that allows the author to create intrigue and mystery by delaying exposition.
The event you choose to use as the in medias res needs to be high-stakes and central to your characters’ journey. This means that it is something that the reader would have questions about even if you were telling your story in chronological order.
Your questions could be answered through character dialogue or flashbacks, but it’s important that the backstory doesn’t feel clunky or forced. For example, if your in medias res is a character making an emergency call and arranging to meet someone at a specific location, the reader will want to know why it’s urgent. They will also have questions about who the person on the other end of the phone is and why they need to meet now. This is why in medias res is such a popular storytelling technique for mystery authors.
In medias res comes from the Latin phrase for “into the middle of things.” The term is used to describe a narrative technique that cuts straight to the action rather than skipping unnecessary backstory. For example, the story might start with characters running from a dragon instead of explaining how they got to that point through character dialogue.
This approach can be effective in creating high stakes and keeping a reader engaged, especially if the story would be slow-starting otherwise. It can also buy an author time and goodwill to provide slower exposition later on.
This type of narrative structure is often seen in epic poems and novels such as Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey. It’s also common in animated films such as Grave of the Fireflies, The Emperor’s New Groove, Hoodwinked!, Megamind and Happily N’Ever After. It’s even used in some video games as a way to get players right into the action without having to sit through expository cut-scenes.
Forrest Gump, the classic novel about a simple man with an extraordinary life, begins in medias res. Whether it’s the car chase scene in which the protagonists escape or the bank heist in which Forrest and his friends try to outwit the robbers, the story grabs the reader’s attention from the start and builds on this momentum throughout the rest of the book.
The same principle is at work in other stories, such as the one about Ifemelu and Obinze, which begins with a love affair between two young people whose lives are entwined. The questions that this opening raises about the characters are answered gradually as the book progresses, using flashbacks and other techniques.
The technique of beginning a narrative in medias res has a long history. The Roman poet Horace used the term to describe Homer’s epic poems, The Iliad and The Odyssey. He wrote that Homer “never begins the story from the egg; he hurries straight into the midst of things.” He is right.
It’s important to understand how to use in medias res to best tell your story. It can be tricky to get the balance right between beginning in medias res and building up necessary backstory or exposition in subsequent chapters, especially if you’re using this technique at the outset of your book.
The event you choose to open your story in medias res must be a high-stakes, climactic moment that grabs readers immediately. A car chase, bank robbery, or shootout with the police are all good examples of in medias res scenes that create tension and suspense for your audience.
It’s also helpful to practice on paper before you begin writing your story, so that you can see how the beginning of your narrative flows. This way, you can be sure that the opening chapter meets your audience’s expectations and sets up your main characters correctly for the rest of your plot. You may need to tweak your opening during this process by removing paragraphs or even entire chapters from the front end of your story.