What does "in media res" really mean?

| Friday, July 22, 2011
Today's Tune: Radio Bye Bye

First things first: hello, new followers! I'm very excited to see you! Thanks for following :D

Next: today's topic is a little spiel on a very common writing term, and what it really means. Onward!

In Media Res

If you've studied writing for any length of time at all, you've probably heard the term "in media res." You're probably also aware of its translation ("into the middle of things") and what it refers to (beginning a scene in the thick of already-occurring action). You know that it's one of the oldest tropes in written history, and that it's preferred by many as a novel opener.

But what does "in media res" really mean?

Oftentimes it seems this technique is employed very narrowly. We hear "start with an action scene" and assume that means to start with a battle. A gunfight. A car chase. Something big and explosive and exciting. The word "action" puts us immediately in mind of action films. Unfortunately, such scenes don't always work. The opening sets the tone for the rest of the novel. Open with a plane crash, and readers are going to expect certain things from your story. If they don't get those things, they're going to be confused and annoyed.

Beginning "in the middle of things" does not necessarily have to mean a big, bloody, explosive action sequence. It only means to start later in a scene, after certain things have already occurred. A "media res" beginning can be quiet and nuanced. An argument between lovers. An in-progress funeral. A student stressing out in the middle of an exam.

This type of beginning must also be appropriately balanced in order to work. Starting things in the middle of a scene always carries the risk of leaving readers confused or wondering why they should care about the POV character, since they don't know anything about him/her yet. If you're mindful of your language and the groundwork you lay, a "media res" opening can be incredibly powerful. It can contain a great hook and plenty of tension to propel the reader forward while also planting the seed of future plot developments and dropping hints of character.

"In media res" is a classic technique, and it's more than a one trick pony. Let your mind branch out. Play with language and characterization. Have fun with it!


{ Magan } at: July 22, 2011 at 6:04 AM said...

So...I read this the wrong way at first and I was thinking 'Why would Steph use a legal term in her blog?' But then it wasn't...

I think In Media res is hard to do, but if it's done well it is a good way to start a story.

{ Jonathan Auxier } at: July 22, 2011 at 6:57 AM said...

I think you're right to point out that IN MEDIAS RES means more than just "enter a scene late." Usually when people use this term, they're describing a JAMES BOND-style opening in which there's a caper already underway. I agree with you that this shows a limited understanding of what constitutes "action” in a story.

However, I might like to push this discussion one step further: It seems like most people limit this entire conversation to INDIVIDUAL SCENES. I do not think that’s the most helpful way to employ this term. In the dramatic sense, action is less about chases and fist fights than it is about identifying the major turning events in the life of your protagonist -- moments where his/her world changes forever.

In fact, most so-called “action sequences” are actually the OPPOSITE of story-action. Take a huge battle scene for instance. Most battle scenes are completely static -- just a bunch of dudes clanging swords/guns/lightsabres … doing exactly what audiences expect people to do in a battle. In most cases, the real action came several scenes earlier, when the protagonist chose to go to war.

IN MEDIAS RES isn’t just about wowing audiences with spectacle; it’s about understanding that an author has a limited time to tell his/her story and thus there’s no time to waste setting up the way things were before they got interesting. This is very important for stories that play out in real time -- theatre and film -- because audiences are stuck in seats, and their patience is limited.

However, I would argue that part of the reason that fiction can be so engrossing is that it doesn’t need to rush itself in quite the same way. Novels can take more time to root readers in a world or characters before the true action heats up. (This is because readers control their own pacing, and thus are usually able to stick with a story a lot longer before they declare themselves bored.)

{ Matthew MacNish } at: July 22, 2011 at 7:23 AM said...

I need to work on pulling this off better. Not necessarily right at the beginning, but especially with how I open chapters.

{ Margo Lerwill } at: July 22, 2011 at 8:34 AM said...

I love the way you explain this, Steph. Awhile back I blogged about how 'in media res' really out to be 'in media conflictus', to avoid giving people the impression they had to start with the explosions, car chases, and alien invasions.

{ Steph Sinkhorn } at: July 22, 2011 at 10:24 AM said...

@Magan - Hahahaha. It amuses me when people hear Latin and automatically think of either medicine or law :D

@Jonathan - You bring up an excellent point. This technique (and many other literary techniques) can be employed in so many different ways! Why limit ourselves? It *is* important to understand that, at its core, "in media res" is about creating a strong flow to important points in the story.

@Matthew - You and me both :) It's easier said than done.

@Margo - Thanks! That's a great way of putting it, too.

{ Bobby Mathews } at: July 22, 2011 at 11:13 AM said...

Richard Stark (the great Donald Westlake, writing under his best-known pen name) used in media res to great effect in a series of crime novels.

Possibly the best opening line of a crime novel, ever: "When the phone rang, Parker was in the garage, killing a man." (Firebreak, 2001) I remember reading it and going ... wow. That is how you do it.

Of course, the rest of the story has to live up to that first line, when you choose to open in media res.

{ GKJeyasingham } at: July 22, 2011 at 11:41 AM said...

I completely agree! For the longest time I thought that people were telling me to start with an eye-catching first line, or an explosive beginning. Then I realized that "in media res" only ever meant that a conflict should be present, no matter how explosive or how subtle.

In any case, I've always been the type of writer that likes to start with a quiet conflict that bubbles beneath the surface. Even when reading, opening line punches or explosions or whatnot always seemed a tad gimmicky, often to make up for a lack of substance. I'm not saying they're bad - they can be effective depending on the story - but they're not something I usually prefer.

{ Whirlochre } at: July 22, 2011 at 2:18 PM said...

I prefer slow burning in media res to the Daniel Craig variety.

{ Mindy McGinnis } at: July 23, 2011 at 3:47 PM said...

"in media res" is a tricky one - yes, you need to get your reader's attention, but plopping someone into the middle of a murder in progress isn't particularly motivating if we don't know the victim, or the murderer's motivation.

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