One way to tell a story is to introduce the reader to the environment of the story. Descriptions of foliage and dirt roads, or of skyscrapers and clanging subway gears, can get the reader acclimated to the setting and can be a way to introduce the protagonist as a product of their surroundings.

in medias res

But sometimes you just don’t have the patience for that. You want to hit the ground with the plot running at full speed, and once you’ve gotten the reader’s attention and piqued their curiosity, then maybe you explain what’s going on and how things got here.

Welcome to the world of in medias res.

Definition of In Medias Res

In medias res is a Latin phrase meaning “in the midst of things”, and true enough, a work that starts out in medias res kicks off somewhere in the middle of the plot.

When the story opens, the characters may be running from a dragon, or sitting in the principal’s office after a prank gone awry, or bailing water out of a flooding dinghy.

If you’re beginning your story in medias res, the action on the first few pages can come from anywhere along the story line. In other words, the first scene could be a slightly later beginning, the climax in the middle of the narrative, or it might be pull from the resolution, after all the action has happened, and all the characters are sorting through the events.

How to Use In Medias Res in Your Story

What happens after the opening in medias res is up to the writer.

If the opening comes from early enough in the narrative, it’s possible that the writer may continue with the story without bothering to explain why the characters were running from that dragon. It’s also possible that the writer may explain a bit of backstory through the character dialogue after the opening scene.

After the characters escape the dragon, maybe the protagonist pulls a diamond out of his or her satchel, and the accompanying character makes a comment that they only need to find one more diamond in order to assemble the staff that will seal the pit that a massive troll is threatening to escape from. It’s a quick way to get the reader up to speed, if necessary.

If the in medias res opening takes place closer to the middle or end of the story, it’s also very common for the scene following to take the reader all the way back to the start of the story and explain how the characters ended up in the principal’s office or in a sinking dinghy.

The opening scene gives the reader a sense of what’s coming, and then pulls the camera back to how things ended up playing out the way they did to get there.

Examples of In Medias Res

The use of  in medias res as a plot structure goes back to the epics of ancient Greece: the Iliad and the Odyssey. Both open in medias res and don’t really go into back story until further on in the narrative. Just as Homer did, you can skip right to the meat of the story and test out the classic storytelling method.

If the writer is feeling really ambitious, the opening in medias res takes place in the middle or end of the story, but then the rest of the story is told in a nonlinear fashion.

For example, the film Memento opens towards the end of the story, but from there it alternates scenes moving chronologically from the start of the story, and scenes taking place right before the last one, until it hits the middle of the story, which actually is the end of the film.

One word of caution: in medias res can be fun, but if you’re introducing too many characters in that opening scene, they can get lost in the action. Make sure to keep a close eye on the key characters introduced in medias res, and make sure the reader is able to keep that close eye as well.

How about you? Do you use in medias res in your writing?

PRACTICE

Write an opening that starts in medias res, using either a scene towards the beginning, middle, or end of the story as described above. Post your practice in the comments and check out the work of others too.

Liz Bureman
Liz Bureman
Liz Bureman has a more-than-healthy interest in proper grammatical structure, accurate spelling, and the underappreciated semicolon. When she's not diagramming sentences and reading blogs about how terribly written the Twilight series is, she edits for the Write Practice, causes trouble in Denver, and plays guitar very slowly and poorly. You can follow her on Twitter (@epbure), where she tweets more about music of the mid-90s than writing.