Every story has a beginning, a middle, and an end, right? Right.
But, no one ever said they always have to be told in that order.
Sometimes, the best place to start your story is smack dab in the middle, or even at the end.
In fancy-schmancy literary terms, this is called in medias res, a latin expression which basically means “in the middle of” or “in the midst of.” Writers of all kinds (literary, film, tv) use the in medias res technique to capture and hold the reader’s attention right from the first word. By dropping readers into the middle of the action, without any explanation or exposition, the writer can quickly and easily pull them deeper into the story.
Some people refer to this technique as cutting all the “throat clearing” or “small talk.” If, for instance, you open your story with a description of your protagonist and perhaps the setting, you are – by some standards – engaging in throat clearing. You are working your way up to making a point, to letting the reader know why you’re telling the story in the first place.
Think about how you tell stories about things that have happened to you. If you’re relating an anecdote about how you caught a runaway horse at the state park, you aren’t going to start with a detailed description of what you were wearing or what kind of trees and plants were in the park. You’re not going to go into a lengthy backstory about why you were at the park in the first place, or how you were feeling about being there. You’re going to start at the point when you heard hoofbeats pounding through the woods, coming at you from you didn’t know where. You’re going to immediately put the listener into the most exciting part of the story.
Or, here’s another example – did you ever get back an academic essay to find that the teacher had crossed out the first three paragraphs of your paper and drawn an arrow to the fourth with a note saying, “Here’s your beginning.” Lots of first drafts – fiction and non-fiction – have too much throat clearing in their beginnings. Think about this when you are editing your own work. Can you move the information in your opening lines or paragraphs to a later point in the story and then instead start your story a little further in where the action starts to sizzle?
Here are a couple examples of stories that use in medias res to draw readers in:
The Art of Floating by Kristin Bair O’Keeffe opens with the lines,
Sia Dane discovered the man on the beach exactly one year, one month, and six days after her husband disappeared.
One moment she was out there alone, moving toward the old clam shack with Gumper lollygagging behind, nosing about in a seaweed jumble for shells to carry home, and the next, there was the man … standing at the water’s edge … drenched as if he had just walked out of the sea.
We’re not given any explanation as to who Sia or Gumper are. We know next to nothing about them – not where they are (other than the beach), how old they are, or what they look like. We only know that they have just discovered a mysterious man. And – just like that – we’re hooked.
Neil Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book also opens in the middle of the action:
There was a hand in the darkness, and it held a knife.
The knife had a handle of polished black bone, and a blade finer and sharper than any razor. If it sliced you, you might not even know you had been cut, not immediately.
The knife had done almost everything it was brought to that house to do, and both the blade and the handle were wet.
Bam! Smack dab in the middle of the action.
Starting in the middle can inspire your reader to turn the page, and it can also inspire you – the writer – when you’re working on crafting a story. If you’re stuck trying to write the beginning, stop spinning your wheels. Start anywhere. Pick an exciting scene that you can’t wait to write and start from there.
Pay attention to the books and stories you read, to the TV shows and movies you watch. I bet you’ll be able to find all kinds of examples of in medias res once you know what you’re looking for.
Jamie Lee Wallace Hi. I’m Jamie. I am a content marketer and branding consultant, columnist, sometime feature writer, prolific blogger, and aspiring fiction writer. I’m a mom, a student of equestrian and aerial arts (not at the same time), and a nature lover. I believe in small kindnesses, daily chocolate, and happy endings. Join me each Saturday for the Weekend Edition (a fun post and great community of commenters on the writing life, random musings, writing tips, and good reads), or introduce yourself on Facebook, twitter, Instagram, or Pinterest. I don’t bite … usually.