Short and Sweet Advice for Writers – Start in the Middle (In Medias Res)

Image from an excellent post about presentation story structure by Ffion Lindsay

Image from an excellent post about presentation story structure by Ffion Lindsay

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.
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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 Facebooktwitter, Instagram, or Pinterest. I don’t bite … usually.
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42 thoughts on “Short and Sweet Advice for Writers – Start in the Middle (In Medias Res)

  1. Excellent! My last story, Fort Davis Rocks, made a loop – I started as the wildfire roared toward Fort Davis, went back a week, and finished a few paragraphs after the beginning (but from a different point of view). The reason I did this? I couldn’t imagine what it was like to be in a town while a wildfire burns through (burning 24 houses and part of the state park). I struggled with how to authentically write the part about the fire – listened to recorded news reports on Marfa Public Radio, watched You Tube videos, read newspaper articles, spoke with friends who had been there – but ultimately didn’t write it at all. I’ve never used the term in media res, but I will now!

    • That’s so interesting, Robert. Sounds like you just had good instincts. 😉

      Always nice to “see” you. Hope you have a lovely Thanksgiving!

    • Glad you liked my picks for examples. Most people cite the Illiad and the Odyssey. I just couldn’t go there.
      😉

  2. Thanks for this helpful reminder! Sometimes in writing it does start with a middle, a central idea or concept, and no one should be hesitant to start there instead!

  3. A few years back I wanted to write a spy story with four protagonists and I knew I wanted to introduce them in the first four chapters. I purposely started on Chapter Five so that I could watch things develop and then I knew what to go back and say in the first four chapters.

    • Interesting. I love that this concept has both an on-the-page aspect (as in how the story is ultimately structured and presented to the reader), and also a behind-the-scenes aspect (as in how the writer figures things out). Kind of cool. 🙂

  4. Pingback: In Medias Res | robertcdeming

  5. Pingback: Short and Sweet Advice for Writers – Start in the Middle (In Medias Res) | 100 Days

  6. Interesting and informative post. Thank you. Depends I believe on the type of story. To give the middle or the end to a love story could defuse the tensions of the build-up and complexities of human emotion. (in that kind of scenario it would be like going directly to the sex scene before they had even been introduced). I can see it working brilliantly in many genres. Longer works for me have always entailed writing anything at any time and then trying to bring the whole together. (working mode but finished did have beginning, middle and end),

    • Hello, Faye. 🙂

      I’ve heard of writers who can – while writing their first draft – leap from scene to scene and chapter to chapter – beginning, middle, and end. I’m not sure I could manage that, but it sounds a bit more fun than plodding along in chronological order. I love the idea of having all these puzzle pieces and then fitting them all together to make the whole story.

      And, yes, I agree that in medias res doesn’t work for every story. Good point as well that you don’t want to accidentally diffuse the tension by, for instance, starting with resolution. However, I think there are some stories that start with the protagonist on his or her deathbed, and then the story “rewinds” to the beginning in a sort of extended flashback. I wish I could think of an example off the top of my head, but it’s late and I’m coming up empty.

      Anyway – thanks for sharing your thoughts!

  7. Pingback: Short and Sweet Advice for Writers – Start in the Middle (In Medias Res) | Toni Kennedy : A Writing Life

  8. Hello, my name is Damone. I’m a bit new to WordPress, but I am an aspiring fiction writer also. I’m working on a short story, Love is a Powerful Thing, on my blog. I was hoping you could take a look at what I’ve written so far and give me some feedback. I also apologize for the throat clearing in advance.

    • Hello, Damone.
      Welcome to WordPress & to the wonderful world of blogging. 😉

      Thanks for visiting our corner of the web, and thanks for the invitation to look at your work; but I’m afraid if I accepted every such invitation, I’d have no time for my own work!

      You may want to investigate local and online writing groups to see if you can find one that’s a good fit and allows for peer reviews and critiques. I have found this very helpful in the past.

      Good luck & keep writing!

  9. This one starts during a walk along the high street. If the opening page doesn’t get you…i’ll never write another word!

    For the open-hearted, the ones who want to see how it’s done and are willing to suspend their cynicism (we’re all guilty), I offer a set of complimentary codes for ARABELLA, my latest novella for the iPad. Open iBooks on your iPad and select FEATURED at the bottom of the screen to take you to the iBookstore. Then select REDEEM at bottom of page and use code 4REFP4LARYR3. ARABELLA will begin downloading automatically to your iBooks library. Here they are:

    ENWXWP7FHXNJ
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    My advice is always this: get an accomplishment under your belt and you’ll never doubt your abilities again (it also cures writer’s block). OR as the great Dizzy Dean once said: “if ya done it – it ain’t braggin’!”

  10. I had little trouble in start Writing my novel.but then last week you gave me some valuable advice. I’m thanking you now . it really works on me I’d finished half of my novel.thanks again Jammie. And out of curiosity I’m asking how many books do you wrote and published.. I wanted to find your some of your work…

  11. I’m working on the 6th book in a series. You would think this advice would automatically apply in my case but, since I want readers to be able to pick up any book in the series and ‘get’ what is going on, I do have to do a tiny bit of ‘throat clearing’. I do my best to make it relevant by foreshadowing things to come later.

  12. I have never hear of medias res, but then I never did Latin at school
    But it is a novel idea starting in the middle or the end, not sure how it work out, but just out of curiosity I may test this idea out
    Whatever the result, thanks for stirring my brain into this unusual idea

  13. I always notice that in most mystery or detective novels they start from middle like:
    The man was walking down the street with a cigar in his mouth. Smoke was shielding his face and then a whistling sound came into his years. He turned and saw a man standing there. The whistler smiled and pulled out a knife. The man started shaking and then received a jab from the Whistler’s knife.
    *Next they give us identity of the man and all creates a new web.
    (Note: that was my hand written example to check whether I got it right) 🙂

  14. Pingback: Short and Sweet Advice for Writers – Start in the Middle (In Medias Res) | jatishaanderson

  15. Reblogged this on Jennifer P Hansen and commented:
    I’ve decided to try and post a weekly blog entry with writing advice. It will either come directly from me, or will be something intriguing re-blogged from another site. To begin, here is a fine article on writing in medias res written by Jamie Lee Wallace over at Live to Write – Write to Live.

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