A Quick Explanation of “In Medias Res”
One of the biggest decisions you’ll make when writing a novel is where to begin. Of course your story really begins well before page one, with all the events that made your world what it is and with all the experiences that made your characters who they are.
But when we’re talking about page one, we need to pinpoint where our written story, our plot, is going to begin. You’ll often hear writers talking about starting a story in medias res, and in case the phrase is unfamiliar to you, I want to offer a brief explanation of what it means.
In medias res is a Latin term that means “in the middle of the thing.” So, to begin a story in medias res means you’re going to start with action or something happening. You’ll hit the ground running with a scene. You won’t wade in with backstory or context-setting. Let me give you a couple of examples.
In Julia Otsuka’s When the Emperor was Divine, the story begins with a woman encountering a sign, copies of which have been posted all over Berkeley, CA. The signs are notices directing the removal of people of Japanese ancestry to internment camps.
“The sign had appeared overnight. On billboards and trees and the backs of the bus-stop benches. It hung in the window of Woolworth’s. It hung by the entrance to the YMCA. It was stapled to the door of the municipal court and nailed, at eye level, to every telephone pole along University Avenue. The woman was returning a book to the library when she saw the sign in a post office window. It was a sunny day in Berkeley in the spring of 1942 and she was wearing new glasses and could see everything clearly for the first time in weeks.”
At the end of this opening paragraph, the woman goes home to pack. We don’t yet know her or her family. We don’t know what their lives are like or how the United States’ entry into the war has affected them. Otsuka doesn’t start her book by setting up a scenario, she drops us down into a scenario.
In another novel that takes place during wartime, this time the Civil War, E.L. Doctorow’s The March begins in a more lively way:
“At five in the morning someone banging on the door and shouting, her husband, John, leaping out of bed, grabbing his rifle, and Roscoe at the same time roused from the back-house, his bare feet pounding: Mattie hurriedly pulled on her robe, her mind prepared for the alarm of war, but the heart stricken that it would finally have come, and down the stairs she flew to see through the open door in the lamplight,…”
This opening exemplifies one of the reasons in medias res is a wise way to begin—it immediately engages the reader and offers high entertainment value. It allows the reader to experience the story, and hopefully buy in early.
For contrast, let me give you an example of a book that does not begin in medias res. Elizabeth’s Strout’s Abide With Me employs an omniscient narrator who gives a sort of “once upon a time” introduction to the story. Here’s the opening sentence:
“Oh, it would be years ago now, but at one time a minister lived with his small daughter in a town up north near the Sabbanock River, up where the river is narrow and the winters used to be especially long.”
It’s a great beginning. But we get several pages of setup before we’re gently set down into a scene with the main character sitting in his study. If you need to establish a wide-angle shot, supply context, or want to make clear that this story happened in the past and is being retold here, you probably aren’t going to start in medias res.
However, by launching your story in the middle of things, you can leverage the dramatic heat generated from conflicts and complications already underway—especially if the scene is relevant to the questions and stakes that are central to the book. But no matter how you decide to begin your story, never assume your reader is patient. Something needs to spark for them immediately if you want them to stick around.