Want to start your novel off with a bang? Use in medias res to create a dynamic opening that grabs your reader and sets the table for exciting scenes in later chapters.
In this guide, we’ll define in medias res, look at some example openings that employ it, and discuss how you can use in medias res in your own writing.
Let’s get right into it!
What Is In Medias Res?
In medias res is a Latin phrase meaning “in the middle of things”. In the context of writing and literature, it refers to a story that begins partway through its plot, with the missing events filled in later through dialogue, flashbacks, or other techniques.
The opposite term is ab ovo or ab initio, which mean “from the egg” or “from the beginning”. A story that begins at the natural beginning of its plot—shortly before the inciting incident—is beginning ab initio.
In other words, in medias res is a decision you make about the order of telling your story; specifically, whether to start at the beginning or to start elsewhere.
(Like all literary terms, there’s a certain grey area here. The roots of almost every story reach back further than the opening chapter, to encompass the backstories of the characters involved. But generally, starting in medias res means that the inciting incident happens before your opening scene.)
It’s important not to confuse in medias res with the idea of excitement or action. Remember that the term refers to where you start telling the story, not how. (For example, imagine a mystery novel that opens with two rank-and-file police officers acidly criticising a murder investigation that has gone off the rails two weeks in, where the murder itself is the inciting incident of the plot. This would be in medias res.)
To expand our understanding of in medias res, let’s look at a few examples.
Examples Of In Medias Res
Each of these openings uses in medias res to achieve different goals and to begin at a different point in the plot.
The Tell-Tale Heart By Edgar Allan Poe
(Note: This is quite a short story. If you’re not already familiar with it, consider reading it before you continue, so you can appreciate the full impact of the in medias res opening.)
The Tell-Tale Heart opens with a dialogue between an anonymous narrator and another unnamed character. The narrator begins by insisting that they are sane, then immediately reveals that they have committed a murder for no clear reason:
It is impossible to say how first the idea entered my brain; but once conceived, it haunted me day and night. Object there was none. Passion there was none. I loved the old man. He had never wronged me. He had never given me insult. For his gold I had no desire. I think it was his eye! Yes, it was this! One of his eyes resembled that of a vulture — a pale blue eye, with a film over it. Whenever it fell upon me, my blood ran cold; and so by degrees — very gradually — I made up my mind to take the life of the old man, and thus rid myself of the eye forever.The Tell-Tale Heart by Edgar Allan Poe
The narrator goes on to tell the story of how they murdered the old man, concealed his body, and ultimately gave themselves up to the police. In other words, the entire plot has occurred before the opening of the story.
By beginning in medias res, Poe structures the story for the maximum dramatic impact.
Opening with the conversation between the narrator and the unknown listener creates the opportunity for the narrator to emphatically state that they are sane. This, followed immediately by a confession to a meaningless murder, sets us on edge.
Next, because the murder is a past event witnessed only by the narrator, we are forced to receive the story directly from them, which exposes us to their disturbed thought processes. Finally, this structure allows the story to end with the confession. This is the true dramatic climax of the story, and the moment which throws into question the extent of the narrator’s sanity.
Had the story been told in linear form, Poe could still have forced us to receive it from the narrator, and could still have concluded with the dramatic climax of the confession. But would the impact of the story be the same if it hadn’t opened with the narrator’s insistent claim to sanity? It’s that opening paragraph that creates the feelings of revulsion and anticipation that give the rest of the story its impact.
Rosewater By Tade Thompson
I’m at the Integrity Bank job for forty minutes before the anxieties kick in. It’s how I usually start my day. This time it’s because of a wedding and a final exam, though not my wedding and not my exam. In my seat by the window I can see, but not hear, the city. This high above Rosewater everything seems orderly. Blocks, roads, streets, traffic curving sluggishly around the dome.Rosewater by Tade Thompson
Rosewater opens with the narrator, Kaaro, at what could initially be mistaken for a normal job. In the paragraphs that follow, we learn that Kaaro’s anxiety over somebody else’s wedding is due to his abilities as a telepath. (Kaaro is employed by the bank as a security measure against “wild” telepaths who try to steal the personal data of customers.)
As we read further, we learn that the biodome, an alien structure that emerged in the centre of the city years prior, is the source of the telepathic powers possessed by some residents. Kaaro is one of only a few people who have entered the biodome; this history is central to Kaaro’s character arc and to the book’s plot.
By beginning in medias res, long after the dome’s arrival, Thompson creates a sense of mystery around the biodome, its arrival years beforehand, and Kaaro’s relationship to it. Had the story been told in a linear fashion, the dome, which has been accepted as a fact of life by the city’s residents, would feel equally mundane to the reader. Inverting the order of events allows the eventual revelations about the dome to have a dramatic impact.
Killing Floor By Lee Child
I was arrested in Eno’s diner. At twelve o’clock. I was eating eggs and drinking coffee. A late breakfast, not lunch. I was wet and tired after a long walk in heavy rain. All the way from the highway to the edge of town.
I saw the police cruisers pull into the gravel lot. They were moving fast and crunched to a stop. Light bars flashing and popping. Red and blue light in the raindrops on my window. Doors burst open, policemen jumped out. Two from each car, weapons ready. Two revolvers, two shotguns. This was heavy stuff. One revolver and one shotgun ran to the back. One of each rushed the door.Killing Floor by Lee Child
Killing Floor opens with protagonist Jack Reacher being arrested at gunpoint in a small-town diner. Accepting the arrest with a strange calm, while also refusing to speak, Reacher is taken to the police station and interrogated. There, the reader learns that a murder has been committed and a suspect matching Reacher’s description was seen leaving the scene. The reader also learns (assuming that Reacher is a reliable narrator) that Reacher is definitely not the murderer.
By beginning in medias res, Lee Child accomplishes several things:
- The arrest scene would be terrifying for a normal civilian, so Reacher’s calm reaction immediately establishes that he is trained in some way, without any explicit backstory whatsoever.
- The seriousness of the arrest immediately makes us curious about what has happened to upend this small town, and why Reacher is being treated as the prime suspect.
- Starting with the arrest allows Child to introduce his protagonist first. Given that the arrest is Reacher’s first contact with the events that have occurred, starting with any other scene would have meant introducing the victim, police, or other characters prior to Reacher.
Altogether, Child’s decision to begin in medias res is a strong one that serves both character and plot. It’s interesting to note that, despite the opening scene involving police, weapons, and an arrest, it still isn’t an action scene in the strict sense—no shots are fired, nobody fights, nobody chases anyone. This makes it an excellent example of the fact that increasing impact or excitement is not the same thing as simply adding physical peril. It’s the layering of the implications attached to the arrest that makes it compelling for the reader.
How To Use In Medias Res
Now that you know what in medias res is, let’s go through the many ways in which you can use it in your writing.
When To Use In Medias Res
When should you use in medias res in your stories?
Remember that in medias res means telling your story out of linear order—beginning anywhere other than the beginning. Here are some reasons you might want to do that:
- To create a specific mood or mindset in the reader. (The Tell-Tale Heart does this by beginning with the narrator’s monologue about their sanity.)
- To begin with an exciting scene. (Many stories begin with the protagonist in peril, then reveal the events that led them there.)
- To create a sense of fate or anticipation for a future event. (For example, showing the reader how the protagonist will ultimately die, or showing the reader the outcome of some future event.)
- To create dramatic irony by giving the reader information from a future event, then returning to the chronological start with the protagonist or other characters unaware of what the reader knows.
- To create a sense of chaos or confusion by leaving out recent events that would otherwise be known to the reader. (Often used to strong effect in war and disaster stories, where the reader’s feelings are a substitute for the chaos or confusion the protagonist might feel in that moment.)
- To create a sense of mystery by withholding an explanation of an important event or situation. (Rosewater does this with Kaaro’s experience in the dome.)
- To remove an uninteresting section of the story’s timeline, by starting after that stretch, conveying prior events as a flashback, and omitting the period between. (Rosewater does this as well, with certain years of Kaaro’s life between his dome experience and the first chapter of the book.)
- To emphasise a particular character, theme, or question that you want foremost in the reader’s mind. (Killing Floor does this by centring Jack Reacher in its opening.)
By adjusting the order of re-telling, you can manipulate mood, information, focus, pacing, and other attributes of your story. However, in medias res isn’t a magic wand. You must use it purposefully if you want to achieve these effects.
Tips For Using In Medias Res
How can you use in medias res purposefully?
Now take some time to think about whether you’re (A) solving a specific problem that would exist if you told the story in linear order, or (B) creating a specific effect by choosing to re-tell the story in a different order. If neither of those things apply, you don’t have a specific reason to use in medias res and will struggle to execute it effectively.
Finally, think about what other changes you might make to your story to support the effect you’re aiming for. What needs to be different about your other chapters to maximise the payoff from your in medias res opening? For example:
- In The Tell-Tale Heart, Poe continues to build on the question of sanity that’s introduced in the opening paragraph, showing the reader additional examples of disturbed thinking by the narrator, continuing to build until the climax of the story.
- In Rosewater, Tade Thompson withholds the full knowledge of Kaaro’s dome experience until much later in the book, but tantalises the reader with hints and bits of information along the way, ensuring that curiosity about the dome never leaves the reader’s mind.
- In Killing Floor, Lee Child follows the arrest scene with an interrogation that amplifies the effects of the opening by further expanding our curiosity about the small town and showing us more of Jack Reacher’s calm intensity.
Resist the urge to flood the reader with exposition or backstory immediately after your opening scene, as if you’re trying to apologise or compensate for having dropped them into the middle of things. Commit to your decision to use in medias res and follow through purposefully in the chapters that follow, building on the effect you’ve created and delivering exposition and backstory gracefully.
Sometimes, in medias res isn’t the right solution for the effect you want. Other related techniques you can try include:
- Start with an action scene in a prologue—something which is exciting on its own, but will also have relevance to the later story. (For example, the action may set up a character to pursue revenge during the main story.)
- Omit certain information by having the protagonist unable to witness events because they’re unconscious, in the wrong location, distracted, blinded, or so on. You can then reveal that information later through dialogue with others who were present, recordings, forensic evidence, and other indirect techniques.
- Omit certain information by having a narrator who’s reluctant or unable to share it.
- Use a framing story to put the events of your main story in another person’s mouth, allowing them to re-tell it in their own style (but still in chronological order).
- Revise your existing opening to improve its pacing and excitement. If you believe you’re starting with the right scene, but it feels limp, try re-writing from a different viewpoint or with a different emphasis.
- Revise other parts of your plot to strengthen longer-term effects you’re trying to achieve.
Remember, when concepting the opening of your novel, it never hurts to write several openings and compare their strengths, or to revise your opening multiple times.
Using In Medias Res
In this guide, we’ve seen a definition and examples of in medias res and talked about when and how to use it effectively. Hopefully, this has got you thinking about interesting ways to open your story. A great way to keep up that momentum is by bouncing your ideas off other authors.