en medias res???

by Terrell
(Columbia, MO)

Hello, I first want to say that I appreciate all of your brilliant advice to you give on this site. I find them all extremely helpful.


My question this time is regarding the topic of starting a story in medias res:

What makes a good in medias res starting point and what is the difference between that and some random high-action/intense scene?

Also, if you can give me a few examples of movies and/or books other than the usual examples of: The Illiad, the Odyssey or Inferno, that will be much help.

Thank you for all your help!!!

Answer:

If you were to map out a timeline for your story, there will a number of significant events or turning points along it.

By significant events, I mean irreversible changes that send the story and characters in a new direction.

Beginning a story in medias res means to begin in the middle of one of these significant events.

This does not necessarily mean beginning with intense action. Action might be appropriate for a story with a lot of violence (such as crime fiction or a story about war), but it would be out of place in a romance or a personal dilemma story.

Also, intense action might not be an event. For instance, if your main character is a fire fighter, race car driver, or soldier, intense action might be a regular activity for him/her. An ordinary day at work would not be a significant event. It might get a reader's attention for a page or so, but once it becomes obvious that this is just a typical, insignificant day for the character, the scene would fall flat.

A better event would be a moment when someone who normally leads a quiet life gets caught up in an intense situation. Or, if your main character's life normally consists of intense action, open with a day when the extraordinary happens -- when something goes wrong, when everything changes, when something significant occurs that disrupts his routine and forces him to move in a different direction.

It's the change that makes the reader want to read on -- to find out how the character will cope with the new circumstances, problem, or reality.

Dramatica theory actually suggests a number of possible places where a story could begin, assuming a chronological order of storytelling.

(Forgive me for using examples of YA and popular stories. I do this because there's a greater chance everyone knows them.)

1. Initial Driver: the event without which the rest of the story would not occur. For example, Pride and Prejudice begins with the news that a wealthy, unmarried man, Mr. Bingley, is moving to the neighbourhood. This changes the marriage prospects of the Bennett girls (who need to marry well in order to be financially secure). The rest of the story revolves around whether or not Elizabeth and/or her sister Jane will marry into money. The Lovely Bones begins with the murder of the narrator, and the rest of the story is about how various characters cope with the aftermath.

2. Overall Throughline: Many writers prefer to begin after the initial driver has already occurred. This creates a little mystery because the reader sees characters reacting to the initial driver, but doesn't know why until later on. So instead the story opens with the next significant event from the overall plot. For example, Star Wars: A New Hope opens with the arrest of Princess Leia (a Senator) and the announcement that the Emperor has dissolved the Senate, turning the Republic into an Empire. This is all a reaction to the theft of the Death Star plans, which is the initial driver.

3. Main Character Throughline: For many readers, it's important to connect with the main character as quickly as possible -- preferably on the first page. So many stories begin with a significant event in the main character's life. For instance, The Hunger Games begins on the day of the Reaping, when Katniss volunteers for the games. Divergent begins on the day Tris takes an important test and discovers she has a divergent mind -- something that changes her life from then on. the perks of being a wallflower begins with the main character's reaction to learning that his best friend committed suicide.

4. Impact Character Throughline: Some stories begin with the first time the main character sees the impact character. This is a significant event because it begins the main character's inner conflict by revealing to him/her a different approach, a different way of doing things. For instance, City of Bones begins on the night that the main character, Clary, sees the impact character kill a demon at a nightclub, revealing a world she didn't know existed.

5. Relationship Throughline: Romances or stories about important relationships often begin with an event that establishes the relationship between the main and the impact character. For instance, The Fault in Our Stars begins on the day that Hazel-Grace and Augustus first meet at a cancer support group. The film Planes, Trains, and Automobiles begins when the main character loses a cab due to the accidental interference of a stranger (who later becomes his friend).

Of course, you can also choose to tell a story in a non-chronological way, if the beginning is not terribly engaging. You might start at the end, at the last significant event, to create some mystery as to what came before, then jump back in time and tell the story from the beginning. Or you might start at the crisis, for example, then jump back to tell the events leading up to it, then tell the ending.

The most important thing is to NOT begin your novel with anything that resembles preamble or background. Start with a significant turning point.

If you find you have preamble, try cutting everything up to the point where something significant is happening. Fill the reader in later on any important backstory or exposition.

Comments for en medias res???

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Apr 27, 2015
Marriage as a starting point
by: Vijay

Hi, Glen,

Thank you for providing such a useful information about the topic.
In My work, I started with the marriage scene where Hero and Heroine are on the stage. The plot is, Hero is in love with someone else and marries Heroine by his parent's pressure. The the rest of the novel deals with how they live their conflicting life in America for the next one year until Hero comes back to his girlfriend, leaving heroine with her classmate.
(I've used your Novel Planning book to plot my work and putting my words since last couple of months.)

I hope my beginning adheres to what you have mentioned in your answer.

Cheers,:),

Vijay

Apr 27, 2015
To Vijay
by: Glen

As long as you make clear the that the decision to marry is a disruption that creates an imbalance in the characters' lives, the wedding opening should work. For instance, you might consider incorporating a confrontation between the man and the woman he is really in love with, just before the wedding, in which he rationalizes his decision. This would get the reader wondering how this situation can possibly resolve itself in a good way. (Okay, technically that would be starting with the Relationship throughline.)

Apr 27, 2015
Novel Events - Feedback
by: Vijay

Hi, Glen,

I found your answer to my question interesting. It really makes the beginning more attractive than the wedding scene.

Though I'm getting good feedback in CritiqueCircle.com for my work every week, I want someone to look at my events which I have planned in my story. I found your vast knowledge helpful to many writers through your answers and I would like to share my novel events with you and get feedback. I am sure you suggest me to include some interesting changes/toipcs to make it more appealing to the reader. I just write each event in a sentence or two and send it to you for your perusal.

I am sure other writers would also find it informative and useful. I hope you'll answer to my request,

Cheers,

Vijay K Kerji

Apr 28, 2015
To Vijay
by: Glen

Sadly, if I started providing critique services to everyone who requested them I would have no time for anything else in my life. As it is, I spend a number of hours each week answering questions on this site.

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