Writing In Medias Res

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

If you regularly read books and articles on the craft of fiction you’ll often come across the term in medias res. That’s Latin for “in the middle of things.” (As opposed to writing in puris naturalibus, or “stark naked,” about which I have no advice.)

Many times the context in which in medias res is used is the all-important opening chapter. As you all well know, here at TKZ we’re big on helping writers get out of the gate grabbingly (I love making up words. And BTW, you can study past examples here.)

My own formulation of in medias res is act first, explain later. You don’t need a lot of exposition up front. Most authors, knowing their story world and characters’ backgrounds, think the reader also has to have a bunch of that info from the get-go in order to be fully engaged. Wrong. Readers will happily wait a long time for those essentials if what’s happening in front of them is tense, exciting, compelling, mysterious, active, or otherwise interesting.

Here’s an example from one of John D. MacDonald’s Travis McGee novels, A Purple Place For Dying. The opening paragraph:

She took the corner too fast, and it was definitely not much of a road. She drifted it through the corner on the gravel, with one hell of a drop at our left, and then there was a big rock slide where the road should have been. She stomped hard and the drift turned into a rough sideways skid, and I hunched low expecting the white Alpine to trip and roll. But we skidded all the way to the rock and stopped with inches to spare and a great big three feet between the rear end and the drop-off. The skid had killed the engine.

That’s in medias res. We have some unanswered questions: Who is She? Why is she driving so fast on a gravel road when death is just a few feet to the left? What is McGee doing in that car?

Do you want to read on to find out? I do.

“What a stinking nuisance,” Mona Yeoman said.

Okay, at least now we have a name.

The cooling car made tinkling sounds. A noisy bird laughed at us. A lizard sped through the broken rock.

“End of the line?”

“Goodness, no. We can walk it from here. It’s a half-mile, I guess. I haven’t been up here in ever so long.”

“How about my gear?”

“It didn’t seem to me you had very much. I guess you might as well bring it along, Mr. McGee. Perhaps you might be able to roll enough of this rock over the edge so you can get the jeep by. Or I can send some men to do it.”

“If we’re going to keep this as quiet as possible, I better give it a try.”

Still more questions. What’s this about a jeep? Why does she have the ability to send “some men”? Most of all, why do they have to keep things as quiet as possible?

It is not until the bottom of page two that MacDonald begins to fill in some blanks:

She had met me at noon at an airport fifty miles away, quite a distance from her home base. She said she had a place I could stay, a very hidden place, and we could do all our talking after we got there. Ever since meeting her I had been trying to figure her out.

So have we! Which is the point. MacDonald dangles little bits for us to chew on, just enough to whet our appetite for more. Which is why we keep reading.

Try this: Make a copy of your opening chapter and strikethrough all exposition and backstory. Cut any necessary descriptions to one line. See if that edited scene doesn’t move better. If you feel you need some essential exposition or backstory, limit yourself to three sentences, either all at once or spaced out.

Also: Try pretending Chapter Two is your opening chapter. You may be pleasantly surprised.

In media res can also be used in any chapter opening, to quicken the pace. Simply give us the action before you give us the setting.

Suppose we have a scene in a judge’s chambers between a young lawyer from Dewey, Cheatham & Howe and an angry judge. Let’s use first-person, with the lawyer as the POV character.

The next morning I was in Judge Crotchetti’s chambers. It had two leather chairs in front of an immaculate mahogany desk, and a floor-to-ceiling bookshelf covering one wall. Judge Crotchetti was standing behind his swivel chair. On the wall above him, an oil-on-canvas Oliver Wendell Holmes glared at me.

“I won’t have that in my courtroom!” Crotchetti said, slapping the back of his chair. “Do you understand me, counsel?”

“Clearly,” I said, and smiled.

“Young man, are you trying to show contempt for this court?”

“No, Your Honor. I’m doing my best to conceal it.”

To quicken the pace, go in media res by leading with the action (note: dialogue is a form of action):

“I won’t have that in my courtroom!” Judge Crotchetti said, slapping the back of his chair. “Do you understand me, counsel?”

“Clearly,” I said, and smiled.

“Young man, are you trying to show contempt for this court?”

“No, Your Honor. I’m doing my best to conceal it.”

It was Monday morning and we were in Judge Crotchetti’s chambers. It had two leather chairs in front of an immaculate mahogany desk…

When revising, take special notice of the opening paragraphs of each chapter in your book. Do you tend to open the same way? Go for variety. Open with some form of action. Move description further down the page. Get a little more medias into your res.

Have you ever thought about in medias res? Do you strive for variety in your chapter openings?

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36 thoughts on “Writing In Medias Res

  1. I love this. I’ve been focusing a lot on this lately because I’ve noticed I have a tendency to “wind up” in the beginning of a story with expostion and scene setting–often I find my story starts for real on Page 2, so I cut 1.

    Lawrence Block, in one of his writing books, also advised the same as you: reverse chapters 1 and 2. He said an editor once made him do it and it made a world of difference. The action happened in chapter 1 and the setup in 2.

  2. I measure “writerly improvement” by how much less I cut from the beginning of each successive novel. Early on, it was most of 8 chapters.

    Having just hit ‘the end’ on the draft of the wip, it’s time for revisions and edits. Openings are always tough. I try for action, but in this book, I’m afraid I might be withholding information too long. It’s always something, it seems. I THINK I’ve been revealing things in bits and drabs, but I need to print out this puppy and read it all at once. I think someone’s been coming in at night and messing with my signposts.

    • A complete read-through is always a good idea, after setting the MS aside for a few weeks.

      I wonder who has been messing with your signposts. Probably an experimental novelist.

  3. You asked me to keep you updated on how BetaBooks was working for feedback and editing.

    I try to write using the principles you’ve described, act first, explain later. I notice that many of the comments I get from beta readers (who are making inline comments, as they read) are along the lines: Who is this? What are they doing? I need more information? This has been frustrating to me, thinking what am I doing wrong?

    After reading your post this morning, it hit me. If I’m not getting those kinds of comments, then I’m not “in media res.”

    Thanks for the post.

    • Steve, you bring up a point that needs clarification. There are questions based on mystery, and then there are questions based on confusion. We don’t want the latter. Readers do want to be clear the action, the WHAT is happening…the WHY can be delayed.

  4. I hafta say that’s what I always liked about JMcD’s stories and novels, and I THINK I picked up this rule of thumb subliminally – whenever I get an idea, it seems to percolate until I get an in media ray-of-light illuminating an appropriate setup…
    A writer friend told me long ago to catch the reader with the first sentence, so that they’ll want to read the first paragraph and then read the rest of the first chapter and then…
    This seems to me to be the “easiest” way to catch-n-keep as opposed to catch-n-release… (and please… pardon all the mixed metaphors…)

      • I had an English prof, my major professor in fact, whose husband was a PhD and head of the education department. One day, he was speaking to the student body. She was horrified when he closed his speech with this: “So we have to keep our eye on the ball, our shoulder to the wheel, and our ear to the ground, and march, march, march to Tipperary, where we will find success and contentment.”

        I couldn’t help it. I honestly couldn’t help it. I asked, “Is Tipperary the name of a new dictionary.”

  5. Great post, as always.This is something I need to keep re-teaching myself because 1) I have a high tolerance for exposition & backstory that I know isn’t always shared by the majority of readers and 2) Sometimes some exposition or backstory that is really good is a darling that is hard to kill. 😎

  6. Like Mr. Smith, my early love affair with MacDonald’s books must have allowed his style to permeate my brain. When I start writing a story, it’s almost always in the middle of some action. It just feels natural to pick that point, as if I’m stepping through a door into whatever the characters are living at that moment.

    I grow frustrated when reading something that takes forever to get to the meat of the story. I’d hate for one of my readers to growl, “Get with the action, already!” I want them breathless with anticipation of what’s on the next page.

    Thanks for using one of my all-time favorite authors in your example, Mr. Bell. Maybe more young writers will find his books. It would be a gift if his estate would reissue MacDonald’s series in a complete set. Well, I can dream, can’t I?

    • Suzanne, I’m most proud of my complete collection of JDM stand-alones from the 50s… from The Brass Cupcake (1950) to The Last One Left (1966). This includes the rare Weep For Me, which he never wanted reprinted. He considered it too Cain-derivative, but as with all JDM books, there are gems in it. The one thing you can never say about it is, “Too slow.”

      • How I envy you! One of my biggest regrets when I last moved was that I had to donate so many of my books to the library to cut down the moving cost. That included handing over my complete MacDonald set. If it had occurred to me that I wouldn’t be able to find all of them again, I’d have carried those books on my back across five states.

  7. Funny thing…this is something I’ve been doing for a long time when I write short stories, due to the need to get things moving right away and not waste words, but only recently started applying it to my novels. My attitude was, “Hey, I’ve got all kind of room to drop details in here. I’ve got a whole book of room.” Bad move…

    Now I tend to start with movement (be it physical or dialogue), then weave in the details as needed. I’ve also ended up eliminating a lot of extra exposition that I was in love with, but served no purpose be to entertain me and slow the story down.

  8. Some of my writing students were still confused about what to start with when told about in media res. I suggested they figure out the moment where everything changes for the main character and start there.

    The hero stumbles across the murdered body of the jerk neighbor he had a loud argument with the day before, and he realizes he will be the main suspect. The heroine wakes up from being drugged, and the children she was taking care of have been kidnapped. Their father is looming over her with murder on his mind.

    This explanation seems to work with some students.

    • I always advise opening with a disturbance of some kind, an unexpected ripple in the ordinary world. It can be big or small, so long as it is forcing the Lead to react to it. Then the dominoes can start to fall.

  9. John D. MacDonald is referenced so often by so many books I have on my ‘Learn to Write’ shelf (digital and physical) that I think it’s one of the saddest facts the man never wrote a book dedicated to his craft – unless I missed it. The largest single block of writing advice I’ve seen from the man was published in The Writer, back in 1974, taken from a letter he wrote to a would-be author in 1965. It’s only about three pages.
    .
    I always try for In Medias Res, but I do find it difficult to hold back the mountain of exposition and world detail I worked so hard creating.
    .
    Great post. Great advice, Mr. Bell. Thank you.

  10. Your Latin is much more elegant. I’ve called this technique the Third Paragraph Had.

    First, you do some lively stuff:

    The Bronco skidded in mud, throwing Steele against the dashboard.
    “How much further?” he yelled over his shoulder.
    “Don’t know! These logging roads haven’t been used in decades.” The sheriff’s voice was stiff with tension.
    Louis ignored them both, keeping his eyes trained on the mud-spattered windshield. They had been climbing the rutted road for an hour now and there was no sight of anyone on foot or in a car. They had searched the cabin, but found only a full cooler of beer and an empty gun rack.

    Like you said, if you go in with the action first, you can always backtrack a tad and tell us how we got where we are.

    Operatur incipiens medium optimum! (Had to use Google for that!) Thanks for the great post.

    • Kris, I love that: The Third Paragrsph Had. Brilliant and easy to remember. And if anybody gives you grief about it just remember: Illegitimi non carborundum.

  11. “When revising, takes special notice of the opening paragraphs of each chapter in your book. Do you tend to open the same way?…”

    Yes I do, and this is a great reminder for me to check my scene openings on the 1st draft I’m going over now.

    Always on the money with your advice, JSB. Appreciate it.

  12. I just read an award-nominated legal thriller that started with action, but not the main action of the story. It was all SEAL action and budding romance and politicking back-story. Took maybe 70 pages (book, not MS) to get to the real action of the book. I don’t think any of that backstory would have even needed a flashback, just information woven in as the story progressed. IMHO.

  13. Pingback: Writing In Medias Res | Loleta Abi Author & Book Blogger

  14. The car lurched wildly to the left as Frank swung the wheel to avoid a spittle of lava that had landed directly ahead of us. The ground shuddered, throwing my cup up and out of the holder, splattering my jeans with hot coffee.
    “Another tremor,” Frank said shakily. “I hope it’s not the big one.” His hands gripped the steering wheel in white-knuckled determination as we sped down the ancient dirt road toward the bottom of the mountain.
    More lava slapped the roof of the car as Frank swung right to avoid a boulder that had come to rest in the middle of the road. The car ricocheted off the side of the mountain and bounced through a large hole, sending my laptop flying, banging against the roof of the car and back onto my lap.
    “Hey,” I shouted, “take it easy. I’m trying to respond to today’s wonderful TKZ post, In Medias Res. I wanted to show my appreciation by writing my own example, but you’re making it impossible to type.”

    Husbands! Who taught them how to drive?

    (Sorry about the Tom Swifty “Frank said shakily”. I just couldn’t resist. 😊)

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