I’ve mentioned a few times in the past weeks that I would write an article on my absolute most hated narrative technique: In Medias Res, so let’s make good on that promise.
While the name might seem strange, you probably already know what In Medias Res entails. If you’ve ever seen a TV series or film or any other form of entertainment that begins not at the start of a story but in the middle of it, often a crucial scene, but then jumps back in time with “24 hours ago,” or some other time, then you’ve experienced In Medias Res, which classic Latin for “In the middle of things.”
Supernatural and most Police Procedurals love to pull this one on you. They’ll start with the major characters about to shoot each other, or fighting or doing something that seems completely out of character, and then jump back and tell you how they got there, most of the case the thing being some sort of ploy by the characters to trick the weekly villain.
In Medias Res bypasses exposition and the logical and sometimes even coherent flow of events and scenes to put the audience in the middle of a highly emotional situation, leaving you confused as to how things got this way. It’s a hook tool, at least I see it this way, meant to grab your attention and give you a ‘mystery’ that will keep you reading or watching for as long as the mystery remains, in the hopes that you’ll become invested enough on the way back to that scene that you’ll keep going until you reach the end.
In Medias Res works most of the time, I won’t deny it, at least it works on me because I must absolutely know the backstory, but it has one major flaw, one that not even the most talented writer can overcome and which can completely derail the plans: it makes everything up to that crucial scene unexciting at best and predictable at worst.
Why is that? You already know that until that scene comes along, the character is alive and well for one, so all action scenes lose their momentum. Even if we all secretly know that the main characters won’t die in the middle of the novel—if at all—the danger they’re in is still good for an adrenaline buzz as you imagine the action. But In Medias Res flashbacks strip all scenes of that potential.
Even beyond action, whatever revelations and twists you have will be diminished, particularly because In Medias Res is there just for such twists, shocking reveals presented in the first page instead of where they should go. So if there’s a character, even unnamed in the In Medias Res scene, that betrays the character in some awful way, or suddenly turns out to be the culprit, then you won’t trust or invest in any of the characters, because now you know there’s a traitor, so you won’t trust any of them until the real culprit steps forward. When it comes to entertainment and narrative, it’s guilty until proven contrary.
Let’s see some examples:
- “Charlie, how could you? They’re gonna kill her!” – You already know Charlie’s a bastard. Even if it turns out that this thing is all a trick between Charlie and the protagonist, you won’t trust him at all.
- “Can’t beat them…if I still had my magic sword, my left arm and my right eye, this would be a piece of cake!” – You already know the guy’s gonna have a very bad day, so when it happens, there’s no shock—though you’ll still wonder what the character did to anger the author!
- “Samuel, you gotta listen! Billy’s death is all about the Amusement Park, he was gonna cut them out of the deal! But be careful, don’t tell anyone, or they’ll…” – Bit vague, but in a murder mystery giving away any minor clue this early is a sin.
While In Medias Res means in the middle of things, most people don’t pull the scene from the middle of the book but later, the worst of them using the climax scenes as the story openers. A good rule of thumb is this: the later in the story the scene takes place in, the more you compromise the emotional impact of the entire narrative.
One of the better uses I’ve seen of In Medias Res is in a Dresden Files novel, by Jim Butcher. Grave Peril opened with Harry and the newcomer, Michael, in the middle of a supernatural encounter, with the story then pulling back to how they got there. Sounds like standard In Medias Res, but the reason it works well is that the scene in question is within the first five chapters of the novel. With this short-hop In Medias Res, he got the hook without compromising most of this novel. The opening scenes are also fairly direct, with high-speed reckless driving being the only emotionally intense ones. And because he knows these scenes won’t have any emotional impact, being flashbacks, he uses them for character introduction and necessary exposition.
As personal preference, I never use In Medias Res, not even if it would give me a killer hook. The first novel I wrote has a rather weak opening, just setting the stage and the base plotline for the rest of the story. Some scenes further down the line are better hooks but I won’t ever use them to kick off the novel. I truly dislike In Medias Res and what it does to a story.