Friday, July 10, 2009

In Medias Res

In Medias Res is Latin for "in the middle of things," and refers to the story-telling device of starting a narrative not at the beginning but during a dramatic scene, skipping any backstory or setting or characterization and getting directly to the action. You open the book to page one and BANG! you're in the middle of the story already.

Literary agents seem to like this approach, if one judges by their blogs, and one is tempted to say that this is a "modern" writing technique, that the classics of literature could not be published today because writers used to spend the first 10,000 words of their books giving us setting and backstory and introducing characters. But beginning in medias res has a long and illustrious history. I took a quick look at my librarything account and grabbed the following titles, all of which start in the middle of the action:

True History of the Kelly Gang (published 2002)
My Name is Red (published 2001)
The Master and Margarita (published 1966)
Crime and Punishment (published 1866)
Paradise Lost (published 1667)
Hamlet (published 1601)
The Iliad (written c. 800 BCE)
The Odyssey (written c. 800 BCE)

I'm not going to discuss the relative merits of beginning in medias res versus easing into/setting up the story (though feel free to do so in the comments). What I will do is, maybe, give some advice on how to structure the beginning of a novel to start off in medias res. It's going to be oversimplified, cookbook-style advice, because we must deal with generalities in a forum like this. Sorry.

I will assume you have written something like this:

Prologue (ick!)
Hook sentence or paragraph.
Backstory and setting.
Dramatic action leading to inciting incident.
Inciting incident.
et cetera.

Step One: Read your first chapter or two and find the first dramatic action that is part of the story's real conflict. By which I mean, if your book is about a vampire hunter who is haunted (sorry) by his past, skip the story about his past, no matter how dramatic, and get to the story-present's first dramatic scene (likely some vampire hunting by the adult protagonist).

Step Two: Start your book at the scene you found in Step One. It begins there and goes on from there, just as you've written it. What about all that stuff that used to go before it? Well, you're going to cut most of it. Read on.

Step Three: Cut your prologue. You don't need it. I know: you love your prologue, and know in your heart that the story can't begin without it. Your heart, alas, she is wrong. Admit that your prologue is back-story, and You Do Not Begin With Back-story!

Step Four: Read your book, beginning with the new first scene. Do you really need any of the back-story you cut out? Really? Do you? How much of it? Note where there is missing information that must be filled in.

Step Five: Read through all the stuff that you have skipped over by beginning with the new first scene. Highlight or otherwise mark those things that are absolutely necessary for the reader to understand the story; you aim to fill in those areas you flagged in Step Four. Cut everything else. No, I mean it: cut everything else. You don't need it, and your readers don't want it.

Step Six: There is no Step Six. You're done. Move on with your life and enjoy your shiny new actiony story beginning. You should have a structure that now looks like this:

Dramatic action leading to inciting incident.
More dramatic action leading to inciting incident.
Inciting incident.
Possible introduction of back-story.
et cetera.

A note on Step Five: You might want to keep some of the details you don't necessarily need for clarity, and use them to add depth and substance to the book. Just don't let your world-building and gorgeous descriptive passages get in the way of the story itself.

Also: there are other ways to do this, other ways to structure a story, and they are equally valid. I'm just offering up a simple way to turn a slow-starting novel into something that starts more quickly. And again, I'm not saying that this is the Best Way to start a story; it's just one way to do it.


  1. Yes, this may be just one way to do it, but it happens to be a way that works, over and over. In my opinion, things like this may feel formulaic, but in actuality, if you're not a writer tearing down a story to see its bare bones structure, these things don't matter. They don't matter to the reader. What matters is if the story flows and if backstory and unnecessary information isn't getting in the way.

    I've learned all of this the hard way, and I'm still learning. But this is excellent how you've laid it out. If only I had read this post about 9 months ago!

  2. Great post. I eliminated my prologue, took bits of pieces from it, and inserted them into Chapter 1. Much better!

    And, yes, I did love my prologue, but I found the book was better without it! Sigh! I hate it when I'm proved wrong. : ) Still, the integrated Prologue/Chapter 1 does work much better, as does starting with a bit (not a major amount)of drama.

    Since things seem to flucuate in the Publishing industry, I wonder how long before backstory is again going to become a prerequisite in writing. Hmmmm . . .

  3. I'm keeping my prologue! You'll have to attack it once you've read my expanded outline or whatever you call it.

  4. Great post! Keeping this in mind for my current wip. Maybe then I won't have to change so much of the first chapter in the second draft!

  5. I'm keeping my prologue, too. I could just as easily title it Chapter 1, but I like the word "Prologue" for it. It is the middle of the story, almost the exact middle of the story, really, and I weave the backstory into the middle of the book.

    I know there is a heated debate over the validity of prologues. Not long ago, Nathan Bransford did a post on them and many commenters claimed they are "lazy writing" and many others said they never read prologues and just skip straight to Chapter 1 (which to me is lazy reading).

    Not writing is lazy writing (Scott: I do not mean your not-writing, which is fully justified due to schedule constraints, I mean not writing because it is intimidating and/or difficult). Not re-writing is lazy writing. Not revising and editing is lazy writing.

    Prologues can be well-crafted to plant seeds of mystery and set up a novel, and that is not an easy task; however, I do admit that my work is genre fiction (suspense/thriller) and prologues are more commonplace for this type of work than for literary fiction.

    My other WIP is a humorous work of literary fiction, and it doesn't have a prologue.

  6. I love Media Res! I've been trying to start my current WIP in media res, and your post definitely helps me focus on how to do so!

  7. Scott, Thanks for this post. I'll admit that step 5 starts to feel too systematic for me, but I do think it makes sense! (And, yes, I consider my lack of organization a hindrance.)

    Since you said we could, I did want to say that, as I was considering this, I wondered if starting in the middle of things versus easing into the story affects the "grandness" of the story. I've always thought of this like a meal. Sometimes it's nice to get dressed up and go to a fancy restaurant where you get a fancy appetizer before a nice seventeen course meal. Sometimes you just want to get to the steak. So, if you're trying to write some epic thing--and given that epics are so long that a few thousands words here and there doesn't feel as significant--maybe that's where easing in is appropriate (Tale of Two Cities?). Just some thoughts. I'm sure there are plenty of exceptions.

  8. Hey, I like cookbook style! Too bad I had to write six books to figure this out! Shaking my head...

  9. In writing for children easing into a story is best in most cases. So they get to know their characters and have a reason to want them to be okay.

    I found this out the hard way. Hmm, I seem to always discover things that way.

  10. Jill, I love how used the phrase "cookbook style"! That might just be cause for a blog post.

    Robyn, that's interesting. I think that genre may play a large role in how you start a story and how it's shaped.

    Rick, I agree that some stories should have a prologue. When it fits it fits!

  11. Michelle: It is a narrative method that works, and it's also just a framework, an idea about how to organize events in the story. It doesn't guarantee a good story, nor does it force us into writing a formulaic story, either.

    Scott: Plenty of current writers give lots of backstory, but I can't think of any that start off that way these days.

    Justus: Your prologue could be removed, reduced to three lines of dialog and then put into the scene where V first tries to kill D. I'm serious. I think it would have more impact there, too.

    TereLiz: If you fail to plan, you fail to...plan. No, wait. If you plan to plan,, that's not it. Anyway, I'm a big fan of outlining and knowing the long-range structure during the first draft.

    Rick: I have problems with your prologue. I think it cheats the reader out of the experience of discovering the story and the historical depth of the conflict; I think most prologues do this. Writers think prologues create mystery and tension, but in fact they do the opposite by revealing too much right off. I blame movies and TV for this. I'm also aware that prologues are common in genre fiction. That's no excuse. It just means that the bad habit is widespread, not that it's justified.

    Mariah: Run with it!

    Davin: Step Five is just reorganizing and cleaning up. What's wrong with having a system, anyway?

    I agree with you that sometimes you want to start with soup and salad and move on gradually to the richer, heavier foods. But sometimes you want to start with dessert, too. Like I said, it's just one way of structuring a narrative.

    Jill: I learn every day that I have more to learn about writing. At least we're learning, right?

    Robyn: I think that the type and purpose of our stories is a huge determinant of how we want to tell them. I've written one children's story, and I structured it the way other children's stories I'd read were structured. I think I did okay.

    Michelle (again): I sort of like the idea of a writer's cookbook, but I simultaneously rebel against the idea of writing to a formula. What to do?

  12. Scott, exactly. That's why I want to do a post on it. :)

  13. Nothing wrong with having a system. I just know that I myself am not good at it. I'll drop the ball. It's a shame, really.

  14. Davin: I have found that the more structured the process, the more unstructured and creative the writing that results. And if I don't structure the process, I spend a lot of time just flailing around, wondering what I'm trying to do and not getting it done. So, perhaps counterintuitively, the more organized I am, the more creative I can be. I know that doesn't work for everyone, but I find it liberating.

  15. Scott, I'm the same way. That's why Monarch failed the first time.

  16. Scott: I understand your position regarding prologues. What I've done is take a slice of the middle to set up the story, hinting at the history and also hinting at what's to come.

    You know that something happened, but not why. As I said in my prior comment, I could very easily just call it Chapter 1. The story moves directly forward, and later I reveal the backstory that preceded Chapter 1 [aka the prologue].

    Of course, I'll need to finish my re-write in order for anyone to judge it in its entirety, but I'm waking up early every day and working diligently toward that goal.

  17. This is fantastic advice. In my first novel, I really struggled with where to start. Since shelving it, I still don't know where to start. My subsequent novels have been easier, and it's because I started with the inciting event. Thanks!

  18. Well described. Your process is a great way to drop the reader right in the middle of things. I've torn away enough back story to write an entire novel with it.

    I can't let the Latin go unchecked... you know me and all my classical geekiness. It's really "in medias res." If you want all the reasons why I can explain them to you. I just thought you might like to know.

  19. Yup! One of my final revision steps is to cut 5-10k out of the total word count, and try to condense the first two-three chapters into one (and cut the prologue, obvs.) I'm a big fan of cut cut CUT!

  20. I can't seem to cut out my prologue, even though I keep hearing the advice to do so (not from anyone who has actually read it, just basic advice in blog forums).

    Should I turn it into Chapter One? Should I keep it and hope that people agree that it is necessary?

    I have written it as a nightmare which is driving my MC crazy. It will eventually reveal its significance at the climax of the novel.

    Plus, it is horrifying and disgusting, and was written with the intent to make people think, "What the f@$#? I must read further!"

  21. It could be, but there are certain pieces of the prophecy that wouldn't exist then. I need readers to explode with understanding once they read book #6,500 of the series: "Oracle prophesied this!! In the flippin' prologue of book one!!1" Bowman is king of the world."

    That last line's a must.

    Summsie: My prologue, while possibly removable, is (hopefully) much more than it seems.

  22. Justus: So, in other words, it's not important to the story, but it's important to you. I see. I think that's the deal with a lot of prologues: the author wants to be clever in an O. Henry sort of way.

    The deal with a lot of other prologues is that the author wants to set up mystery and tension for the reader, so he makes an unexplained reference to the central conflict of the book, thinking the reader will ask, "What's this? What's going on? I *must* find out!" I sort of did this myself in my first chapter, having my narrator say, "I have done terrible things; now I'll tell you about them" and expecting the reader to be intrigued. I have decided is that this is CHEATING, so I'm cutting all of that from my book's opening.

    Another thing people do in prologues is show some event from the past that explains the status quo at the beginning of Chapter One. This is just back-story. You don't start with back-story, so these clever and generally overwrought prologues must be stamped out.

    I have yet to see a prologue that isn't back-story, poorly-designed hook, or misguided cleverness. How did prologues become so popular? Is this some kind of reach for grandeur or literary status? I don't get it. Really I don't.

  23. Thanks for referring me here, Scott. Now I can breath a little relief.


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