In the classical sense of the term, “in media res” refers to the technique of beginning a story at an advanced point in the plot. As you write, you fill in the details, eventually reaching the point at which you began the story. Beginning a story “in media res” is a great way to instantly grab your readers’ attention. Starting in the middle of things creates instant intrigue because your reader wants more information. It allows you to explain details and background information later.
Beginning a story “in media res” may mean that you tell your story in a series of flashbacks, revisiting the opening scene at a later point in your story. Starting in the middle is a good technique to apply not only to plot structure, but also to your opening scenes.
Beginning in the middle of a scene—jumping into the action without explanation, or focusing on a small detail before expanding to the larger scene—is especially captivating. Check out these examples.
You could begin your story with a description of the scene, such as in the following opening:
“Ms. Partridge never left her bell unattended. It always sat mere inches away from her quick fingers.”
Or, you could begin your story in the middle of the action:
“The bell rang out, shrill and menacing in Ms. Partridge’s quick fingers.”
The second sentence begins with an action and a sound. Already, your reader has a reason to want to know what will happen next.
If you want to start by introducing your character, zoom in on one particular feature or characteristic of that person.
You could write this sentence:
“Mel didn’t like birthdays. She spent the whole of her party combing her hair with her fingers and staring blankly at her phone.”
Now, imagine zooming in to examine one specific object or scene and then broadening the scene. For example, instead of beginning the story with the previous general observation about Mel, you could choose to focus on one particular thing about her.
“Mel’s eyes stared blankly back at her, reflected in the shiny, black screen of her phone. She hated birthdays.”
Already, you have drawn attention to Mel’s state of mind, focusing on her “blank eyes.” Not only do we know that she hates birthdays, but also we realize that she is unhappy. It’s an intriguing beginning.
Jumping into the middle of a conversation is also a good way to hook your reader in the beginning.
A “typical” introduction would be to start a story by leading into the conversation, such as in this example:
“Sarah and I were always arguing over whose turn it was to do laundry. Her excuses were elaborate, and, I believed, premeditated.”
Now remove the first person narration and begin in the middle of a conversation:
“It’s your turn; I know it is,” I said, gesturing to my roommate with a dirty sock. “This is getting out of control.”
“You know I have that thing today,” she said.
“I promised Sol I’d help him mulch his flower beds. His back’s getting really bad.”
I actually laughed out loud. She was getting so good at excuses.
This second example is a more attention-grabbing opening, and also gives the reader an immediate sense of the relationship between the narrator and her roommate.
Often, it’s tempting to want to lead into your story, providing reader with a background and details for your story. However, this is not an especially interesting way to begin. Your readers may get bored and give up reading. Starting in the middle of the plot, a scene, or a conversation is an excellent way to thrust your reader into your story immediately.
Eithne Amos, Writer and Editor, Asta Publications
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