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We start off with a high-tension scene. A fight. A police chase. An escape gone wrong. Then, we flash-freeze. We zoom in on the main character. Record scratch. “Yeah, that’s me,” the main character says in voice-over. “You’re probably wondering how I ended up in this situation. Let’s start at the beginning.” Sure, this record-scratch cliche is so pervasive, it’s earned meme status. But like all cliches, it caught on because it was effective. It’s the technique known as in media res, or starting the story in the middle of the key events. And while a record scratch might be cliche, the art of in media res is as timeless as storytelling itself.
- What Is In Media Res?
- In Media Res Examples in Writing
- Example of In Media Res in Movies and TV
- How to Use In Media Res in Your Writing
- Making In Media Res Work
What Is In Media Res?
They’re funky words, so let’s get clear about the in media res definition. From the Latin for “in the midst of things,” in media res refers to beginning a story at the height of the action. On the spectrum of major story-starting cliches, in media res is closer to “it was a dark and stormy night” than “once upon a time.”
Origin of In Media Res
Even though this technique has earned meme status among some critics, it has a long literary tradition. The Epic of Gilgamesh, for example, widely considered the oldest significant literary work in world history, opens in the middle of a god-king’s oppression.
As it turns out, even ancient storytellers needed to capture their audience’s attention in the first five minutes.
Translation of In Media Res
Let’s dive deeper into the in media res meaning. We know it means “in the midst of things,” but where did the phrase develop its storytelling significance? It’s a Latin phrase, tracing back to the poet Horace’s description of an ideal poet:
always he hurries to the action, and snatches the listener into the middle of things…
Perhaps most important is the first phrase: hurrying to the action. As writer Kurt Vonnegut once advised, storytellers should strive to begin their story as close to the end as possible. The rest is just backstory.
In Media Res Examples in Writing
It’s one thing to talk about opening a story with excitement. It’s another thing to execute it in practice. What about all of the other writing advice? What about building sympathy for your main character? What about establishing time and setting? What about all of the important context that tints your action with excitement?
Forget about it for the moment. The audience will get around to it. Instead, consider how some master storytellers have used in media res:
Literary Examples of In Media Res
- Homer’s The Odyssey opens with Odysseus already 10 years lost at sea. It’s only when he has a chance to settle and tell his story that we learn what’s gone on since the end of The Iliad and the Trojan War.
- Jeanne Cummings’ bestselling novel American Dirt begins in the middle of a violent cartel shooting as the main characters hide in a bathroom. The tale of how the cartel came to pursue these characters only comes in later flashbacks.
- Malcolm X’s Autobiography begins with members of the Ku Klux Klan surrounding Malcolm’s family home.
In every story, there is a temptation to begin from the very start. But skilled writers know that presenting us with excitement first gives readers a puzzle to work out. We have to ask two high-tension questions. First, how did the characters end up in this situation? And secondly, how will they get out of it? These are the key questions to ask with any suspenseful story.
Examples of In Media Res in Movies and TV
- Raiders of the Lost Ark: Lesser storytellers might have begun the story of Indiana Jones with a scene of him as a professor teaching a college class. Then, they might have cut to exposition about how Indiana ended up an archaeologist. But the memorable opening scene of Raiders of the Lost Ark instead has Indiana Jones dodging darts and booby traps in the Peruvian jungle. We’re hooked from the start.
- Breaking Bad: The pilot episode of Breaking Bad begins with its protagonist driving an RV through the desert, wearing a gas mask and underwear, and desperately trying to escape the police. How did the mild-mannered Walter White end up in this situation? It’s only after the credits that we find out.
- Goodfellas: Mafia classic Goodfellas starts out on a mysterious note: a highway, late at night, as three mobsters are drearily moving down the road. Then they hear something pounding in the trunk. What is it? Did they get a flat tire? Hit a raccoon? The opening scene’s violence then sets the tone for what will be a roller coaster through the life of the American mafia in the ’60s and ’70s.
Notice that in each example, the writers don’t ignore exposition and backstory. They simply leave it for later. A skilled storyteller knows when the context is important but only drops it at a time when it will serve as a contextual relief for the viewer or reader.
This isn’t to say backstory is never important. Director Denis Villeneuve’s recent adaptation of Dune has no problem using inventive storytelling techniques to drop in some much-needed context about the history of the planet Arrakis.
But good storytellers also remember that exposition is just one ingredient among many. Too much of it, and you risk overwhelming the recipe. If your goal is to keep readers reading, you should always think about how to capture—and hold—their attention.
How to Use In Media Res in Your Writing
In media res is almost always a good idea, especially if you have fish-out-of-water stories (Breaking Bad or Indiana Jones) or want to startle your reader by introducing them to a different world (American Dirt or Goodfellas). In fact, you should almost always consider this the best way to start your story unless you can think of something better.
So why don’t more stories do it? It’s effective, but it’s also tricky. The key to in media res isn’t starting in the middle of things. It’s in starting in the middle of things, but then also backtracking in a way that doesn’t slow the story to a crawl. Don’t think of in media res as a technique—think of it as a clever way to use storytelling devices to handle the problem of too much exposition.
The key to making this technique work is by considering how you’ll handle the exposition. Let’s look at some examples of how different storytellers have done it:
- As a framing device: 1994’s Forrest Gump technically starts in media res—the audience just doesn’t know it yet. True, the famous “Life is like a box of chocolates” scene is a framing device to tell the biography of Forrest Gump. But why is Forrest at that bus stop? We later learn he’s on his way to meet Jenny. He’s still in the middle of his story. Forrest Gump is a 20th-century American Odysseus, stopping temporarily to tell his tale. 1984’s Amadeus works in a similar way, using the inciting event of Salieri’s suicide and subsequent confession to explain how he arrived at this point.
- As a character study: David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia begins with the death of T.E. Lawrence and subsequent funeral to establish how enigmatic its protagonist is. The movie then zips back in time to before T.E. Lawrence earned his nickname.
- As a tone-setter: Goodfellas uses its violent opening scene to contrast with the glitzy, glamorous appeal of the mafia in its early sections. But by starting the movie in the gritty, headlight-glare darkness of Henry Hill’s world, the first off-screen narration (“As far back as I can remember, I always wanted to be a gangster”) takes on a tone of dramatic irony.
Making In Media Res Work
Ask any child the classic way to begin a story, and they’ll know right away: “Once upon a time.” Any self-respecting fairy tale starts at the very beginning, establishing the characters and the setting so we’ll know all the context before the first important action.
But it’s not necessary. What is necessary is to create intrigue, establish a thrilling tone, and build a narrative structure that packs on just as much excitement as it does context. The more you practice it, the more you’ll discover there’s no other place to begin a story but in “the midst of things.”
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