Beginning a Novel "In Medias Res"

In Medias Res is Latin and means "in the middle of things." It's a widely used literary term for a novel or story that cuts out that quiet initial period when nothing much is happening. Instead, the novel begins when the action is already underway.

Here's how the dictionary defines it...

In Medias Res, adverb, into the middle of a narrative; without preamble.

Preamble in a novel can make the difference between a book browser buying it or not, or a publisher accepting it or not - so cutting it out altogether is certainly something to consider.

If you have read the article on Plotting the Novel's Beginning, you will know that an opening consists of three stages...

1) You begin with the status quo - which means introducing the central character and showing them going about their everyday life.

2) This static situation is then disrupted by "something happening."

3) This results in the character having a goal and making the decision to act.

Beginning in medias res effectively flips the first two steps around...

  1. You begin with the "something happening" - with the boy meeting the girl, with the body being discovered and the detective being called, with the aircraft developing engine trouble at 30,000 feet.
  2. Next, you backtrack to show how things were - how the boy was all miserable and alone, how the detective was planning a quiet night in, how the pilot was looking forward to retirement after his final flight.
  3. Finally, you pick up the chronology again as the central character decides to act on their goal.

Starting a Novel Chronologically

Note that you don't have to begin a novel "in the middle of thins." There are plenty of other options...

  • You could start with the status quo and describe it in such brilliantly-crafted prose, full of well-chosen details, that the readers are gripped by the beauty of the language alone.
  • Similarly, you could introduce them to such a compelling central character, such a great guy or gal to hang out with, that the readers will be perfectly willing to put up with a few pages of zero action.
  • Another possibility is to begin with "nothing happening," but to hint that something dramatic will take place very soon. So in the troubled airplane story, you could have the pilot notice a faulty instrument or too much ice on the wings (or whatever) but decide to take off all the same.
  • The final thing you can do, if you don't want to begin in medias res, is keep the opening brief. In fact, you should do this anyway if you present your story chronologically. Never make the readers wait too long for something interesting to happen, however great a writer you are.

In Medias Res In Action

To learn how to use this technique in practice, simply pick a few novels off your shelves and read them - the odds are that a good proportion of them will begin "in the middle of things."

But to give you a good idea of how it works right here and right now, I want to quote to you from a novel I am currently working on.

The novel is called Beth and Ben Joe and it is basically a love story. (No prizes for guessing what the two characters are called!)

The leading character is Beth - she is the one whose eyes we are looking through as the novel begins. Here is a chronological summary of the three opening steps...

  • Beth is a shy, lonely woman who is beginning to think that she will never meet the right man. This is her status quo, or the way things are for her just before the story begins. Her life is obviously not great, but her situation is nevertheless stable. She knows she will have to do something to find love one day, but there is no pressing need to act.
  • But then something happens: she meets Ben Joe and falls in love. Now she does have a pressing need to take action - if she doesn't try to win the boy, she will lose him.
  • After a period of hesitation, fuelled by shyness and self-doubt, she finally makes the decision to try to reach her goal.

But I didn't begin the novel chronologically. A few pages of showing a shy, lonely girl going about her everyday life lacked bite. So I started the novel in medias res.

Here is how it begins...

She first met him in the Harbour Street flower shop on a cold Christmas Eve. It was also the day she turned twenty-two. The boy looked younger, but not so young that Beth Cunningham didn't twist sideways in her chair to look twice. He was standing in the open doorway, kicking snow from his boots and digging in the right-hand pocket of his jeans for change. Beth watched him from the small office out back, the blood already pushing up her neck and spreading in her cheeks like wine.

The opening chapter of the novel goes on to describe Beth falling for Ben Joe in the flower shop.

So that has dealt with the second step of plotting a novel's opening: the "something happening."

It is not an all-singing and all-dancing opening, but it does what it needs to do - it disrupts the central character's status quo and provides her with a goal she must achieve if she wants stability in her life again.

Having started just as the action is kicking off, it is now time to backtrack to show how things were before. How, precisely, do you make this backwards transition in time?

Here is how Chapter 2 starts in my novel...

In the days and weeks to come, Beth would look back on the evening she fell in love in the flower shop with a sense of inevitability, or of fate fulfilled. Having put herself through all those woeful relationships with all those wrong boys, she would tell herself - not to mention the torment of having had no boyfriend at all for the past three years - it was only ever going to be a matter of time before the right boy walked into her life.
   But that was later. When the low December sun woke her at eight o'clock that Christmas Eve morning - just nine hours before her fateful encounter - the truth was that Beth was tired of trying to kid herself, as she always did on her birthday, that the coming year would finally be the one when her love life would rise above pitiful. Not that she was unhappy - not altogether. True, at twenty-two she was still a million miles from the life she had always imagined for herself, but she certainly didn't hate the life she was stuck with in the meantime. On her better days, she might even have told you she loved it.

And that is that. The second chapter then proceeds to describe her status quo - just as if it had been the first chapter.

By the end of the chapter, the narrative catches up with where the novel started. Chapter 3 then picks up from where Chapter 1 left off and the novel is back on track.

You might be wondering why there is any need to backtrack to show the status quo at all. Why can't you begin a novel in medias res and keep right on going?

Well, the answer is that you can.

In the case of my own novel, I chose to go back to show the way things were because I felt it was important to give a sense of what Beth's life was like before she fell in love.

Also, I had a lot of explanatory information I needed to get across - about where she lived, about her previous boyfriends, stuff like that.

If I hadn't had so much explaining to do, and if I had been writing a different kind of novel, one in which you don't need to know so much about the character's life before the story starts - like the pilot on the ill-fated airliner, say - I could have started in medias res and not bothered to go back.

Any background information I did need to get across, I could have worked into the ongoing narrative in bite-sized chunks - by having her think about something that happened yesterday, say, or having her tell another character about her previous relationships.

In summary, you have three options...

  1. You can begin your novel chronologically and follow the three opening steps in order.
  2. You can begin with action and use the second chunk of the novel to head back in time and show the way things were.
  3. You can begin the novel in medias res and not bother going back at all, except for the odd snippet of back story here and there.

Only you know the story you want to tell, so only you can decide on the right course.

Take my advice, though, and keep your options open until the opening chapters are written. It is easy enough at a late stage to juggle the opening chapters and create an in medias res opening.