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Beginning a Novel “In Medias Res”

Last Updated: March 7, 2021

In Medias Res is Latin and means “in the middle of things”. It’s a widely used literary term for a novel that cuts straight to the action.

Here’s how the dictionary defines it…

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

“Preamble” can make the difference between a reader buying the novel or not, or a publisher accepting it or not. So cutting it out altogether is certainly something to consider.

Dart hitting bullseye, demonstrating in medias res, or in the middle of things.

If you’ve read the article on Plotting the Novel’s Beginning, you’ll know that an opening consists of three stages…

  1. Begin with the status quo. This means introducing the central character and showing them going about their everyday life.
  2. The static situation is then disrupted by “something happening”. The result of this disruptive event is that the character now has a goal.
  3. After a possible period of hesitation, the character makes a decision to act.

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

  1. You begin with the “something happening”. The boy meets the girl. A body is discovered and the detective is called to investigate. The aircraft develops engine trouble at 30,000 feet.
  2. Next, you backtrack to show how things were. The boy was all miserable and alone. The detective was planning a quiet night in. 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.

Beginning a Novel at the Beginning

There’s no rule that says you have to begin a novel in medias res. You could start with the status quo, when nothing exciting is happening, and hook the reader is some other way. For example…

You could use such brilliantly-crafted prose, full of well-chosen details, that the readers are gripped by the beauty of the language alone. (This may work in literary fiction.)

Or you could introduce the readers to such a compelling central character, such a great guy or gal to hang out with, that they will be perfectly willing to put up with a few pages of nothing exciting happening. Again, this is more likely to hook literary fans than genre fiction fans.

You could begin with “nothing happening”, but hint that something dramatic will take place very soon.

So in the troubled airplane story, for example, 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. Nothing is happening yet. Nut it’s clear that something is about to go terribly wrong.

However you manage to hook readers in a novel that does not begin in medias res, keep the opening brief. Even in literary and mainstream fiction, readers will only wait so long before something exciting triggers the central plot.

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 the idea of how in medias res works here and now, here’s an example from one of my own novels in progress. It’s called Beth and Ben Joe and it’s basically a love story. (No prizes for guessing what the two main characters are called!)

It’s Beth’s eyes that we’re looking through as the novel begins. Here’s a chronological summary of the three opening steps…

1) The Status Quo

Beth is a shy, lonely woman who is beginning to think she’ll 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’ll have to do something to find love one day. But there is no pressing need to act immediately.

2) Something Happens 

She meets Ben Joe and falls in love.

Now she does have a pressing need to act. If she doesn’t try to win Ben Joe, she’ll lose him.

3) She Decides to Act

After a period of hesitation, fuelled by shyness and self-doubt, she finally makes the decision to try to achieve her goal.

But I didn’t begin the novel chronologically. A few pages of showing a shy, lonely woman going about her everyday life lacked bite (even for non-genre fiction). So I started the novel in medias res.

Here’s 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.

True, it’s not an all-guns-blazing kind of opening. But it doesn’t need to be because it’s mainstream fiction, not an action thriller.

And as far as the rules of plotting go, it does what it needs to do. It disrupts the protagonist’s status quo and provides her with a goal.

Having started just as the action is kicking off, the next step is to backtrack to show how things were before. How, precisely, do you make this backwards transition in time? Here’s 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 – a successful transition back in time. The second chapter then describes her carrying on with her ordinary life, just like it had been the novel’s opening scene.

By the end of the chapter, the narrative catches up with the point where the novel started (i.e. the flower shop meeting). 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. 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. Where she lived, what her previous boyfriends were like, stuff like that.

If I hadn’t had so much explaining to do, I could have started in medias res and not bothered to go back.

Any background information I needed to get across, I could have worked into the unfolding story in bite-sized chunks. I could have had her think about something that happened yesterday, for example, or have her tell another character about her previous relationships.

Wrapping Up

If you’re still unsure how to open your novel, you have three options…

  1. Start at the beginning and follow the three opening steps in order.
  2. Begin with action (the disruptive event). Then use the second chunk of the opening to head back in time and show the way things were.
  3. Begin the novel in medias res but do not bother going back at all. If you have very little to explain and no real need to show the way things were, you can begin “in the middle of things” and keep right on going.

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 you’ve written the opening chapters. It’s easy enough at a later stage to juggle the opening chapters and create an in medias res beginning.

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