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What Is In Medias Res?
In medias res is a latin phrase meaning “in the midst of things.” It’s used as a literary term to describe when a story opens with the character already in the middle of things—whether it’s a high octane car chase or a group of friends’ discovery of a dead body, this narrative technique captures the audience’s attention, bringing them front and center into the fray.
4 Examples of In Medias Res
In medias res is seen in various forms of entertainment media—literature, television, movies, video games—a beginning that sets up intrigue is a story that will keep audiences watching. Some notable examples of in medias res are:
- Homer’s narrative poem The Iliad. Within the first lines, the reader is dropped directly into the ongoing events of the Trojan War, seeing the action unfold between the warring Greeks and Trojans. There’s kidnapping, bribery, plagues, and death, all contained within the initial first scenes.
- When Homer’s epic poem The Odyssey begins, we are already 10 years post-Trojan War. The main character, Odysseus, is being held captive by the goddess Calypso, while a gang of suitors back in his homeland has set its sights on Odysseus’s wife, Penelope. After the exciting setup draws the audience in and gives them a preview of what’s to come, the rest of the story unfolds, leading us through the events that landed our characters where they are now. Exposition is delivered via a series of flashbacks, providing necessary backstory and important storyline details along the way.
- Dante Alighieri’s narrative poem The Divine Comedy. Starting the protagonist off in the middle of a dark wood with no explanation for how he got there or why, the reader, sharing in the confusion, immediately feels for this character, and wants him to find answers. This creates an emotional investment for the audience, who will continue to read in hopes that the hero figures out how to escape his current predicament.
- In medias res is often used outside of literature, in television and film. For example, in the opening scene of Vince Gilligan’s Breaking Bad, viewers are thrust into the unforgiving New Mexico landscape with the soon-to-be infamous Walter White (inexplicably in only his underwear) as he hastily drives an RV through the desert. When it comes to a stop, he hurries out of the vehicle, throws on his shirt, and by the time we reach the end of the cold open, he is pointing his gun at the sound of approaching sirens. That is a high-adrenaline opening that hooks an audience, and keeps them interested even through the not-so-exciting parts, in anticipation of finding out how that initial titular moment came to be, and what’s going to happen at the end of the story.
3 Tips for Using In Medias Res in Your Story
The following guidelines can help you incorporate in medias res into your story:
- Begin with the middle. Choose a climactic moment, conflict, argument, fight, revelation—anything that denotes some chain of events have occurred in this world leading up to the pivotal moment.
- Inject your backstory. If you start your story in the middle, the audience will eventually need to be caught up on who these characters are, and what is happening. Relevant info can be delivered via flashbacks, switches in POV, or through dialogue—but there’s a balance every writer must find when providing just enough information to the reader for them to understand the current situation without dumping a trove of lore on them.
- Make it urgent. The scene you choose to open with should be a crucial, high-stakes moment for the main characters of your story, and integral to the plot. The audience should be on the edge of their seats seeing this event transpire, wondering how and why it happened, and eager to know if it’s all going to work out for the heroes.
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