The key is the “without any introduction” part. In medias res openings begin in the thick of an emotionally charged moment. They present the effect first, then backtrack to explain the cause.
This article originally appeared at howtowritelike.com.
Fairy tales don’t do in medias res. Neither do breaking news stories in the New York Times or the Old Testament.
“Once upon a time, in a great forest, there dwelt a poor woodcutter with his wife and his two children. The boy was called Hansel and the girl Gretel.”
“At least 50 people, including seven children, were killed in western Kenya when a bus swerved off a road, rolled down a slope and crashed, ripping off the roof, an official said on Wednesday.”
“In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth. And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters. And God said, Let there be light: and there was light.”
Contrast these backstory-laden, slow to ramp up beginnings with the first sentence of One Hundred Years of Solitude.
“Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendía was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.”
By starting in the middle of a highly charged scene, Gabriel García Márquez follows K.M. Weiland’s advice about in medias res: “Cut the throat clearing [and] get right to the good stuff.”
In medias res is easy to do — too easy, in fact. The trick is, it’s hard to do well.
How to write a bad in medias res opening
There’s some confusion among aspiring writers about in medias res versus the natural starting point of a story. Skipping unnecessary backstory is not in medias res. A popularly cited example of in medias res, the opening of The Divine Comedy (a.k.a. Dante’s Inferno), is not actually in medias res.
“Midway upon the journey of our life
I found myself within a forest dark,
For the straightforward pathway had been lost.”
Dante begins the story with a description of the protagonist’s current situation, introduces the main conflict, then lays out the choice that the plot hinges upon (to take a guided tour of hell and save his soul … or not). What the protagonist was doing before this moment, including the specific sins that led him off “the straightforward pathway,” is irrelevant.
To make his opening in medias res, Dante would have been obliged to open his story much later in the action — in the fourth circle of hell, for example, where we find the following lines:
“‘Pape Satan, Pape Satan, Aleppe!’”
Thus Plutus with his clucking voice began;
And that benignant Sage, who all things knew,
Said, to encourage me: “’Let not thy fear
Harm thee; for any power that he may have
Shall not prevent thy going down this crag.’”
This, however, would have been a terrible choice, as it’s a bad in medias res opening.
A bad in medias res opening tests the reader’s patience by withholding crucial information about a situation and characters they don’t care about yet. Who is Plutus? Who’s the Sage? Where is this scene taking place? Why is the protagonist trying to go down a crag — and why is he afraid? What is happening???
TV Tropes lays out the in medias res writer’s good faith impulse gone wrong thusly: “The writer just can’t wait to get started, so he throws the reader in at the deep end and expects them to figure things out on the way. … The writer [is] attempting to avoid including too much exposition in the opening; unfortunately they don’t always remember that there’s a lot of room between ‘too much exposition’ and ‘no exposition at all.’”
One of the worst examples of in medias res can be found on the first page of the crowd-sourced YA-satire-cum-Cthulhu-romance-novel Awoken, concocted by YouTuber Lindsay Ellis. Though intentionally awful, it captures all the worst features of in medias res: unclear characters, an ill-defined setting, confusing action, and absolutely no stakes for the reader. Also, maybe it’s just a dream?
“The preternatural landscape was descended upon by fog. Everything around me was hidden in misty grey. Even my own senses seemed distant, as if someone else were feeling for me. I stood on stone, ankle-deep in shallow water.”
When you force your readers to interest themselves in an irrelevant mystery that’s only a mystery because you refused to provide basic information, you risk losing them before they finish the first paragraph.
How to write a good in medias res opening
1. Hook the reader with an emotionally-charged mystery
One of the best in medias res openings I’ve ever read is found in The Virgin Suicides by Jeffrey Eugenides.
“On the morning the last Lisbon daughter took her turn at suicide — it was Mary this time, and sleeping pills, like Therese — the two paramedics arrived at the house knowing exactly where the knife drawer was, and the gas oven, and the beam in the basement from which it was possible to tie a rope.”
Eugenides presents the reader with a compelling question: Why did all the daughters in a family kill themselves? To answer it, they must keep reading.
2. Be clear and concise
Vladimir Nabokov deploys an extremely simple yet intriguing in medias res opening in his novel Lolita.
“Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul. Lo-lee-ta: the tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth. Lo. Lee. Ta.”
Nabokov hints at the salacious elements to come and invites the reader to participate in the sensual act of pronouncing the name “Lolita.” Don’t throw a complex situation that takes place in an unclear setting with a cast of dozens at your reader right off the bat. Start with a moment that is easy to grasp, like pronouncing a name, and invite the reader to experience it with you.
3. Cut to the chase — but make sure your reader knows who’s chasing whom
“Little Charlie Manson was a disagreeable child.”
Author Jeff Guinn knows that his readers are already aware of who Charles Manson was and what he did before they pick up his 2013 biography, Manson: The Life and Times of Charles Manson. Citing famous people, specific locations, and universal emotions are effective elements to include in an in medias res opening.
What are your favorite in medias res openings? Share them with me on Twitter.