Friday, July 30, 2010

Literary Devices Part 5: In Medias Res


I have a local writing friend to thank for this one.

When I started writing poetry and fiction, my wise professor-friend Todd told me to remember the technique of "in medias res", latin for "in the middle of things."

One one level, plot-wise, it's about starting a story in the middle of things, not at the beginning. Classically, the Iliad is the example often cited, as it spans a few weeks in the last year of Trojan war, instead of starting at the beginning.

In poetry, for me at least, it's about bringing the reader right into the meat of the emotion or experience I'm trying to portray. Sometimes it's also about writing from within, as opposed to as an outsider.

In medias res has the ability to capture us by the throat with the first line and not let go.

Have you tried this technique, or like it in stories?

35 comments:

The Alliterative Allomorph said...

Well, I guess so as I'm always told to start where the conflict begins, and I guess something has to happen before that, so tehnically the conflict starts somewhere in the middle. Right?

Erinn said...

I rewrote my opening chapter to be in the middle of some action. for a while I struggled with a hook and now I think I've got it.

It's a little bit more fun to write too.

Vicki Rocho said...

I think I did...but it's open to interpretation. I could pick several *other* spots later on to start the action, and with a little juggling, they would work just as well. We'll see!

B.E. Sanderson said...

It depends on the story for me. In several of my other books, I drop the reader right into the middle. In others, I did a little build up before the main plot got cooking. In this WIP, the first incarnation started in the middle of the action, and then in the rewrites, I added some lead in - because those first scenes add to the story and are important later.

One thing I hate as a reader is when the author drops me into the action so deep that I have no idea what's going on - and no one reason to care why all these characters are doing anything. Other than that, I'm good with most ways to start a book. =o)

Alexandra Crocodile said...

I remember learning about this in school! I almost always start myu story in the middle - usually the first murder has already ocurred, and the detective has just been telephoned...

btw - I see that you're plugging contests on your sidebar. I have a contest going at my blog, so if you want to add that I'd be really grateful!

Liza said...

As I read this post, I thought about my current project and how starting in the middle might get some engines reving. Hmmm...

Holly Ruggiero, Southpaw said...

I did this with my current work but didn’t like it and ended up rewriting the whole beginning. It just didn’t work for this piece. It needed to build.

Jaydee Morgan said...

I'm not usually a fan of being dropped into the middle of something without any knowledge whatsoever - but I have seen times where it works. For me, I prefer a small build-up/intro before being thrown into the action.

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

Not told in so many words! I like a build-up, although I was instructed to write a short prologue for my book so it did begin with the action.

aspiring_x said...

interesting thought. when i read i like this sometimes, but usually i like to get to know characters a bit before all the dire starts coming down.

Matthew Rush said...

Great post Lydia! I was fully aware of this in fiction but had never thought of it in reference to poetry. Great point.

Today's guest blogger is Rose Cooper!

T.D. Newton said...

I thought you were talking about me for a second, since I posted about this not too long ago. Haha. I'm most definitely not a professor, though.

I guess I always thought in medias res applied either only to scenes or mostly to scenes. It was just a given that something was already happening at the beginning of the story, itself, since otherwise there'd be no point in starting it (or starting it at that point). I can't speak to the poetry angle, but that is very interesting to apply the same concept.

Great post, and concise!!

patti said...

Girl, you are over my head with this one. I am still digesting a book my agent insisted i read, "The Moral Premise." And it's sllllowwwly sinking in.

Sluggish in Normal

Tricia J. O'Brien said...

Where to start is such a tricky thing. I tried what I thought was in medias res by beginning one novel with a tense action scene, only to have several editors at a conference tell me I hadn't given enough up front for them to know the character and care about this situation she was in. So back to the drawing board on that one.
On the current novel, I've tried four different opening points so far. One was too slow, one too melodramatic. Hopefully, I've found the right one--the event that begins to totally overturn her life.

storyqueen said...

It is hard to know where to begin a story....but I agree with Tricia. I try to start at the event which causes everything else to happen.

(Sometimes, though, it is hard to find.)

Shelley

Rachna Chhabria said...

I am trying it in my current WIP. Read about this technique somewhere and decided to use it. My first chapter went for a thorough makeover.
But, hopefully it has become more interesting.

Jemi Fraser said...

I like using this technique to start a story, as long as it's pretty easy to get grounded in the scene - you don't want the reader feeling lost.

Jolene Perry said...

I do like it in stories, but the writer better be good enough to keep me interested while I learn about why I should care.

Tahereh said...

oooh how interesting!!

Krispy said...

This is good advice! I think that "in the middle of things" doesn't necessarily mean you drop your reader in the fray of an action scene from the start. I think like others have already said that we have to make sure we start where the conflict starts - with the triggering event that gets the story going rather than too much lead up into that.

Bathwater said...

One of my favorite authors, Glen Cook often starts his novels this way. It can be a bit disconcerting at first but it gives the world depth and the sense that the author knows their world.

Lindsay (a.k.a Isabella) said...

Yes. I cut two chapters from my MS because it didn't get right into the action. I ended up starting in the middle of a scene. It works so much better now. :)

Melissa said...

Well... I guess mine starts at the beginning....which isn't the middle but, I mean, it sort of needs to start there. Fantasy world needs to be explained and all that.

Now this is going to bug me though. Darn.

Lydia Kang said...

Hey Melissa,
(and others)

I don't mean that ALL stories should start in medias res. It's just one technique, food for thought. Sometimes it works spectacularly well, but other times, not.

So don't fret! It may not be the right thing for your story!

Hugs,
Lydia

Munk said...

I love these device posts! After reading some comments (past and present), I want to make an observation of mine own... it is in fact because I suffer from this "hindsight malady" that I can relate.
As writers I think it is important to remember that there are always exceptions to the rule. In the case of In Media Res I can think of many... most notably, the Bible, (gospel or not, it is still a book).
Devices aren't agreed upon requirements or recipes for all stories, they are themes that people have learned to relate to over time. They often describe a certain cadence of communication and can enhance our reading/listening experience. Use them to your advantage, but don't necessarily scold yourself for not (I am speaking from experience).
Think of it this way, Chekhov didn't invent his gun, he merely pointed at it and described how one might use it. Devices represent a distillation of techniques, the correct blend of devices is what we are after.

Carol Kilgore said...

Love it in stories.
Trying to master it in all its forms in my own writing.

Terri Tiffany said...

I have liked it in some stories and in others I prefer to get to know my characters and work into them:)

The Words Crafter said...

I'm working (sort of) on my first book. In the process I've killed all the backstory....and lately, I've wondered about how far forward to start the beginning....with the poetry, no such trouble....

The Words Crafter said...

I was reading through your blog (love medical Mondays) and-I must have watched that same show with the zombie ants-eeewww! There's another insect that gets it...it stays on the ground. Shiver. I also re-read lots of books. Sometimes, according to season, either because of when I first encountered it or because some stories 'feel' better during certain times....I do often have to buy new copies of my favs because I lend them out and never get them back.

Susan Fields said...

I recently get rid of the first chapter of my wip, so now its beginning is much more in media res. It was difficult, but the beginning is so much better now.

Slamdunk said...

Thinking about it I have dabbled with this approach in describing some of my old police stories through writing.

I should practice it more often and see what the results are.

Abby said...

Did they do this in Inception? Starting it near to the end, rather, and people were confused/curious and it built suspense? Or was that just a flashforward... hmm. I liked it a lot, though.

DL Hammons said...

I've done this in both my books. I've always felt that as a mystery writer I need the reader not too focus in one direction, and if you start at the beginning then the only direction they see is forward.

Heather said...

I like jumping right into the heart of things too. Most of my books don't start at the beginning of an incident but at the beginning of my protagonists part in the incident.

Nicole Murray said...

Every story does have a beginning, but in the thick of things is the best place to start.

I didnt know the term for my favorite literary device. Thank you.

 
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