What is in medias res? Well, there’s a rule of thumb in scene writing that you should cut right to the action. Meaning you get to the meat of the scene as soon as possible, the moment right before the conflict. This urgency is because most audiences don’t want to read a tedious setup.
In medias res is like using the concept of cutting right the action and applying it to your entire story, but not exactly. In this article, we will define in medias res, talk about where the concept originated, and look at some examples of in medias res in literature and film. We’ll also talk about how to use in medias res and even how to pronounce it! Let’s get into it.
What is In Medias Res?
In medias res refers to starting the story in the middle of the action rather than a natural starting point. Most stories will begin with the typical elements of exposition. The author of a narrative may describe characters and setting while building a history for their world. When using in medias res, the author will skip this exposition at the start of their story. They will begin their story in the midst of a pivotal scene, usually filled with action. Authors do this without giving the reader any context of who the characters are or what has happened in the plot to lead to this point.
Definition of In Medias Res
In medias res is a writing technique used by fiction authors. A writer will begin a story in the middle of the action assuming the reader is aware of the character’s backstory and previous events in the narrative. In medias res is a Latin term meaning “in the middle of things.”
What does In Medias Res mean?
In medias res is a Latin phrase meaning “in the midst of things,” or “in the middle of things.” A writer using in medias res will start their narrative right smack dab in the middle of the action. A story might open in the middle of a harried battle with three bloodied and broken friends readying themselves to charge the enemy.
Do we, the reader, know who these three friends are? No. Do we know anything about their history together? No. Do we even know what battle they’re fighting in? No. Are we interested in finding these things out? Hell yes!
In medias res is a way to hook a reader’s interest immediately because the writer has dropped them right into the story’s conflict. There is no slow build-up as readers patiently wait for something in the story to happen. And the beauty of in medias res is that a writer can still build backstory and exposition through flashbacks.
Often a story that employs in medias res will also use a non-linear plot as the author flashes backward, or even forward, in time to connect various plot points. The non-linear story is a subject that deserves its own post. That’s why I wrote an article on non-linear narratives that you can read here!
How to pronounce In Medias Res
Where did In Medias Res come from?
So, where does In Medias Res originate anyway? The technique was first described by the Roman poet Horace in his epistle, or informal letter, Ars Poetica.
In his work, Horace sets out to advise beginning poets on storytelling. A good poet, he claimed, “always hurries to the main event and whisks his audience into the middle of things as though they already knew.”
Examples of In Medias Res
In Medias Res Examples from Literature
Some of the best examples of in medias res come from epic poetry. And, when Horace described, “the poet” in his Ars Poetica he was talking about a specific poet- Homer. If you don’t know, Homer is the name of the ancient Greek poet who wrote the famous epics of The Iliad and its follow up The Odyssey. Both of these epic works begin, you guessed it, in medias res. So, let’s start with the epic poetry and move our way forward.
In Medias Res in The Odyssey
In Homer’s epic poem, The Odyssey, we begin the story in medias res. The Odyssey is the story of Odysseus as he journeys home after the sack of Troy. Rather than starting with the end of the Trojan War, the poem begins several years later as Odysseus is held captive by the goddess Calypso on her island.
Epic poetry often begins in medias res because these stories were originally recited to audiences. Ancient epic poems were not written down for hundreds of years after their inception. Starting with action allows a speaker to grab and hold their audiences’ attention. Let’s look at another example from Homer.
In Medias Res in The Iliad
The Iliad is the story of the war between the Greeks and the ancient city-state, Troy. However, the war had already raged for several years when the poem begins. The opening scene is a fight between the two Greek commanders, Achilles, and Agamemnon. Read the opening lines of this poem:
“Sing, Goddess, of Achilles’ rage,
Black and murderous, that cost the Greeks
Incalculable pain, pitched countless souls
Of heroes into Hades’ dark,
And left their bodies to rot as feasts
For dogs and birds, as Zeus’ will was done.
Begin with the clash between Agamemnon–
The Greek warlord–and godlike Achilles.”Homer, The Iliad
Notice there’s no word of backstory or exposition, just “black and murderous rage.” With an opening like that, Homer was sure to pique the interest of his listeners.
In Medias Res Examples from Film
In medias res is a widespread technique in modern filmmaking, and this is for the same reason Homer used it in his epics. Directors want to grab the audience’s attention from the first scene of their film.
There are tons of examples of films that begin “in the middle of things” across every genre. But, here are some famous examples of films that use in medias res:
- The Godfather Part I
- Pulp Fiction
- Raging Bull
- Lawrence of Arabia
- Citizen Kane
- Dr. Zhivago and many more!
But, I want to take a closer look at one example and talk about what the use of in medias res accomplishes in the context of a single film. Let’s watch and discuss the iconic opening scene of the 1996 metatextual slasher, Scream:
(don’t worry, this clip cuts off before any of the gory stuff)
So, in this clip, what does the director, Wes Craven, tell us without telling us? We get pretty much everything we need to know about this movie by jumping right into the action.
- there is a killer on the loose
- he prays on teenage girls
- he meticulously plans his murders and enjoys toying with his victims
- and this movie has a metatextual layer in which the characters comment on previous slasher films and even earlier films from the director, Wes Craven.
These critical details are packaged in an exciting and frightening action sequence that pulls the audience into the narrative.
Maybe your thinking this technique is a good way to open your story. You’re probably right! If it’s a good enough tool for storytellers like Homer, and Wes Craven then its got to be good enough for us to use. So, let’s go over a few tips on how to use in medias res.
How to use In Medias Res
Step 1: Choose a pivotal scene
Whatever scene you choose to begin your story should be important to your overall plot. Homer begins The Iliad with a fight between Achilles and Agamemnon. This argument is crucial to the plot. Homer even foreshadows its consequences in the poem’s opening lines.
Take an essential story beat, like the inciting incident or midpoint climax, and start the story there. This scene should have some emotional weight as well as consequences for the characters.
Take the example we watched above in Scream. You might consider the death of Drew Barrymore’s character, Casey, the inciting event of the movie. Her murder sets off a string of killings that make up the film’s entire plot. And while we don’t know Casey very well, the murder still delivers an emotional gut check.
As Casey’s fear and anxiety build, so does ours’. Because the film begins with Casey as the POV character, we assume she will play a prominent role in the plot. However, she dies quickly and violently, and this is the film telling us that no character is safe.
Step 2: Plot your story
If you’re going to start with a dramatic scene, you’ll need to know the context of the scene in your story. Plan out your story beats in chronological order so that you’ll know what the purpose of your opening scene is.
Like Scream, the film Memento opens with a murder. In Scream, the first murder we see is also the first event in the story chronologically.
However, in Memento, the first scene is chronically the last event in the plot. The film works backward through flashbacks to fill in the gaps for the audience. We call this a non-linear plot, as the events are not presented in chronological order. But, in order to tell their story this way the filmmakers had to know the actual order of events.
If you’re going to tell your story out of order or non-linear, you need to map out the story’s events in order first.
Many non-linear stories used in medias res, the two techniques sort of go hand-in-hand. These stories will open by showing the plot’s climax and then jumping around the film’s timeline to fill in the rest of the narrative. The best example of this is Pulp Fiction.
That brings me to my next point.
Step 3: Use non-linear plot elements
You don’t have to use a non-linear plot when starting a story in medias res but…
So what do I mean by non-linear elements? Well, the most common feature is a flashback. All you need to accomplish a good flashback is to start with a pivotal moment in your story then flashback to an earlier point before the character got into trouble in the first place.
So, if you start with two characters struggling for a gun, you might end the scene with a gunshot. Then flashback to those same characters enjoying a lovely Sunday brunch and sharing a hearty laugh. Then tell us the story of how these two people went from Sunday brunch to a violent gunfight.
Step 4: Cut right to the action
Whatever conflict you have planned for your opening scene, you should get to it as quickly as possible. You might open your scene with two characters struggling over a gun or in the middle of a passionate kiss. If the action is juicy enough, your audience won’t care that you haven’t told us anything about who these people are or the context of the scene. Readers will assume that you will fill in those blanks later, which you absolutely should.
Step 5: Get in & get out!
When beginning your story in medias res, you need to cut into the scene’s action at the latest possible moment. Now, please don’t cut it too late because you can mess this up.
Imagine Scream opening with Casey running across her lawn as a masked killer grabs her from behind and stabs her to death. Would that capture the audience’s interest? Sure, but would it be as good as the actual opening scene? No.
So, how do you know where to start your scene? You need to know what information about the scene you want to convey. Ask yourself:
- What do I want the reader to know about the plot?
- What do I want them to know about these characters?
- How can I convey that information through action?
Once you know the answers to those questions, you can cut into the scene late, get the required details across in an exciting way and leave the scene as abruptly as you started.
Let’s write the scene we talked about earlier!
Write a scene where two people are struggling over a gun. Through action, reveal details about the character that you think the audience needs to know.
When you’re finished with that scene, write a second scene that takes place one week earlier. Use the same two characters. They are sitting at a table, laughing and enjoying a meal together. What are they discussing?
Foreshadow the coming conflict.
Now plot out the events that would need to happen to get these two characters from a friendly meal to a violent struggle in one week.
That’s all for in medias res, but I encourage you to do some research on your own. And, if I were you, I would start by watching some of the movies listed above. After all, you can read all you want about a technique, but to fully understand in medias res, you need to see it in practice.
And since you’ve made it this far, I have a question for you? Are you writing your own story? Need help getting started? I’ve created plot and character templates designed to get your ideas out of your head and down on paper- FAST! I even have a step-by-step guide to writing your own hero’s journey plot! Check out my shop here.
Continued reading on in medias res: