NARRATIVE TECHNIQUES

Do You Know What Means Starting ‘In Medias Res’?

As writers, you have to grab your readers’ attention from the very first lines of your story.

Andrea Feccomandi
5 min readAug 16, 2023
Foto di Jonas Jacobsson su Unsplash

In this era of smartphones, a very tough war is fought to get our attention (and sell us something). So, as writers, we, too, have to grab the attention of our readers from the very first lines of our story.

To achieve this, an ancient but always effective storytelling technique is in medias res.

By starting a story in the middle of the action, the reader or viewer is instantly drawn into the narrative, eager to discover how the events unfold. It creates a sense of urgency and curiosity, compelling the audience to keep reading or watching.

The Significance and History of ‘In Medias Res’

In medias res, a Latin term meaning “in the midst of things,” is a narrative technique that involves starting a story in the middle of the action or at a crucial point, rather than at the beginning.

The use of in medias res can be traced back to ancient Greek and Roman literature, where it was employed in epic poems such as Homer’s “Iliad” and “Odyssey.”

It continued to be utilized throughout the centuries, with notable examples in Shakespeare’s plays and the works of renowned authors like Virginia Woolf and Ernest Hemingway.

Even today, this technique is commonly used in literature, film, and other forms of storytelling to create intrigue, captivate the audience, and maintain their interest throughout the narrative.

Plunging the audience directly into the story’s heart, in medias res, sets the stage for a thrilling and engaging storytelling experience.

The benefits of using ‘In Medias Res’ in storytelling

Using in medias res in storytelling offers several benefits:

  1. Immediate engagement. By starting in the middle of the action, you immediately engage your audience and create a sense of anticipation. This can be particularly effective in genres that rely on suspense and mystery.
  2. Enhanced pacing. In medias res allows you to maintain a fast-paced narrative, keeping the audience hooked and eager to find out what happens next. This can prevent a story from becoming stagnant or losing the audience’s interest.
  3. Gradual revelation of backstory. In medias res allows for the progressive unveiling of character stories and development, as the audience pieces together the events leading up to the current moment. This adds depth and complexity to the storytelling, making it more engaging.
  4. Exploration of non-linear narratives. In medias res opens the doors to explore non-linear narratives, flashbacks, and other unconventional storytelling techniques. This can add layers of complexity and depth to your story, making it more intriguing and memorable.

Tips for Incorporating ‘In Medias Res’ Into Your Storytelling

Here are some tips to help you effectively incorporate in medias res technique in your storytelling:

  1. Start with a compelling scene. Choose a scene that grabs the audience’s attention and sets the tone for the rest of the story. This could be a moment of conflict, a pivotal decision, or a significant event that will hook the audience from the beginning.
  2. Provide context gradually. While starting in the middle of the action, it’s essential to provide enough context and backstory to help the audience understand the significance of the events. Gradually reveal the necessary information through dialogue, flashbacks, or other narrative devices.
  3. Maintain narrative momentum: Once you’ve captured the audience’s attention with an exciting opening, it’s crucial to maintain the momentum throughout the story. Keep the pacing tight, introduce new conflicts and challenges, and continuously engage the audience with unexpected twists and turns.
  4. Balance exposition and action. As you gradually reveal the events leading up to the present moment, find a balance between providing necessary exposition and maintaining a sense of action and momentum. Too much exposition can slow down the pacing, while too little may leave the audience confused.

To start in the middle of a story avoids the problem of how to begin.

John Steinbeck

Common Mistakes to Avoid When Using the ‘In Medias Res’ Technique

While in medias res can be a powerful narrative technique, there are some common mistakes to avoid:

  1. Lack of clarity. Ensure your audience can understand the context and follow the story even when starting in the middle of the action. Provide enough information to orient them without overwhelming them with exposition.
  2. Overuse of flashbacks. While flashbacks can be a useful tool for revealing backstory, relying too heavily on them can disrupt the flow of the narrative. Use flashbacks sparingly and ensure they serve a purpose in advancing the story.
  3. Neglecting character development. Starting in the middle of the action doesn’t mean neglecting character development. Take the time to explore your characters’ motivations, desires, and conflicts, even as you dive into the story's heart.

Examples of Successful Use of ‘In Medias Res’ in Literature and Film

Numerous literary works and films have successfully employed in medias res technique to captivate their audiences.

F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Great Gatsby”. The novel starts with the protagonist, Nick Carraway, attending a party at Gatsby’s mansion, throwing the reader directly into the lavish and mysterious world of the story. By starting in medias res, Fitzgerald creates an immediate sense of intrigue and sets the tone for the rest of the novel.

Joseph Heller’s “Catch-22”. The novel starts in the middle of the story, immersing the reader into World War II's chaotic and absurd world. The fragmented narrative structure mirrors the confusion and disorientation experienced by the characters, creating a powerful and thought-provoking reading experience.

Orson Welles’ “Citizen Kane”. The movie begins with the death of the titular character, Charles Foster Kane, and then explores his life through a series of flashbacks and interviews. This non-linear structure adds depth and complexity to the story, allowing the audience to piece together the puzzle of Kane’s life.

Christopher Nolan’s “Memento”. The movie begins with the main character, Leonard Shelby, waking up after suffering a head injury, immediately immersing the audience in his disoriented and fragmented state of mind. Through a non-linear narrative structure, the film gradually reveals the events leading up to the present moment, keeping the audience engaged and guessing until the very end.

Conclusion

In medias res is a powerful narrative technique that can transform your storytelling by immediately capturing your audience's attention and creating a sense of excitement and anticipation.

By starting your story in the middle of the action, you can engage your readers or viewers from the very beginning and maintain their interest throughout.

Like what you are reading? To see my stories pop up on your feed, I’d love for you to follow me (Andrea Feccomandi).

--

--

Andrea Feccomandi

Dad, Husband, Booklover, Software Engineer, CTO, Author of the Novel Writing Software bibisco (bibisco.com) and The Warm Lasagna Newsletter (bit.ly/45yzQcD).