Know the Technique: In Medias Res

It’s been a while since my last Know the Technique post, but since I’m finally getting back on my blogging schedule, I suppose it’s time to get back on schedule for these posts, too!

A slight recap for those who are new around here:

The Know the Technique are posts by me explaining both common and uncommon literary techniques. Most of my discussions on them are for novel length works, as I’m not the best at writing short stories. Generally speaking, I’ll list good and bad ways to take advantage of the technique, and I’m always open for questions clarifying anything that I’ve said.

The previous posts in the series are:

Deus Ex Machina

Clichés and Tropes

Cliffhangers

Now, let us begin with today’s post!

In Medias Res

Beginning the story “in the midst of things”, or when the action beings.

I actually really love it when a story uses In Medias Res. I haven’t picked up a new book in a while, so I’m not actually sure how common it is anymore, but I almost always find myself immediately immersed into a story that begins with something happening. Whether it’s something tragic, exciting, or just something in your character’s world or life getting flipped around, I like something happening in the first few paragraphs.

I don’t necessarily use this in Taichiren’s Heart, but  do use a subtle form of driving conflict from the first sentence. I hint at the conflict, and only give bits and pieces until the conflict becomes an actual issue for the main character. That said, however, there are lots of ways to correctly use In Medias Res, so my way isn’t “the best”, but I feel it’s what works for my story. Not all stories will benefit from this type of opening, but having something like this as a starting point can, generally speaking, be a good thing.

What ISN’T considered In Medias Res?

1. When your story beings with some kind of introduction or opening to your world/characters.

If the first thing you do is introduce the reader to your characters, you’re not using In Medias Res. Just remember it’s not necessarily a bad thing to do it either way, but if your first few paragraphs or your first chapter follows your character mostly through a typical day that turns awry, In Medias Res is absent. You could correct this by beginning the story right before your character’s day turns upside down, and introduce your character as they try to deal with the problem.

2. When the “action” that opens the story has no real relevance to the plot.

If something exciting opens your story, that’s all fine and dandy. But if it has nothing to do with your characters or their experiences, or even the plot, then is there really much point in adding it? I’ll put a disclaimer here: I don’t actually know whether it’s true or not, but I, as a reader and as a writer, find it annoying. If something exciting happens, I want to know more about it, not have it as an event that happens and disappears.

Tips for using In Medias Res:

1. Don’t force it to happen.

If it doesn’t seem natural, then your reader will know that it’s not. As the writer, it’s your job to judge whether something belongs or not. Is your story actually meant to start with an In Medias Res opening? If you don’t think so, then don’t try and make it happen. Of course, trying never hurts, though. Maybe you’ll learn something about your story that you didn’t know, even if you don’t end up using it.

2. Involve a character of significance.

I mentioned it before already, I think, but I love reading a story that opens with something exciting. It’s even better when that little something involves a character that’s important to the story. I like learning something about a character before I actually know them, because it gives me a different perspective of the character than when I get to know them before learning certain information. Of course, that information has to be something interesting, though, not something that the reader wouldn’t care about without knowing your character already.

What are your guys’ experiences with In Medias Res? Have you used it before, plan to, or can you think of any books that use it well?

~Erynn

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