In medias res

Not every story needs to start at the beginning, and sometimes it's useful for a storyteller to begin their tale in the middle of things. By starting a story with action or complication the audience is (hopefully) hooked from the outset and interested to discover how this initial action or complication came about, something a storyteller can fill in with back-story. This narrative technique is often called in medias res, a term coined by the Roman poet Horace, and can be found in many novels, poems, short-stories, and films.

Perhaps the most famous example is The Iliad by Homer. The narrative begins in the middle of the Trojan War and complicates matters from the outset by telling of a division in the Greek camp -- a quarrel between King Agamemnon and Achilles. It is then through back-story the reader learns the history of the principal characters and how they came to be at war with Troy. You will probably recognize this same narrative technique in the Star Wars saga, which begins with episode IV as Darth Vader nears completion of the Death Star. The television program Lost can also be thought of as in medias res, with the plane crash in the first episode opening the action, and the story of the characters being explored as the series progresses. Each Lost episode also employs a kind of "in the middle of things" technique called a cold open.

If you are interested in trying out a narrative that opens in medias res, don't worry about having to write an epic like The Iliad or a whole TV series like Lost. This literary technique also works well in shorter works like poems, drama, and short stories.