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.

6 comments

the walking man said...

This narrative technique may be what I have looking for to move me off poetry. Been kind of stuck in the fiction genre for a bit now. I'll let you know if and when I post something.

February 23, 2010 at 5:46 AM
Harlequin said...

this is a great prompt.... I am already experiencing anticipatory delight.....

February 23, 2010 at 10:24 AM
Derliwall said...

I feel impelled to try this out. I need a bit of simmering time...

Thanks again for this collection of prompts; it really helps me focus on something specific.

February 25, 2010 at 5:45 PM
Tess said...

It may be that it's Friday and the week has been long, or that today is yet another grey day, but I find myself absolutely bested by the blank page, of late. I seem to have forgotten how to simply tell a story - I keep getting tangled into knots no matter how firmly I hold onto the thread.
I like this idea of jumping into the middle of a thing... in medias res even sounds more forgiving than 'begin at the beginning'. Is it ever possible to find the beginning of something?
Anyway, this might do the trick. I shall think it over, and attempt the application.

February 26, 2010 at 11:48 AM
Harlequin said...

Jon-- finally got something I am reasonably happy with in response to this prompt. Thanks for the ongoing inspiration.

April 2, 2010 at 11:46 PM
FishFace said...

Where are you (in terms of expressive)and will you be continuing ?

We all start in the middle

November 1, 2010 at 2:26 PM