The classic idea of a story opener is the “once upon a time” effect. It’s settling the reader in to hear a tale. This is popular in classic literature, like Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen: “It is a truth, universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must in want of a wife.”
That iconic first line sets up the premise of the book. Austen’s style often leans toward that type of storytelling–thorough explanations of our heroine, her surroundings, her current plights, matters of her family, and everything else before we even begin to get into the story itself. This is common in classic books, and is still a practice you’ll see in modern novels.
However, there’s a style of beginning a novel that is equally, if not more, popular than the “once upon a time” opener: in media res.
What is in media res?
“In media res” is a Latin phrase that means “in the midst of things.” In writing, we use the term to refer to a story that starts in the middle of some kind of action. The action could be an actual action sequence, but it could be a conversation we don’t have context for. “Action” as we’ll refer to it here, just means an active scene that’s happening without giving the reader context beforehand.
The classic story structure begins with an introduction. In media res, we skip it.
With the “once upon a time” structure, we would see some world set up, get introduced to our main characters, and we might even have a “day in the life” sequence where we see how everyone exists in their daily lives before the inciting incident.
If a story uses in media res, that means we skip over those establishing details and jump right into the story. We might begin with, or after, the inciting incident. We might be in a contextless action sequence and, as readers, have to figure out what’s going on along the way.
What effect does in media res have?
Stories that begin in media res often have an urgency to them. They usually suck a reader right into the story with something exciting or shocking. It doesn’t have to be a particularly intriguing scene, but it should be something that leads the reader to want to read more. When done well, the effect is to have your reader immediately interested to understand what’s going on.
It also establishes a trust with the reader, because the writer isn’t holding their hand. The writer is trusting their audience to pick up on what’s going on without having to have a proper introduction before being dropped right into the scene.
That said, there are effective and less effective ways to use in media res in your stories.
How to write in media res
Check out these tips on how to write in media res, step by step.
Start in the middle of something interesting and relevant to the rest of the book
Some new writers are prone to focusing too much on making their opening scene shocking and interesting that it makes the scene a bad opener. It should still be relevant and important to the story.
You want your scene to be pivotal, important, and ideally emotional.
You also want a scene that makes your readers want to understand more about the situation, characters, and universe.
Avoid info dumping
It’s often tempting to feed the reader too much information, just because we have it. When starting in media res, try to only describe what is happening. If we’re in a particular character’s POV, don’t emphasize anything that would be an everyday occurrence to them. It takes some clever doing, but avoid dumping information in your opening scene. Just give us enough to ground the reader, make what’s happening followable, and only describe what the character would be taking the time to notice.
Pay special attention to the first line
A good first line is essential. I’ll touch on these opening scenes later, but let’s look at a couple of examples of first lines:
- “The gunman was useless.” I Am the Messenger by Markus Zusak
- “When Red wins, she stands alone.” – This Is How You Lose the Time War by Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone.
- “It would be a sin, Elizabeth.” – Margrove from Starlight
Good first lines beg an immediate question. Why does someone have a gun, and who are they aiming it at? Who is Red, and what has she won? What sin is Elizabeth asking her to commit?
After reading each of these stories, going back and reading the first line holds a heavier meaning, which is exactly what you want. A good story can be read multiple times, peeling back a layer of understanding and depth with each read.
Drop the details only as they’re necessary
A strong way to avoid exposition is to withhold information until the reader absolutely must know it. Showing instead of telling is your friend here. Describe the world instead of explaining it. Have legitimate reasons for your characters to interact with each other and the environment so the reader can see through their eyes instead of hearing it from an outside narrator.
In media res examples
Let’s look into a bit more of those opening scenes from the three examples above.
I Am the Messenger by Markus Zusak opens in media res with our main characters held at gunpoint during a bank robbery.
The gunman is useless.
I know it.
He knows it.
The whole bank knows it.
Even my best mate, Marvin, knows it, and he’s more useless than the gunman.
The worst part about the whole thing is that Marv’s car is standing outside in a fifteen-minute parking zone. We’re all facedown on the floor, and the car’s only got a few minutes left on it.
“I wish this bloke’d hurry up,” I mention.
“I know,” Marv whispers back. “This is outrageous.” His voice rises from the depths of the floor. “I’ll be getting a fine because of this useless bastard. I can’t afford another fine, Ed.”
“The car’s not even worth it.”
Marv looks over at me now. I can sense he’s getting uptight. Offended. If there’s one thing Marv doesn’t tolerate, it’s someone putting shit on his car. He repeats the question.
“What did you say, Ed?”
“I said,” I whisper, “it isn’t even worth the fine, Marv.”
“Look, he says, “I’ll take a lot of things, Ed, but…”
I tune out of what he’s saying because, quite frankly, once Marv gets going about his car, it’s downright pain-in-the-arse material. He goes on and on, like a kid, and he’s just turned twenty, for Jesus’ sake.
This scene is shocking, attention-grabbing, and absurd. We see the characters’ snarky and lackadaisical interactions with the armed robber and get an immediate understanding of their personalities and friendship dynamics. We also get some background information, like their ages, context for their friendships, and their socioeconomic standings.
Even though we’re tossed abruptly into a dramatic scene, the tone is engaging, we’re able to follow along with the context provided throughout the scene, and it piques interest to read more about these weird characters.
This Is How You Lose the Time War by Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone opens with:
When Red wins, she stands alone.
Blood slicks her hair. She breathes out steam in the last night of this dying world.
That was fun, she thinks, but the thought sours in the framing. It was clean, at least. Climb up time’s threads into the past and make sure no one survives this battle to muddle the futures her Agency’s arranged–the futures in which her Agency rules, in which Red herself is possible. She’s come to knot this strand of history and sear it until it melts.
She holds a corpse that was once a man, her hands gloved in its guts, her fingers clutching its alloy spine. She lets go, and the exoskeleton clatters against rock. Crude technology. Ancient. Bronze to depleted uranium. He never had a chance. That is the point of Red.
This opening scene drags us directly into the story and sets the pace and expectations for the book. It’s a short, dense story where a lot happens very quickly. The opening scene gets us ready for the rest of the book, rapidly introducing us to this confusing sci-fi world of time travel, non-human narrators, and a universe and war that we as readers have no outside context for. We also get an idea of Red–she seems detached, but there’s a deeper sense of reflection and care to the way she notices the things around her.
Here’s an example of a tamer in media res opener from Margrove, Starlight: A Collection of Short Stories by Hannah Lee Kidder:
“It would be a sin, Elizabeth.” Lucy sat with her legs tucked beneath her and a book in her lap.
“Of course it isn’t,” I told her. “It’s acting. You’d be just like Sarah Bernhardt.” Lucy had loved Sarah Bernhardt ever since we saw her perform in Paris before Papa died. I could see her considering it, so I pressed. “This could be practice. When you’re a famous stage performer, they’ll all say how you started as a young woman, making up stories with your sister.”
We were on our bedroom floor with Grandmother Margrove’s dress spread between us. I had found it in Mother’s old trunk.
“Mother would say it is sinful.” She ran a finger over the delicate lacing, the scars on her hands and wrists shining white in the sun.
In this scene, we meet the main characters, understand the setting and era in which the story takes place, we learn that their father has died and they fear their mother, and the premise of inherited family curses is subtly introduced. This example shows that in media res doesn’t always have to be something absurd, confusing, or exciting happening. It can simply be a contextless conversation that makes the reader ask questions.
Should I use in media res?
Starting your book in media res might be the right choice if:
- You have a good scene for it. Choosing the right scene to start in media res is essential. It should be compelling, it should be something the reader can follow along with without having context or background information, and it should lead into the next scene in a logical way.
- It serves the story. Not every story is suited to begin in media res. This is something each author decides for their own projects individually. Is your story suited for more of a slow introduction? Ideally, you’d like the pacing of the first scene to match the pacing of the rest of the book. The opening scene in This Is How You Lose the Time War is quick, dense, and gory, just like the rest of it. The opening in Margrove is quieter and subtle, as is the rest of the story until the action and urgency rises at the end. If that story had started with high action, the ending might feel less earned.
- It suits the tone and storytelling style. With Jane Austen, her slowburn, careful introduction openings are perfect for the genre and her writing style. It also suits the pacing of her stories, which are often set in mundane places with ordinary character casts. She makes the mundane interesting, so beginning with a “once upon a time” opener suits her stories perfectly. In media res isn’t the best option for every style, so make sure it makes sense for how you want to tell your story.
Opening stories in media res is a fun tool for writers to experiment with. Make sure you choose your first scenes carefully, use a style that suits the rest of the story, and avoid those big exposition dumps.
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