When telling a story, one effective way of grabbing your readers’ attention is to plunge them right into the middle of the action. No beating around the bush; instead, they get a taste of everything that’s already happening.
The term used to describe this technique is starting a story “in medias res.”
What Is In Medias Res?
“In medias res” is a Latin phrase that means “in the middle of things.” In writing, this is used to describe a story that begins right in the middle of the plot or action.
For example, in a fantasy, the story might open with the dragon chasing the main characters. In a murder mystery, the story might open with the investigator already looking into a murder.
How to Start a Story in Medias Res
As a story unfolds, it will typically show your readers three things:
- The status quo: How are things with your main character in an ordinary day of their life?
- The inciting incident: An event interrupts the ordinary flow of things and calls your protagonist to a decision.
- The consequences: When the character responds to the inciting incident, what changes in his life?
If you write your story in chronological order, you will normally start by describing the status quo, then show the inciting incident, and then describe what happens after.
But, in order to grab your readers’ attention with action, you should start your story with the inciting incident, or just before the inciting incident.
So how do you do this? These tips should help you:
1. Pick an important emotional scene.
Since the goal of opening your story in the middle of things is to capture your reader’s attention, make sure you find a scene that’s important to the story, but that also has high emotional impact.
Remember, when you stir up your readers’ emotions, they are more likely to relate to the story and keep reading.
2. Give your readers some context.
One way to get your readers relating to the main characters is to give them some context.
Although you want to avoid lengthy exposition that can bore your readers, you should also remember to give them at least some context to understand what’s happening. But give them just enough to help them see who they’re supposed to root for in your opening scene—after all, a conflict will not interest us until we know who it’s affecting and why it matters.
3. Raise the stakes quickly.
When you have chosen the scene that opens your story with a bang, also think about how to raise the stakes as soon as possible.
You can do this once your readers understand who the main characters are. You want them to start being invested in the protagonist so that when you raise the stakes, they get led along the suspense.
4. Decide how to share the backstory.
Because you’ll start your story as something major is already happening, you won’t have the luxury of using an exposition to introduce the backstory. So instead, you can do one of the following:
- Use flashbacks: Although some writers frown upon flashbacks, being able to show little pieces of backstory is good because you will not be doing an info-dump in one go.
- Dialogue: Having your characters talk about the past is also a good strategy, but make sure that the conversation makes sense and feels natural. Avoid having your characters talk about details they obviously would all know already.
- Go right back to the start: This is another option, and since you’ve already captured your readers’ attention, chances are, they will be interested enough to know what led up to the action in that opening scene.
5. Decide on an intriguing first line.
A story that starts in the middle of things may not yet make sense to your readers. As such, you need to be more creative in your choice of a first line.
Find one that intrigues your readers and prompts them to ask questions, because that is the best way of ensuring that they will keep reading.
Your goal for your opening line should be to raise questions in your readers’ minds, such as:
- Who is impacted by the event?
- What is happening?
- Where and when is this happening?
- Why is this happening?
- How did this person get here?
What Is the Purpose of In Medias Res?
When a story opens right in the middle of action, it raises questions in readers’ minds. This desire to know why all this is happening is what keeps them reading to the next page.
In contrast, when a story begins with lengthy descriptions of a setting or a character, some readers might easily lose interest.
This means that when you throw your readers right into the action, you may not even have to pause and explain things. Intead, your readers can figure things out as you go along, or you can choose to tell them later all about what happened before the opening scene.
Movies and TV shows tend to use in medias res more often than in books. This is because their audience is more likely to stop watching if they’re not hooked in the first few minutes.
In a novel, you may have more time to get your readers settled in the story, but take note that you still need to keep them hooked within the first few pages, or they’ll be more likely to put your book down.
Examples of In Medias Res from Literature
Example #1. The Book of Three by Lloyd Alexander
Taran wanted to make a sword; but Coll, charged with the practical side of his education, decided on horseshoes. And so it had been horseshoes all morning long. Taran’s arms ached, soot blackened his face. At last he dropped the hammer and turned to Coll, who was watching him critically.
“Why?” Taran cried. “Why must it be horseshoes? As if we had any horses!”
Coll was stout and round and his great bald head glowed bright pink. “Lucky for the horses,” was all he said, glancing at Taran’s handiwork.
“I could do better at making a sword,” Taran protested. “I know I could.” And before Coll could answer, he snatched the tongs, flung a strip of red-hot iron to the anvil, and began hammering away as fast as he could.
“Wait, wait!” cried Coll, “that is not the way to go after it.”
From the opening scene of this fantasy novel, you might have the following questions in your mind:
- Who is Taran? And what is his relationship to Coll?
- Why are they making horseshoes? And why don’t they have any horses?
- Why does Taran want so badly to make a sword?
These questions are what will keep the reader going.
Example #2. The Good Earth by Pearl S. Buck
It was Wang Lung’s marriage day. At first, opening his eyes in the blackness of the curtains about his bed, he could not think why the dawn seemed different from any other. The house was still except for the faint, gasping cough of his old father, whose room was opposite to his own across the middle room. Every morning the old man’s cough was the first sound to be heard. Wang Lung usually lay listening to it and moved only when he heard it approaching nearer and when he heard the door of his father’s room squeak upon its wooden hinges.
But this morning he did not wait. He sprang up and pushed aside the curtains of his bed. It was a dark, ruddy dawn, and through a small square hole of a window, where the tattered paper fluttered, a glimpse of bronze sky gleamed. He went to the hole and tore the paper away.
“It is spring and I do not need this,” he muttered.
He was ashamed to say aloud that he wished the house to look neat on this day.
In this historical novel, the opening scene puts us right in a pivotal part of the main character’s life: his marriage. Althoguh the author gives an exposition of how things used to be in the first paragraph, she effectively keeps it short and then thrusts us back into the moment of change.
Just like in the first example, we may ask questions like:
- Who is Wang Lung?
- Why doesn’t he need the paper now that it’s spring?
- Why wasn’t the house as neat as he wanted it to be?
Starting Your Story In Medias Res
With these tips and examples, you can try your hand at writing an opening scene that’s right smack in the middle of the action.
It may take some practice and even trial and error to find the scene that works best. But stay with it, and you will find it becomes easier to spot pivotal events that will draw your reader in from the very first page.
Did you find this post helpful? Let us know in the comments below!
If you enjoyed this post, then you might also like:
- How to Write a Hook: 10 Ways to Capture Your Readers’ Attention
- Rising Action: How to Keep Your Readers Hooked Until the Last Page
- How to Start a Story: 6 Creative Ways to Get Up and Writing
- Exposition: Definition and Examples from Literature
Yen Cabag is the Blog Writer of TCK Publishing. She is also a homeschooling mom, family coach, and speaker for the Charlotte Mason method, an educational philosophy that places great emphasis on classic literature and the masterpieces in art and music. She has also written several books, both fiction and nonfiction. Her passion is to see the next generation of children become lovers of reading and learning in the midst of short attention spans.