In Media Res: Where to Begin

I’m so glad we all understand point of view in fiction so well now. You know where the camera is at all times and your character’s inner life is rich and appealing and sprinkled through the action. But where to begin?
Writing Tip for Today: If you take a workshop or a writing course, you’ll no doubt hear the phrase, “in media res.” No, we aren’t a bunch of lawyers trying to increase our billable hours. The Latin phrase simply reminds writers to begin a story in the middle of the action. Here’s why:

  • No Background Checks. We all tend to want our readers to know EVERYthing about our character before the story starts. But although this stuff fascinates us, our readers, well not so much. Today’s readers only want a sliver of info before they are willing to care enough to turn the page. So if you can give us a POV character and a problem, many times a reader is hooked.
  • Ordinary Time–Keep it Short. Chris Vogel’s The Writer’s Journey defines the novel in terms of a journey such as a fantasy quest. He argues that we need to see the character briefly in ordinary time–that is, before the inciting incident occurs, after which nothing will ever be the same. This is sound advice, but be sure to keep the Ordinary Time as short as possible. The longer you keep a reader waiting for action, the greater the chance that said reader will find something else to read.
  • Marry Action with Background. Perhaps the best approach is to write your character acting out a scene while at the same time inserting brief hints of the background and the problem. Instead of opening with a character alone on stage, staring out a window, wondering how she ever got to this place, nix the “driving to the story” idea and replace with action from farther into the story. And you don’t need to start with a character who thinks about doing something, then does it, etc. Unless the action is very exotic, you can begin right in the middle of said action–in media res.

About Linda S. Clare

I'm an author, speaker, writing coach and mentor. I teach both fiction and nonfiction writing at Lane Community College and in the doctoral program as expert writing advisor for George Fox University. I love helping writers improve their craft and I'm both an avid reader and writer of stories about those with wounded hearts.

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