Tips for Writing “in media res”

Maybe you’ve seen a TV show opening scene that goes like this…

The police pursue our hero. She drives her car to the edge of the pier and the cops are right behind her. How is she going to get out of this situation? The scene fades to black and the words “Six Hours Earlier” appear on the screen.

This is an in media res, or “in the middle of things” beginning.

You may be tempted to begin your novel this way, but be ye forewarned:

In media res is hard to pull off in a novel.

Why?

Beginning at a climatic point often means letting up on the tension in the next chapter.

Let’s say aliens are about to blow up The White House in your first chapter. The reader is engaged and is wondering if the intrepid Secret service agent gets liquefied.

In the next chapter, our hero isn’t in danger. Our hero isn’t even in the White House.  Instead she’s baking brownies in Cleveland.

You can almost hear your book being thrown across the room, can’t you?

In media res is also hard to pull off because good action requires caring.

 More often than not, an in media res beginning is an action scene. Explosions and car chases might provide enough eye candy in a TV show to keep you interested. Blowing stuff up doesn’t equate to interesting when it comes to print.

Good action requires your audience to care about the characters. If your hero is shooting her way out of a crack house in the first scene and the reader isn’t attached to the character, the action will bore them.

This is actually true for TV as well. The only reason you care about the woman at the edge of the pier is because you’ve been binge watching the series for twelve hours. You’re invested in what happens to her.

So how do you pull off in media res? Here are 2 tips:

 1) Keep it short.

 If your reader gets engrossed in your first chapter, she’ll expect the story to continue chronologically into the next chapter.

The answer: Don’t let the reader get engrossed.

Give them a paragraph or a page. A good in media res chapter is only a teaser for things to come.

That’s typically how those TV show openings work too. None of them are longer than a few minutes.  If they went too long, the viewer would wonder if they missed an episode.

2) Make it confusing.

This goes hand in hand with keeping it short. Provide only enough info to make your reader want to find out what this opaque snippet is all about.

Let’s say your book opens with your hero trapped inside a water tower with a hungry lion. The reader thinks, “Why is this dude in a water tower and how did a lion get up there?” Give the reader a few details and don’t explain them. Intrigue your audience with the odd situation rather than a generic action scene.

Make them go “Huh?” and then make them want to satisfy that “Huh?”.

In media res ain’t easy and you must have good reasons to go this route.

 Just because you saw it on a TV show isn’t enough. Wanting to “start with action” isn’t enough. Ask yourself if your story is best served by in media res before deciding to do it.

 

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