Narrative Structure: What Is In Medias Res?

Narrative Structure: What Is In Medias Res?

Starting a story in medias res is a common technique that authors use. If you’re a creative writing editor, you should know how this narrative structure works.

In this post, we’ll explain what in medias res means and how you can use your knowledge of this technique to assess your client’s writing.

What Does In Medias Res Mean?

In medias res is a Latin phrase that means “in the midst of things.” In writing, we use this term to describe a story that starts in the middle of the action without the preamble of an introduction.

This is different from stories that start with an exposition or have a more linear narrative structure, like the Hero’s Journey.

Authors use in medias res to jump straight into a crucial point in the story, allowing them to:

  • Hook the reader’s attention
  • Conceal information to reveal at a later point
  • Build suspense
  • Evoke a strong emotional response in the reader

One of the most famous examples of in medias res is the Greek epic poem, the Odyssey.

This poem begins 10 years after the Trojan War, with the protagonist, Odysseus, being held captive by the goddess Calypso. The rest of the story is told in flashbacks, which explore the events that led to the opening scene.

Editing Stories That Start In Medias Res

Of course, this isn’t always the best technique for a story, and it can be mishandled.

If you’re editing a novel that starts in medias res, here are three questions to ask to ensure your client is using this structure effectively:

  1. Is the opening scene powerful enough?
  2. Does it establish a mystery or question?
  3. Are the missing details filled in later?

1. Is the Opening Scene Powerful Enough?

There are no rules about the level of action an in medias res opening should have. But whether your client begins their story with a fantasy wedding, a grisly murder, or an argument between friends, the opening scene should be dramatic enough to grab the reader’s attention.

It should be a pivotal moment in the story or crucial to the protagonist’s development, and it should address emotions and themes that are essential throughout the narrative.

2. Does it Establish a Mystery or Question?

An in medias res opening shouldn’t give away too many details about the events unfolding or the characters involved. This is because withholding information builds suspense and encourages readers to become more invested in the story.

Your client’s opening should prompt the reader to ask questions like:

  • Why is this event happening?
  • What led to it, and what will follow?
  • What relation do these characters have to each other?
  • How does the story’s setting work?

A story that begins in medias res but provides an explanation too soon or in too much detail will lose its momentum.

3. Are the Missing Details Filled in Later?

Of course, starting a story in medias res isn’t an excuse for your client to abandon exposition altogether.

The questions asked in the opening should be answered gradually as the story progresses. In this way, the reader is rewarded with a satisfying reveal or conclusion without becoming confused or struggling to follow the plot of the story.

The missing details can be filled in through various techniques, including:

  • Dialogue
  • Flashbacks
  • Perspective changes

The exact way these details are revealed depends on the specifics of your client’s work, but in general you should ensure that backstory is provided at an appropriate pace (and not in the form of an infodump!).

In some cases, you may come across a story that doesn’t open in the midst of the action but might benefit from doing so. If this happens, you could recommend your client rewrite their story to begin in medias res.

However, it’s important to remember that doing so will involve significant restructuring of a story. Therefore, you should only make these suggestions and changes if your client’s brief requests feedback on the story’s overall structure.

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