When Beginning in the Middle Doesn’t Work

In medias res. That’s the fancy Latin term I was taught in my English Lit courses for stories that start in the middle of things – in the action, rather than before it starts. The technique isn’t new. Homer used it in The Odyssey. It seems to come in and out of fashion, however.

Probably because of my love of adventure tales, I’m attracted to stories that begin in medias res. I want to be sucked right into the action. Tell me about how magic broke into our world or Faerie reappeared or mankind fell to the A.I.s in a chapter or two when I’m deeply invested in the main characters. Show me the characters’ initial peril now.

But there are some times when in medias res beginnings don’t work. I read a fairly short (200+ pages) modern romance recently. I’m not going to name the book, because I’m going to tank on it. But in thinking over why I wasn’t overly enthusiastic about it, particularly the beginning, I realized it was because the story started in the wrong place.

The story was a pretty classic girl meets boy, girl and boy fall in love, girl and boy overcome social obstacles to being together, girl and boy live happily ever after story. I liked the male main character (I’ll call him Boy) well enough to keep reading, but I didn’t like the female narrator (I’ll call her Girl), and it took me a while to figure out why.

Girl had issues, as female narrators in modern romances often do. She’d been done wrong, done a little time, and was trying to get back on her feet while protecting her very bruised heart. She wasn’t witty or snarky (unlike Marvel’s Jessica Jones, a similar character in some respects but I who found much more immediately engaging). She’d erected some very large barriers to other characters, particularly Boy, which kept them at a distance.

The story began by plunging Girl immediately into a situation of peril, in which she and her best bud (BFF) are threatened by some baddies to whom the BFF owes money. The resolution of this problem was the major plot hook for the rest of the story, so Girl couldn’t shine in resolving it there and then. In fact, she came across as weak and somewhat desperate. I don’t mind weak characters who evolve in the course of the story, but it can be hard to initially sympathize with them. The baddies (who turn out to be not very bad) were more interesting than either Girl or the BFF, so it was annoying when they then disappeared for twenty chapters. I’d have happily read more about them than Girl. Moreover, the BFF had done A Bad Thing in stealing from the baddies, so why would I sympathize with the BFF? Throwing a weak, emotionally-remote narrator and a morally-compromised secondary character into peril and expecting the reader to immediately care about them is a tricky proposition, and this story did not make it work.

Then the author committed the cardinal sin of following the unresolved initial peril with several pages of info-dump. The info-dump was all backstory – how Girl’s heart was broken, how she ended up in jail, how the BFF was the only person there for her after she pushed everyone else away. Because I wasn’t much liking Girl at this point (she hadn’t done anything to engage me), I’ll admit I skimmed the backstory. I went back and read it later, when Girl’s incarceration became relevant to the action, but I skimmed it on a first read because at this point, I wasn’t engaged. Fortunately, the author then introduced Boy, who was interesting enough on his own to keep me reading. That saved a book I might otherwise have put down.

Because I generally love in medias res beginnings, and because most of my own stories begin that way, I’ve been mulling why this modern romance didn’t work for me, and what I can take away from it. I’ve also re-read one of my favorite in medias res beginnings, Kate Griffin’s fabulous The Midnight Mayor, which starts memorably with:

The telephone rang.
I answered.
After that . . . it’s complicated

The Midnight Mayor then launches into an attack on the sorcerer-narrator by some of the scariest baddies I’ve read this side of the Nazgul. If you haven’t read Kate Griffin’s Matthew Swift series, you should – time very well spent.

So, mulling these two very different in medias res openings, I’ve come up with five learning points (in no particular order):

  1. Engage. If you’re going to start in medias res, you have to have your reader engage with the story’s protagonist from the outset. Readers naturally empathize with the narrator, particularly if they’re in trouble and even more particularly if the author is working in first person point of view. So this shouldn’t be too hard. But the reader can be alienated by a narrator who seems dumb, dull or weak. Why should the reader bother? The narrator doesn’t have to be superwoman at the outset, but they have to shine somehow, even if only in their brilliant internal monologue. They have to be a character the reader wants to keep reading about.
  2. Show. I’m always a proponent of showing rather than telling, but it’s really, really important in these sorts of openings. The reader needs to get a crystal-clear picture of what the narrator is hearing, seeing, thinking, smelling and tasting in the initial scenes so the reader connects with the narrator. This is particularly critical if the narrator is going to make some questionable decisions (which Boy does several chapters later when he strikes a deal with the baddies, but by that point I knew enough about both Boy and the baddies to care and keep reading). That doesn’t preclude exposition entirely, but keep it snappy. The in medias res opening is all about action – the narrator better be doing something rather than describing a tree for three pages.
  3. Choose wisely, grasshopper. Pick the characters for that initial scene or scenes of peril carefully. Introducing fascinating baddies who then disappear for twenty chapters antagonizes your reader. (Kate Griffin uses the demon hoodies several times through The Midnight Mayor and each time we see them, the more terrifying they become since the protagonist can’t seem to decisively defeat them.) Use characters the reader can glom on to, and who are going to feature in the rest of the story.
  4. Have a resolution, even if it is only temporary. This is what really distinguished Griffin’s brilliant opening in The Midnight Mayor from the modern romance. The narrator-protagonist of The Midnight Mayor captures one of the baddies with the most amazing binding spell ever created (talk about the power of words!). The rest of the story spins off why the baddies attacked him and what has attracted them to him. From a plot perspective, the baddies attack in The Midnight Mayor and the threat by the baddies in the modern romance serve the same function: they set up the overarching conflict for the rest of the story. But what’s so satisfying in The Midnight Mayor ‘s opening is watching the protagonist shine as he binds the demon hoodie. It’s a temporary resolution, of course, since we know there’s a Bigger, Badder Baddie waiting in the wings. But it’s still very satisfying. By not having any resolution of the initial peril, the author of the modern romance denies the reader that satisfaction and makes the modern romance an unfulfilling read.
  5. Avoid the subsequent info-dump. What was so frustrating about the post-peril info-dump in the modern romance was that I could see it coming a mile away. The baddies tromp off, Girl makes sure the BFF is okay, and then, as Girl drives back to her apartment, she tells us her entire life story. It’s not just dull to read, it’s also unrealistic. People don’t review their entire lives while driving home after (what should have been) a perilous confrontation. They’re pumped up on adrenaline. They turn the confrontation over and over in their minds. They wish they’d acted differently or come up with a wittier retort. They consider the consequences. They don’t have a ten-page flashback to their childhood, high school romance, betrayal by their One True Love, incarceration and release. Sorry, no. Maybe, maybe, they consider the peril in light of their personal history – if it’s related somehow. But definitely not the entire character’s backstory, and definitely not in one chunk.

I’m still in love with the in medias res opening. I’ll still use it in my own stories, but I will think carefully about whether the technique enhances my story, and my readers’ crucial initial connection with my narrator, or detracts from it.

Any thoughts on in medias res openings and when they don’t work? I’d love to hear them!

(Featured image: copyright Ry Young, used under Freeimages.com licence)

12 thoughts on “In Medias, Huh?

  1. What a great post! Makes me wonder if we can’t challenge the status quo sometimes. We writers spend countless hours studying what not to do- maybe it’s time to just sit and write an honest story. No flash or pop to start off. I think we have dimmed down things to catch our hyper readers attention!

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thank you and I completely agree! When I go back and read stories written before serialization, I realize how slowly they start. They ease the reader into the fictional world. After stories began being serialized in magazines, techniques like in medias res and cliffhanger chapter endings became much more widespread because the authors had to immediately capture the reader’s attention and then prime them to buy the next instalment. We’re reaping the “rewards” of serialization now (as well as shortened attention spans). Unfortunately, I don’t know if there’s any going back!

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      1. It’s so fascinating learning the origin story of our current writing trend! My daughter is probably the only teen left in the universe who has the patience for Walter Moers books. I can’t even read all those endless pages of exposition! She loves his style and how he takes his time and builds his world. Sad that readers don’t have the time or energy to settle in and enjoy!
        This has impacted me directly with my current wip- which I submitted to an editor at Entangled pub. She felt the fantasy needed to start closer to the action. There goes 4 chapters of character development and world building!
        Sigh. What’s an author to do???

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Thanks for this interesting post. I think the main reason for ‘jumping in’ is low attention spans. Books I used to read when I was younger drew the reader in slowly by building up the tension or the character. It’s a shame that agents/publishers go for the new attention grab option rather than the buildup but that’s the way the ‘market’ has moved I guess. Everything is wanted immediately! Having said that the best book I;ve read so far this year is Five Rivers Meet on a Wooded Plain and that is not a jump in at all. Terrific read, though.

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    1. I’d agree. The “in medias res” opening does pander to an age of low attention spans and immediate gratification. That doesn’t mean it’s a bad technique – just one that should be used thoughtfully.

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  3. Hi, this is a great post. I also feel that readers/agents/publishers now pander to the attention span of a fly. There are some agents who won’t read past the first sentence, let alone a paragraph, first page or even few pages, let alone 5000 words of an 8000 word novel.

    I’ve also read Five Rivers Met on A Wooded Plain and found it a slow start but I read it twice and then carried on. It’s a brilliant book. Quite honestly I get rather tired of reading a first chapter that does jump in and still prefer some build up to create tension. Guess I’m in the n=minority though!

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    1. Thanks so much! There’s a lot to be said for slow build, and there are certain genres where I prefer that kind of opening (for example, historical mysteries). There are others where I’ll put up with it because I know there is a huge pay-off waiting for me (for example, Stephen King’s novels). But I also like to be dropped into the middle of the action, and it’s not always about short attention span. It’s about excitement and entertainment, which is part of why I read. That kind of opening has to work with the rest of the story, though!

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  4. A thought-provoking post. I was advised to cut the first chapter of my WIP so that it started with the hero in peril, but I think that, in a romance, the reader needs a couple of pages to get to know the hero so that she cares whether he lives or dies – unless it’s a thriller romance where there’s going to be a lot of action.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’d agree. You have to tailor your story (somewhat) to your genre. Urban fantasy begins “in medias res” for a reason – it’s an action story. Beginning a romance by throwing your characters into peril can be really dicey. Glad you enjoyed the post!

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