In Media Res is a Latin word that means to start your story “in the middle of things.”
It’s defined as starting in or into the middle of a narrative or plot, rather than the natural beginning.
For example, a murder mystery could start after the victim is already murdered. Only later in the story is it revealed why and how the murder took place.
Why You Should Start a Story In Media Res
The reason to start “in the middle” is to quickly capture the reader’s attention.
You could start with the characters running away from a dragon, sitting in a jail cell after a crime, or jumping off a sinking boat.
Not knowing the whole story raises questions in the reader’s mind. They’ll stay glued to your work as the answers to their questions are gradually revealed.
It also has the added bonus of allowing you to start in the middle of some exciting action. You won’t have to tediously explain why it is happening either.
You can explain what happened before the action later. But you can also continue forward and leave it to the reader to figure it out. Both options have their benefits.
In Media Res is more often used in TV and film than literature. In those mediums you need to capture the audience’s attention immediately. Because if you don’t they’ll turn the channel.
In a novel you’ve got more time to settle into the story. But if your reader isn’t hooked by the end of the first chapter it’ll never leave the book shelf.
Readers must care, and must care quickly, what happens to your characters.
And starting in media res is an easy way to make that happen.
And starting in media res is an easy way to make that happen.
In Media Res Origin
The term in media res comes from the Roman poet Horace in 13 BC in his work Ars Poetica, where he describes the ideal poet:
“Nor does he date Diomede’s return from Meleager’s death, nor trace the rise of the Trojan war from [Leda’s] eggs: he always hastens on to the event; and hurries away his reader in the midst of interesting circumstances, no otherwise than as if they were [already] known;”
In Media Res was a common literary tool used in ancient epic poems, two such examples are below:
In Media Res Example #1 - Homer's Odyssey
We first learn about Odysseus’s journey while he is held captive on Calypso’s island. Only later in books IX through XII we learn that much of his journey precedes that moment in the narrative.
In Media Res Example #2 - Homer's Illiad
The “egg” reference from Horace refers to the mythological origin of the Trojan War.
The myth is that the birth of Helen and Clytemnestra came from a double egg laid by the Spartan queen Leda. She laid an egg because she was seduced by Zeus while he was disguised as a swan.
But instead of starting with all that, the story begins right in the middle of the Trojan War.
No boring exposition, but right into the juicy conflict between Achilles and Agamemnon.
How to Start Your Story In Media Res
In media res takes the natural opening sequence structure and rearranges it.
Typically you start a story like this:
- Begin with the status quo. Introduce the main character and show an ordinary day in their life.
- An “inciting incident” happens. This is the catalyst event that calls the hero to action and interrupts their ordinary life.
- After some delay, hesitation or debate, the character decides to answer the call.
But by beginning your story in media res, you flip the first two steps around:
- You begin with the inciting incident or something happening. The dead body is discovered. The dragon attacks the city. The main character is fired from their job.
- Then you backtrack to show the events leading up to the inciting incident. Why the murder happened. Why the dragon is attacking. Why they got fired.
- Then once you arrive at the inciting incident you move the story forward. You can also move forward immediately after Step #1. Then you would gradually reveal the events leading up to it as you progress the story to its conclusion.
Tips for Starting Your Story In Media Res
Here are some tips for starting your story in media res to make sure it has the most impact on your readers.
Start with an Important Emotional Scene
The scene you start your story with in media res should be three things:
- Important to the Story
The easiest way to do this is by using conflict, dilemma, or high stakes. Or all three.
In Media Res Example #3 - Troy (2004)
A great example of this is from the movie Troy. Although this is not the very first scene, this serves as a illustration of how the Illiad begins.
Achilles and Agamemnon argue over what will happen with Briseis. a woman who was captured when Achilles sacked the temple of Apollo.
There’s your conflict.
Achilles faces a dilemma. Does he let Agamemnon have her to ensure a smooth fighting of the war with Troy? Or does he take her and start a massive conflict with his most powerful ally?
There’s your emotion.
If Achilles can’t have her, he’s unmotivated to fight. And if Achilles doesn’t fight, the Greeks will surely lose.
That’s why it’s important to the story.
Decide How to Reveal the Backstory
Without exposition, you’ll need to reveal the backstory after the opening scene.
There are several ways you can do this:
- Go back to the beginning and lead up to it
- Reveal bits and pieces of the story via flashbacks
- Tell the backstory via dialogue and a frame narrative
In TV, you’ll often see the story begin in media res with a flash forward. Then they’ll dedicate the rest of the episode to showing how the characters got into that situation.
In Media Res Example #4 - Breaking Bad (2004)
The hit TV series Breaking Bad is the most famous recent example of this.
The series’ first episode begins with a old RV swerving through the desert.
Inside, two men are wearing gas masks are driving it. One is in his underwear, and the other is slumped over in his seat like he’s injured. Dead bodies slide around the floor in the back as the RV swerves left and right.
The RV crashes on the side of the road, and the man in his underwear runs outside and starts freaking out. You can hear sirens in the background. They’re being chased.
He grabs a video camera from inside the RV and starts recording himself. He identifies himself and starts speaking to his wife and son, as though these were his last moments.
Now how can you not stick around for at least one episode to see how he got himself into that situation?
While Breaking Bad goes back to the beginning, you can also move forward and use flashbacks to fill in the gaps.
Homer’s Odyssey is a perfect example.
The story begins with his son Telemachus trying to find news about his missing father. His mother Penelope is busy fending off potential new suitors. They’re looking to take Odysseus’ place as king.
Meanwhile, Odysseus crash lands his ship on Scheria. The King and Queen there beg to hear the tales of his adventures. The story uses flashbacks to share his journey up to that point.
In Media Res Example #5 - Life of Pi (2012)
A more modern example of this type of storytelling is Life of Pi.
The story of Life of Pi is told through an interview. It is between the main character, Pi Patel, and a novelist. The interview is about Pi’s story of being lost at sea for 227 days.
The film alternates back and forth between flashbacks of Pi’s time on the boat and the interview.
Pi spends the movie telling his story about being lost at sea and the events leading up to his rescue.
This is a great example of using flashbacks to fill in the blanks and tell the story of what happened leading up to now.
The last way to reveal the backstory is to use dialogue through a frame narrative.
A frame narrative is a story within a story. The first story is the main story that your book or film is about. The second story is the frame narrative. It either sets up the main story or provides context for it or one of the characters.
Here are two good examples of using a frame narrative to reveal backstory.
In Media Res Example #6 - The Town (2010)
In this scene, two characters argue about continuing their spring of robberies.
It gets physical and ends with both characters taking a moment to catch their breath. Here is where one uses a frame narrative to give context for his thoughts and actions.
10 years ago, James stopped someone from killing Doug. He spent nine years in prison for the crime, and is trying to make up for lost time. He thinks Doug owes him one for saving his life, so he’s not going to let him walk away from the robbing spree.
In Media Res Example #7 - Jaws (1975)
Quint gives a bone-chilling monologue about the sinking of the USS Indianapolis.
Now we know why he is so gung-ho to hunt down this bastard shark and kill it. It’s a personal vendetta. He’s got to get revenge.
This frame narrative also provides context for the entire story. We are more scared of the shark because of it.
His tale was absolutely horrific. The details about floating in the water waiting for a shark to come rip you to pieces is scarier than the film!
Create Curiosity by Raising the Stakes with a Crucial Scene
Whether you begin your story in media res or not, you should start with a scene that’s important to the plot.
You don’t want to start the story at any place in time. You want to start with a bang. Something that hooks the reader and pulls them in immediately.
And a great way to do that is by raising the stakes in the first scene.
Take the Breaking Bad opening for example.
It’s obvious something illegal has gone down. And the sirens in the background mean big trouble for the main character if he doesn’t find a way out of this situation.
This scene is integral to the plot and the stakes are extremely high. The audience is curious how he got into this situation.
Who is this guy? He looks like a nerd, not someone who should be running from the police.
Why is he running from the cops? Does it have something to do with the dead bodies in the back of the RV? What happened to them? Did he kill them?
And why the heck is he in his underwear?!
This is the perfect example of how to hook a reader in your opening. The audience can’t help but stick around after the commercial break to find out what happens next.
Start With an Intriguing First Line
A great way to hook your reader when starting your story in media res is to writing an intriguing first line.
Starting your book in media res cuts out all the exposition leading up to that point.
So you’ve got write something engaging enough to carry the reader through the next few chapters.
And one of the best ways to do that is intrigue them with a great first line.
Here’s an example from James Patterson:
“To the best of my understandably shaky recollection, the first time I died went something like this…”
That raises all sorts of questions!
Is this person dead already? How are they still talking? Are they a ghost? How did they die? Why did they die?
This line hooks the reader and they have to stick around to get the answers to their questions.
The goal of an intriguing first line is to raise questions in the reader’s mind:
Here are some more examples of starting in media res with an intriguing first line.
In Media Res Examples #8 - 12
Three Mistakes to Avoid When Starting In Media Res
By now you might be thinking this is the only way you’ll ever start a story again. Beginning your book in media res is quite powerful indeed.
But it’s easy to mess up too. Here are some mistakes you should avoid when beginning your book in the middle of things.
#1: Don’t Delay The Boring Setup Till Later
Starting in media res helps you offset the slow build-up of conflict.
But often it only delays the slow build-up and traps the reader in it a few pages later.
Unless your opening scene is intriguing or significant, it will soon be forgotten. The reader will get bogged down with all the new characters and set up moments later.
Make the first scene interesting. But also make the scenes that follow interesting too.
#2: Don't Forget to Give Your Reader Some Context
A common mistake new writers make is to start with an action scene that doesn’t provide any context.
They start in the middle of a fight scene or some other action-packed sequence. But we have no idea who to root for or why they’re even fighting in the first place.
Fights are only interesting if we know why they’re happening. That’s what the conflict is about.
And if we don’t know who’s side we’re supposed to be on, we don’t care when either one of them comes close to death. There’s no stakes. Your readers could be rooting for the wrong character!
You might be tempted to start with an action prologue like the James Bond series is known for. But remember that readers already know to root for 007.
If you’re introducing entirely new characters in your first book, no one has any idea who they are. Or who’s side they are on. On why we should care.
In Media Res Example #13 — GoldenEye (1995)
Take this opening scene from the James Bond film GoldenEye.
A solid five minutes goes by before we’re in the heat of the action.
That leaves plenty of time to establish the setting, who the bad guys are, introduce 006, and their goal to blow up the base.
If James Bond was a new character with no history or context, this still could’ve worked. But imagine if they started with the gunfight at the five minute mark. That wouldn’t have worked at all.
We wouldn’t be sure what’s going on, where they are, who to root for, etc. It would’ve been a big mess of confusion.
To see a better way to introduce a new character in media res, watch this scene from Casino Royale (2006).
In Media Res Example #14 — Casino Royale (2006)
Bond was being reintroduced to audiences with a new actor, so this type of intro was appropriate.
Especially since Daniel Craig was rougher around the edges compared to previous actors.
That’s why the fight scene here is so brutal and visceral. The director was telling the audience that this isn’t going to be your ordinary James Bond film.
But even then there’s still plenty of time for setup and context.
Bond has been sent to kill the Section Chief for selling military secrets. In a three minute scene with flashback action sequences intercut we get all the context we need.
#3: Don’t Introduce Too Many Main Characters
Starting your novel in media res can be fun. But if you try to introduce too many characters they will get lost in the action and confuse your reader.
Watch this open from The Fast and the Furious (2001):
The story takes a minute to provide some context. They’re at a shipping yard in America and a truckload of money is leaving the port.
Several suped-up sports cars chase the truck and start hi-jacking it. They dodge in and out all across the road and are coordinated in their efforts. These are excellent and highly trained drivers committing this crime.
The next morning, we see the main character (Paul Walker) racing around a race track in a similar vehicle. He spins out of control trying to drive like the robbers last night.
It is clear he’s trying join the group of bandits. He’s practicing his driving skills so he’ll fit in and be welcomed to the crew.
Only one character was introduced in this setup. They didn’t try to introduce all the gang members participating in the heist at the same time.
That would’ve been a mess, and they all would’ve gotten lost in the action. So don’t do that to your characters either.
In Media Res Examples
Below you find dozens of examples from film and literature of how to use in media res. Use them as inspiration for starting your own story this way.
In Media Res Example #16 - Inception (2010)
Inception’s first scene has the main character washing up on shore. The rest of the movie explores how he got there.
In Media Res Example #17 - Forrest Gump (1994)
Forrest Gump opens with the main character sitting on a park bench. The film uses frame narratives and flashbacks to tell his story. He goes back to the past and catches up to the present, and then the story continues forward for the ending.
In Media Res Example #18 - National Treasure (2004)
National Treasure begins with the characters digging up a ship in Alaska. There’s no explanation of how they got there or why they are even there.
In Media Res Example #19 - Batman Begins (2005)
After showing why Bruce Wayne is so afraid of bats, the film flashes forward to a scene with Bruce Wayne in prison. There’s no explanation of why he’s there, and soon he’s attacked by the other inmates. The film then goes back in time to fill in the gaps leading up to that point.
In Media Res Example #20 - Fight Club (1999)
The movie Fight Club opens with a gun being held in the main character’s mouth. Talk about high stakes! The film then goes back to catch you up to this point which is near the end of the story.
In Media Res Example #21 - Indiana Jones (1981)
Being an action and adventure film, this is a natural way to start. The film would’ve been much more boring if it opened with Jones sitting in his office doing research. This is a much better way to kickstart the action and show his character.
In Media Res Example #22 - Raging Bull (1980)
The film starts in 1964, with hero Jake LaMotto rehearsing for a one-man show. The film ends with Jake walking on stage to deliver the performance he’s been rehearsing. Through a series of flashbacks, we get the story of Jake’s career and how he lost everything. This helps to understand why he’s an overweight loser at the end of the film doing stand-up for a living.
In Media Res Example #23 - Kill Bill Vol. I (2003)
The film opens with the character laying on the floor, bloodied and beaten. It seems she might be wearing a wedding dress. A man approaches and wipes the blood from her face. After a short speech, he gets up and loads his gun. The Bride tells him the baby is his, but not before he shoots her in the head. Talk about starting with a bang!
In Media Res Example #24 - Memento (2000)
The film Memento opens towards the end of the story with a man being murdered. The story alternates scenes to get to that point. Some are from the start of the story, and the others are from what takes place right before the murder.
In Media Res Examples #25, 26 & 27 - The Hangover Series
Each film in the Hangover series opens in media res. The first two movies begin with a phone call explaining how messed up the previous night was. The rest of the story shows how they got to that point. The last movie opens in the middle of an apparent prison riot with no explanation why it’s happening.
In Media Res Example #28 - Saving Private Ryan (1998)
The film begins with a family walking through the Normandy American Cemetery in France. An older gentleman kneels down in front of a grave and begins to weep. The movie then goes back to the D-Day invasion of 1944. It tells the story of the relationship between the weeping man and his lost friend.
There’s about a million other examples, but these should provide a good start for you. Think about your favorite books and movies… do any of them start in media res? How do they do it? Can you learn anything from it?
Post your favorite in media res scene in the comments below!