What does The Walking Dead, The Odyssey, Forest Gump, and The Hangover all have in common? I mean, other than being insanely-great-addicting stories that audiences and readers love and pretty much die for. Not sure what zombies have to do with “life being like a box of chocolates?” On the surface, not much, dear writer. The technical storytelling level is where we see the similarities. Each of these successful narratives use an advanced storytelling technique that you’re going to master today. It’s called in medias res.
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Everyone buckled? Then, read on, dear writer.
Tell me if this at all sounds familiar. You’re minding your own business, when—WHAM—a spark of a creative idea for a story collides with your brain. Nothing detailed per se. It mostly an idea of a half-formed character, a vague setting, a sentence of dialogue, etc. etc. So, you decide: this is it. The story I’ve waited for. So, you plot and plan your novel idea. Settle down to write. And—
Nothing. You blank out. Or if you’re lucky (it’s relative), you have a first page full of writing. The catch: your writing is weaker than the excuse you gave your mom that time you broke her great-great-grandma’s crystal vase while attempting to Cossack Dance across the living room. Yikes.
The point: you have this great idea, but your writing is bad and feels wrong. Your writing does NOT line up with the brilliant idea you had in your head. You stumble over your words and have no idea where to start. Although you don’t know where to begin, that scene, idea, character—whatever—is so vivid in your head that you can’t let it go. The idea clings to you like a sock clings to your sweater after you pull it out of the dryer. It stays there forever, and none of your jerk-friends tell you that there’s a freaking sock stuck on you. (I’m looking at you, Tabitha. ~Thanks for nothing~.)
Dear writer, you don’t need to scrap that half-formed story idea. Don’t give up on your spark just yet.
The solution: In media res
In medias res is a storytelling technique that has been around (in Western literature) since Homer used it in The Iliad in 8th century BC. Although, heads up, this technique is probably older than Homer—people used to tell stories instead of writing them down (it’s called oral tradition).
In media res is Latin for “into the middle of things.” In short, stories that use in medias res start in the middle of some action. That doesn’t necessarily mean that you need to start with the bomb squad defusing a bomb or a car chase. However, the action is usually intriguing enough to suck people in.
Basically, writers who use this technique skip over the exposition and gradually go back and fill in the details as the story progresses. They use flashbacks. They use dialogue. Or backstory. Or dream sequences.
This narrative technique is for when you feel bogged down by exposition and introductions. Your creativity shouldn’t suffer because of rocky writing starts.
Exposition: Where the author divulges the essential background information of a narrative. Usually found in the beginning, the exposition sets the stage for the events to come. Typically includes setting, time, and character introductions.
Nonlinear Narrative: A storytelling technique that tells events out of chronological order.
Examples of in media res
The Walking Dead
The opening scene of “Days Gone Bye” (Season 1, Episode 1), sees Rick scavenging for supplies when he runs into a little girl. A bunny-slippered, teddy-bear-carrying, little girl. He tries to help her, and talks some comforting words as she shuffles away from him. She turns, and plot twist: she’s a zombie. BOOM! In one scene, the first scene, The Walking Dead throws audiences into the middle of the action and establishes that this world is one with new rules. The next scene is a flashback to how Rick got to the point of shooting little kid Walkers.
In that first episode, The Walking Dead uses in medias res as a world building device. First, to meet the Walkers. Then, it’s used to show how the zombie apocalypse flipped the world upside down because the innocents are the new monsters that can and will eat you.
One Hundred Years of Solitude
Gabriel García Márquez began One Hundred Years of Solitude with a great line:
”Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendía was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.”
This brings up so many questions! What did Colonel Aureliano Buendía do to face a firing squad? What’s the story behind the ice? Why would someone remember that when they’re about to die?!?! Tell me more! See how in medias res pulls readers in?
“An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge”
Ambrose Bierce begins An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge with the main character about to be hanged. Oh man, go and read this if you haven’t. This short story stayed with me when I first read it—super jarring.
In medias res also functions as a way of giving readers and audiences the “ahhhhhhhhhhhhhh-wait-no!” and “oh sh—“ and “that’s rude!” moment. You can have fun with it.
Some other stories that use in media res
There you have it. Don’t let the Latin name for this technique fool you—in medias res is not some uppity narrative technique used by fancy-pants writers. Anyone can mess around with nonlinear narratives. Try it out if you feel like your writing is less like the brilliant, groundbreaking ideas in your head and more like word vomit. Hold fast to your creative sparks.
Want to master more creative writing techniques? You’re creative writing will benefit from checking out these:
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