In medias res translates from Latin as “in the midst of things”.
Today, the advice of many academics, authors, and writers is that you should begin your narrative by plunging your Main Character (MC) into a crucial situation that is part of a related chain of events. The situation may or may not be the inciting incident of the novel. This situation, however, is part of previous events which will be developed later in the book.
The advice complements what I discussed previously in my post “What’s the big deal with first lines?”
The idea here is that the modern reader has an exceptionally short attention span. I don’t agree with that. It is, however, well accepted in the writing community. The antidote for that short attention span is to give the reader immediate gratification. This is to say, as soon as they start your novel, they find themselves in the middle of an exciting, engaging event.
An author-tuber I follow joked about this saying “you should start your book with a bang. Not necessarily with an explosion, although if you can swing it, that’d be great.”
Some writers perform a cheat that rubs many readers the wrong way. They write a Prologue to the novel.
A Prologue is a cheat? Since when?
Put down the pitchforks and torches and hear me out.
A Prologue is defined as a separate introductory section of a literary or musical work. In our case, it’s a Faux Chapter One. It’s where many of us do a moderate infodump to get the reader up to speed in regards to the world the MC will live in, the circumstances that lead to the confrontation or action that happens on the opening of the Actual Chapter One. This, however, is what leads many readers to say they hate Prologues. What they hate, mostly, is the infodump, not the Prologue per se.
Some time back, in December 2020 in fact, @MarcusCVance, an expert in swords, edged weapons, and a Science Fiction and Fantasy author, asked this on Twitter:
“Could I ask your opinion?
WIP has an inciting incident in the MCs past as a 2-3 year old, but the main story starts 10 years later.
Have inciting incident as a prologue?
Have it as ch 1 then time skip?
Explore it as flashbacks/nightmares?
Something else? ”
It’s a common problem. However, is there a way to solve it?
Sure there is. For one thing, yes, you could write a Prologue, but that Prologue is going to have to be like a Short Story in itself. And it has to start with a bang too. Can’t be an info dump, it has to… See what I mean?
On the other hand, you could simply skip the whole thing and, indeed, manage it with anything from Flash Backs to Dream Sequences.
You see the problem.
You want to initiate your novel with a strong conflict, in as much as possible shock or surprise your reader enough to make reading on unavoidable.
We all, as writers, want our book to be a “page-turner”. We want our readers to get to work the next day looking haggard and tired. We want them to answer the question “What happened to you?” by looking both ways and confessing in a low voice “I got this terrific book and I… I just couldn’t put it down. I tried, but just couldn’t. I had to know what happened.”
How can we accomplish this?
We need to have them immersed in the narrative immediately. Today’s readers love conflict. Whether is Veronica dumping her frozen margarita down Betsy’s cleavage in the middle of the party, or the baby dragon struggling to break through the tough leathery eggshell and being rescued amid what would have been the last gasps by the young peasant from suffocating inside the egg in the rocky nest, or Buck grabbing Lou’s space suit collar and pulling him back from the Dennubian Demon Worm that popped up from the blue sand and hungrily tried to make a meal of his face, or the village Elder facing off with her best friend after the cursed soul turned into a vicious werewolf when the moonlight came through the window, we as writers need the reader to be immediately and completely immersed in the world we created for them. Today, the accepted theory is that we do that by putting characters in extreme situations at once.
We want the reader to immediately engage the “theater of the mind”, in other words, we want them to imagine and have vivid images and sensations elicited by our writing. Our goal is to have them feel the sticky cold margarita going down their chest, the choking sensation of the air becoming foul and oxygenless, the shock and surprise of the attack by a vicious alien species, the terror caused by the change of a trusted friend into a dangerous, bloodthirsty fiend. Some authors give the reader more rein and control than others. Some can successfully go through the whole book without describing the MC, that way the reader confers on the MC race, body type, eye color, hair color, etc. Sometimes, the reader simply takes on the persona of the MC. Now, THAT is a huge success. Others, the group I’m in, have to describe the MC and have to make our best effort to transmit to the reader the feelings and sensations of the characters in the book and have them experience them empathically.
So, there you are. Drop your characters In Medias Res in the first paragraph of the first chapter of your book… and leave them in it until the very end. Keep the reader’s heart pounding with a variety of emotions and feelings. Give them time to gasp, but that’s it. Nothing more than a breath or two. Until the end.
What do you think? Do you like this approach? No? Let me know, I’d love to read your opinion.
Thanks for reading and have a great day.