In Medias Res—A Very Good Place to Start Your Novel

by Karen Debonis

Over twenty years ago, when I decided to write a memoir, I knew next to nothing about creative writing. But I had a story to tell—the tale of my eleven-year-old son’s diagnosis with a brain tumor. After enough friends told me, “You should write a book,” I decided to dive in.

I’d already written a master’s thesis, a health education curriculum, public service announcements, and business letters. How hard could it be to write a memoir?

(I’m chuckling with you.)

I started at the very beginning; I’d heard it was a very good place to start.

My first chapter focused on my upbringing so readers would understand how I came to be the insecure mother and conflict-averse woman I was. The next chapter told about meeting and marrying my husband. Chapter three began with my high-risk delivery and ended with my healthy newborn.

Are you bored yet? 

The inciting incident—the onset of Matthew’s unusual eye-rolling tic at age eight—didn’t show up until chapter 9. Like Herman Melville’s Moby Dick, I had pages and pages of exposition before the real action began.

Where should your story begin?

As I would later learn, the chronological beginning of a story is not always the best place to start.  In fact, beginning a story in the middle is sometimes the best place to start.

A few years into the writing, I discovered—Over My Head by Claudia L. Osborn. I decided to restructure my manuscript to align with this engaging memoir. In her opening, Osborn—a doctor who suffered a brain injury in a bike accident—recounts in breathless detail the challenges of finding her way to a recovery program in New York City. It sucked me in and kept me turning the pages to the next chapter when she goes back in time to the hospital where she had practiced a year earlier.

I want that, I decided. I want a reader to be so engaged, they can’t help but keep reading.

I moved the inciting incident—Matthew’s eye-rolling tic— to the first chapter, filled in the backstory, and proceeded chronically from there.

The name of this restructuring.

Years later, one of my critique partners said I used a technique called in medias res. (This Latin phrase means “in the midst of things.”)

In medias res is the technique of beginning a story in the middle of the action–usually the inciting incident or the climax.

Since I still knew next to nothing about creative writing, I studied to understand.

Examples of Story Narrative Arc

The most cited examples of in medias res are Homer’s epic poems The Iliad and The Odyssey. To help me remember what I learned, I created the super-simplified graphic below. 

In red is the typical narrative arc of a story told in chronological order, as my original manuscript was. The inciting incident— “the triggering event that puts the main events of the story in motion” —usually occurs in rising action.

In blue is a story told using in medias res. Starting with the climax or inciting incident entices the reader to want to know the back story, and because they’ve been drawn in by the drama-filled opening, they are now invested in learning more about it.

(Of course, not all plot lines follow these neat paths, but it’s helpful to understand the basic building blocks.)

After the opening scene or chapter in medias res, the story usually jumps back in time to provide backstory. Then, it can proceed chronically. The author will want to remind readers when they reach the point in the narrative where the opening scene or chapter naturally occurs.

However, not all stories must follow this narrative arc.  A writer has choices about what happens after their in medias res opening .

5 considerations for story openings:

1. Make your opening scene urgent and integral to the plot, with high stakes for the main characters.

2. In medias res works best if the opening is closer to the middle or end of the story.

3. If the opening comes from early enough in the narrative, the writer may not need much backstory, and may be able to provide it in dialogue. 

4. In medias res may work better for stories (in this case, memoirs) spanning many years or where the natural beginning is boring.

5. A traditional narrative arc may work best for stories (in this case, memoirs) that cover a short time period (one to five years), because:

            A. There’s less ground to cover between the chronological beginning and the heart of the action

            B. The version of the narrator at the beginning and end of the story are more-or-less the same.

Examples of Various Structure Options

Additional structure options for my fellow memoirists (and novel diagnostics, including medias res, for novelists)

I took to my bookshelves to see what other books could teach me and here are three examples of in medias res in memoir:

The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls

The book begins with her sitting in a taxi, dressed up for the evening. She looks out the window and sees her mother dumpster-diving. After that introductory scene, Walls’ next chapter begins with her earliest memory when she was three.

The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion

The novel opens with words she wrote several days after her husband died of a massive coronary event. Then it jumps briefly to a day nine months later, then back to the year before her husband’s death.

Orange is the New Black by Piper Kerman

This starts in the Brussels airport where her bag stuffed with drug money finally comes through baggage, then jumps back to her college graduation a year earlier.

And here are three examples of in medias res in fiction:

The Secret Life of Bees by Sue Monk Kidd

The book begins when Lily, the teenage protagonist, intends to show her emotionally abusive father a swarm of bees in her bedroom. But the bees have mysteriously vanished, angering her father. Then Lily brings us back to the day her mother died ten years earlier, and tries to understand who killed her.

The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini

This novel starts in the Falling Action, when Amir, an Afghanistan emigre living in San Francisco, receives a call as an adult to atone for sins he committed as a twelve-year-old.

The Nightingale

Kristin Hannah’s book begins even later—decades after the action is resolved. Vianne is a dying elderly woman who hid her link to the French resistance in World War II. When she inadvertently reveals a trunk full of secrets to her adult son, her story spills out from the beginning.

So, although, when you read, you begin with “A B C,” and when you sing, you begin with “Do Re Mi,” when you write, you get to decide for yourself the very best place to start.

Do you have other examples of books that use in medias res? What about your own writing—how do you decide where to start your story?

* * * * * *

About Karen

Karen DeBonis writes about motherhood, perseverance, and people-pleasing, an entangled mix told in her memoir GROWTH: A Mother, Her Son, and the Brain Tumor they Survived, available for representation.

A happy empty-nester, she lives in an old house in upstate New with her husband of thirty-nine years. You can see more of her work at www.karendebonis.com.

Top Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

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