Opening in media res

Hi gang, Craig here again. In my last post, we went over the opening to your book. The nutshell explanation is to take it easy with the volume of characters, make the reader care, and introduce a problem.

I wanted to include starting in what’s called Media Res, but that’s a bigger post. Now here it is, funny how that works out. There are some great reasons to do it, and some reasons not to as well.

There are probably better authors who could write about this. I needed a post, and dammit, it was my idea.

In Media Res is ancient Klingon for, I have to bore you for a while, so let me start with something exciting.

In the good old days, we used to meet characters in their everyday world. I liked this, and occasionally still do it myself. Similar to my last post, it was a way to make readers care about this character before something awful happened to him.

Note: While I admit to using the older style on occasion, even I know I don’t have two chapters, more like two pages or less.

Editors, and modern readers, kind of hate this. We don’t have the luxury of Julie Andrews spinning on a flowery ridge. Today, Julie would be ducking for cover while being strafed by Messerschmitts. We have to get into the story and hook the reader a bit faster. This poses a conundrum, because we still need to accomplish the same goals.

One of the ways to do this is to open the story at some pivotal point, then go back and walk readers into it. It serves the goal of establishing stakes and interest right up front.

Those goals aren’t just important, they’re paramount. Some stories require some boring parts to make the story work, and media res is a good way around this.

If you’ve been with me for any length of time, you know I like movies for examples. Some of my film choices are pretty old, but as classics I assume most folks will have seen them.

Think about this boring story. In 1894, a pretty girl named Catherine traveled back east and got her education. Now she’s coming home to become a school teacher. She intends to live with her widower father on the family ranch. There’s a problem at the ranch, and her father isn’t doing too well. It’s going to take some serious time to unfold all the problems that are going on and just how serious they are. Let alone get to a pivotal point where she decides to do something about it.

We’re talking about five or six chapters here. If we were to write that story, our readers would likely move on to something else. This doesn’t mean it’s a bad story at all, we just need a bit of time to explain things.

By opening in media res, we get to establish some stakes and interest that will make our readers follow along. What if we decided to open the exact same story like this: (And play the damned video, very few readers will watch the video. I’m watching the stats.)

How about that? It’s a hangin’ day, in Wolf City, Wyoming. How’s that for a hook? Take a breath, and we learn it’s a woman that’s being hanged. Don’t you want to know more? The clip ends before we see Hanoi Jane, but she was a beautiful woman and a great actress in her day. That helps too, because we aren’t exactly hanging the wicked witch of the west here. Could there be a misunderstanding of some kind?

Beyond the clip, we learn the townsfolk are looking forward to her hanging. They perceive some great evil that Catherine has done them all, and are ecstatic about getting justice.

Only after all this is established do we go back to the train where Catherine is heading home to become a future schoolmarm. Now the viewers (readers) are likely to take this trip with us, because they want to know what happened.

What happened is one of the greatest movies I know of. The film Cat Ballou is a great example of doing it well.

Unfortunately, we don’t have access to Stubby Kaye and Nat King Cole. Writing and reading don’t allow for audio. We can still write in the part where the Bible-thumper women sing Pray Jezebel Pray outside the jail.

Opening in media res is done way too often, and it isn’t always done well. Many times it’s a sign the author doesn’t have enough story. They have a vignette that might be cool, but they’re trying to stretch it into a novel. Maybe it’s time to embrace short stories and micro-fiction.

It’s also been used when it really doesn’t have to be. It’s almost like the author saw it done well, and wanted to try it out. I’m all for that, but do it with purpose and a reason. I’m known for trying different things, but I usually have a plan.

In the movie, we get through what amounts to the five or six chapters before Catherine decides to act. Even then, she decides to hire out the dirty work. Lee Marvin doesn’t even show up until a big chunk of the movie is over. His character also serves a purpose in the story, but that doesn’t involve media res. I’ll try to focus, but not until we check out this video:

Bonus points for the use of “booger” in a song.

Kid Shaleen injected some comedy and controversy into the story exactly where it needed it. The fact that it needed him at all, illustrates how telling this story any other way wouldn’t have worked out.

Imagine a first person story from Catherine’s viewpoint. Not quite as interesting. Maybe open at the point where her father dies, then use backstory to get us to that point. Kind of boring.

Media res is the best way to open this tale, and it’s a classic. Consider using it, but do it with a reason and a purpose. I don’t want to say use it as a last resort, but I nearly feel that way.

How about it Empire Netizens, do you like stories that open in media res? Do you feel it’s overused or poorly used? Do you find it a useful tool to add to your kit?

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52 thoughts on “Opening in media res

  1. Great post, Craig! I love books that start with action (then again, I read a lot of mysteries, suspense, etc) but if it’s a confusing scene, I just get confused and I’m not as anxious to get to the next scene because I don’t know if the rest of the book will be as confusing. Then again, as you say, starting slower allows the reader to meet the character and get to know him/her, maybe (hopefully) even to care about her before the first bit of trouble.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Never saw this movie, but I love old films. I want to check this one out. (And am I the only person who didn’t know Stubby Kaye was that short? He seemed taller in Guys and Dolls.)

    I’m not a fan of in media res, although I do think it can really be effective when it’s a series and we already know the character we’re watching. Usually, though, I want to get to know a character before I see a problem occur. Mostly because if I don’t know the character in some way, I’m probably not going to care much if his or her world falls apart. I agree with some of your comments, though… it works much better in mysteries, thrillers, suspenses and the like than in, say, a romance or family drama. Great post, Craig. Great video clips, too.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I fully subscribe to your Klingon interpretation. Any time I see an active opening, then a jump backwards in time, the author might as well write in 36 point bold all caps YOU HAVE FALLEN INTO MY TRAP — NOW I WILL BORE YOU TO DEATH! YOU ARE DOOMED!

    There may be a few examples of this being done well, but I see it as a signal that even the author knows they’ve written a bunch of boring junk. I say cut the boring junk, or write something interesting to mix in with it.

    When I get through with my magazine quest, I’m planning to review a novel by Naomi Novik where she did something that worked, at least for me, to get rid of the boring mid-section.

    Oh, and I didn’t watch the video clips — can’t play sound here.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I prefer to start my stories in the middle of the action (in Media Res). I also prefer to read stories that open with a strong hook. But I agree with you. If the author doesn’t make us care about the MC while still dropping us into an intriguing situation, then I put the book down.

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  5. The way authors write today is completely different than twenty or thirty years ago. We live in such a fast-paced world that readers need to be thrown into action pretty soon in the story, or they turn away looking for their next “fix.” I think using Media Res in moderation is the key. But, then I think everything in moderation is the key, so maybe that’s just my philosophy. Loved the video clips. Great post, Craig. You got us thinking.

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  6. I’m going to have to watch Cat Ballou. I’ve never seen that movie but it looks like a winner.

    I’m not a huge fan of media res. I prefer the slow build up (especially with a book) but I’m sure I’m in the minority. It also depends on the genre I’m reading (historical vs. thriller)

    I think the technique gets used a lot today and readers (and movie-goers) have come to expect it. It seems to have become part of our fast-food/instant gratification world.

    Excellent post, Craig!

    Liked by 1 person

  7. I’ve just started reading Stephen King’s earliest books, and he kind of lets you know what will happen later in the book without giving away the whole game. It adds massively to the suspense and build up because–Goddammit–you want to get there! lols. Media Res sounds similar, and I love it. Thanks for this great post, Craig, and the videos! 🙂

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  8. I never really thought of this one. Makes me think of crime shows where the story is all about figuring out what happened after the fact. Does seem like it gets used a lot in movies too. Personally, I’m not 100% certain I could use it with my usual style. Present tense doesn’t really handle flashbacks and time jumps very well.

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    • It’s pretty popular in TV and film. It gets overused at times, but it can work really well. I think you might find it hard unless you varied your style. Might work with a mix of present and past tense depending on which part of the story it is.

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      • I’d definitely have to mix it, but that requires a lot of retraining. Not sure how accepted mixes are these days since I’ve seen many people rail against them. In Media Res makes me think of the opening for the first John Wick movie. That feels like it was done correctly. Wonder if that success caused more people to attempt it.

        Do you think this works better with narration or just imagery that gets people curious about the previous events?

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      • As an author, I have to believe some narration works. This way of opening is much older than John Wick, but it could have sparked a bunch of usage. Some will mix first and third point of view in a story. Doesn’t feel right to me, but I’ve seen it done well. No reason present and past tense can’t work too.

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      • I read it was in Hamlet and even older than that. Only reason I mentioned Wick is it’s one of the more recent times it was done well. Tenses changing seem to require a bigger gear shift than POV. One you simply jump characters and the other is almost like time-traveling. All I know is I get in trouble for trying, but I guess there could be a way if you use dates or something to ease the transition.

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      • If it even has a place with my stories. I would need them to function with scenes if the past and present. That doesn’t work out too often with the types of adventures. The entire story would need to work that way too because just having one or two past tense scenes in a present tense novel can do more harm than good.

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  9. As a reader I like a book that begins in media res, provided it’s not confusing. A slow beginning can be hard to overcome, but a blurry one is even worse.
    As a writer I’m having a of problems deciding where to actually begin to tell my story. It’s science fiction, so it has huge (HUGE) back story in terms of history, but my main characters too have back story enough for a couple of prequels. So the question isn’t if I should begin in media res but in media res of which part of the story?

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