In medias res is a Latin phrase meaning “in the middle of things.” It’s one of the less common ways to begin a novel, but it can definitely be effective.
With in medias res, you start at a point deep in the story, show a bit of activity to intrigue the reader, and then jump back to an earlier, quieter part in the story. It’s the opposite of the prologue beginnings that show an early episode from the hero’s life. In this case, you show a later episode, and then you hit the rewind button and spend some or all of the rest of the book catching up to that moment.
Battle: Los Angeles begins with U.S. military helicopters flying over a Los Angeles under attack from alien beasties. We see the faces of some soldiers in the helicopters, but we don’t know who these people are. We’re just getting the uh-oh feeling about what we’re seeing, and then the movie skips back 24 hours. It’s a good distance into the plot before we get back to that helicopter moment. And when we do, this time we know what’s going on and who those people are. That’s an in medias res beginning.
The film version of One Day (based on David Nicholls’ novel of the same name), starring Anne Hathaway, uses the in medias res beginning. It opens with Anne’s character happily riding a bicycle through the streets of Paris. Then we jump back about 20 years. It’s a long time before we catch up to her joyride.
Why isn’t in medias res used more often? Part of the reason is because it can be perceived as a gimmick. Sometimes it gives readers that same ripped-off feeling they get when they read a novel that begins with a dream. It can also sacrifice suspense for that whole portion of the story until you catch up with the first moment.
Think about it: If you see the main character alive and well in what you now realize is a future moment, how nervous are you going to be when she gets into danger? I mean, you know she lives, right, at least up to the in medias res moment? An in medias res opening can deflate the tension the way a hole deflates a tire.
One benefit, however, of in medias res is that once you do catch up with that opening moment, especially if it’s taken a long time to get there, the reader is given an injection of fictive adrenaline. Before now, everything has been relatively safe. It’s been within the protective confines of story time when you know the hero is fine. But when you get to that moment, and especially when you surpass it, everything changes. Dramatically.
Now that you know these soldiers and see what’s been happening on the ground, all of a sudden you don’t know if you want them flying in to attack. Now that you care about that Parisian bicyclist, you’re concerned about what’s going to happen to her when she rounds that corner.
The payoff of the in medias res beginning is that thrilling moment of angst you give your reader when you reach that point and go beyond it. The tension shoots through the roof.
Consider your story: Is that the sort of risk/payoff pathway you’d love to send your novel and your readers on? The risk is that you may bore your readers if things are too slow before you catch up to that opening moment. The payoff is that breathless feeling of performing without a net that you give readers who stay with you. The choice is yours.