On Story Structure: The Cons of “In Media Res”

Think of "in media res" as starting off trapped in the current, pulled along by the wave

Think of “in media res” as starting off trapped in the current, pulled along by the wave

Today, I’d like to talk to more about structure and starting a novel in the middle of the story, or “in media res.” What are the challenges of organizing your story this way?

“In media res” has a long and storied history, and definitely has its benefits. (We discussed those yesterday). But it’s not a sure bet for success.

As a writer of sword and sorcery–a genre that generally has a lots of action and battles and such– “in media res” is a big topic for me. It’s a really good genre to employ that structure (if I’m ever going to employ it).

Here are a few ways starting in the thick of the battle can cause problems.

YOU WILL BE TEMPTED TO MAKE HEAVY USE OF FLASHBACKS.

And flashbacks have their own drawbacks and cause their own set of problems. The connection is pretty straightforward.

  • If you’re starting in the middle of things, you’re missing how things began.
  • You will need to clue readers in to important previous events somehow.
  • The obvious and easy way to do that is through flashbacks.

Now, flashbacks are not the only way to provide backstory. And there’s no reason you would HAVE to rely upon five or six content-heavy flashback scenes if you start “in media res.”

But I can’t imagine myself being creative enough not to have at least two or three flashback scenes.

I don’t mean to trash flashbacks or say they are always bad. They can definitely work well if they are well placed and well written. They are definitely one of those “rich” pleasures, though: they are “filling” and “heavy” and readers won’t eat up a ton of them.

The fewer the better (as a general rule, in my humble opinion).

IT’S EASY TO LEAVE READERS UNSETTLED/CONFUSED

When you start “in media res,” then you’re off with all cylinders engaged. Your pacing is fast and stuff is happening.

That can be really fun and exciting, but if not handled the right way it can also be confusing for a reader, who might have trouble finding a hold in your story.

It’s frustrating to feel like you can’t make sense of what’s going on in a book. I know I stop reading when that happens to me.

Conversely, with all the backstory “in media res” makes necessary, you might be tempted later on to include long info dumps and chunks of exposition to explain the situation your characters are in.

This kind of thing can be really, really boring. So double whammy: you start off too fast and then have to slam on the brakes.

Again, this isn’t necessarily going to happen with your “in media res” novel, but it’s a possibility. And it’s something to be aware of, to consciously avoid. It’s an added challenge (which, to be fair, might stretch your creativity and be a lot of fun.)

YOU CAN COME ACROSS AS FORCING ARTSINESS

Experimental and artsy storytelling methods have their place. And if your target audience is a group that enjoys that kind of thing, there’s definitely no reason to avoid them.

The thing is, starting in the middle of story definitely lends itself to crafty and crazy structural choices. And if made poorly, those structural choices can come across as forced: as pretentious, as grasping, as an author trying to be someone he or she just isn’t at the core.

When that happens, it’s not good.

YOU CAN START AT THE WRONG POINT IN THE STORY

When you start at the beginning, things are pretty straightforward.

When you decide to start at a later point, you have options. Different choices, each of which could theoretically work as a place to jump in during your first scene.

Obviously, some places make more sense to start than others. Start too late, and then you’re drowning in backstory. Just drowning in it.

Again, I want to emphasize that I’m not trying to inhibit anyone from experimenting with an “in media res” structure. This is simply a “con” list, a “watch out for” list, to go along with all the positives I talked about yesterday.

Personally, I think the story itself comes first. Certain kinds of stories lend themselves better to certain structures. It’s not a good idea to put structure first and force your story into a frame that doesn’t really suit it.

What do you think? How do you “frame” your stories? (Speaking of frames…. frame stories can be fun. An idea for more posts soon!)

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15 responses to “On Story Structure: The Cons of “In Media Res”

  1. I think one of the difficult problems in writing is how much space to leave for the reader to make her own meaning. There’s such a range of possibilities in terms of what can be left unexplained or unexplored and, correspondingly, what readers will tolerate. I guess it’s about knowing your audience–or writing to what your own tolerances are for ambiguity. But, like all writing choices, I would say that the author should be aware of what’s not been said and should make a conscious decision to let it be; sometimes it seems like an oversight rather than a choice. Which is why you need beta-readers, manuscript groups, and professional copy editors, I suppose.

    • LOVE everything you say here. I could not agree more!!! You are so right: it is always a balancing act. What to leave unsaid? What is BETTER left unsaid? How much closure is needed?

      And like you say, the input of others helps us figure that out.

  2. I run into that fast start and slow moments a lot. My books are very action-oriented and dialogue-oriented. This creates chapters where at least one section is fast-paced action and the other is a calm scene with characters talking about a subplot. I think it’s the strict, conversational character development scenes where people think things are dragging along.

    With ‘in media res’, does it count if your story takes place a couple centuries after the initial plot event? Is there a time limit on ‘in media res’ where it stops being in the middle of a story and is the beginning of a distantly associated event?

    • I think there is. Technically “in media res” starting in the middle of the action… In the middle of a war that’s been raging for ten years (The Iliad) or at a random stop in the middle of Odysseus’s ten year journey home (The Odyssey).

      If you are starting in the thick of a series of consequential events 200 years later than I would consider that in media res. If your story–where your protagonist is concerned–does not start in the middle of the second adventure, so to speak, I wouldn’t say it necessarily starts “in media res.”

      I would consider the event 200 years before something separate: a catalyst, for sure, but separate. Where you start off in the chain of the events it causes would determine if a story is “in media res” or not.

      But those are all just literary and scholarly terms anyway that are made to be fooled around in implementation 🙂

      • That makes a lot of sense. While a current adventure may be connected to a past events that current adventure is starting at the beginning. At least the way I wrote mine. It seems to get complicated when fantasy weaves past evils and events into the current story.

  3. I usually start at the inciting incident–the change that starts the main character on his or her journey. I tend not to write flashbacks, because I don’t do those well. But I have loved the way other authors do them, especially if they’re not too intrusive or occur every two pages.
    I’ve followed the three-act structure. The second act is the toughest, because I have a tendency toward the sagging middle. When I revise, I usually wind up cutting the second part severely.

    • Love what you say here!!! a HUGE part of writing is knowing what you do well and what you don’t, and avoiding what would weaken your writing. 🙂

      I tend to have lots of dialogue and not to describe setting too much because description isn’t one of my strong points I don’t think.

  4. You said it all when you mentioned ‘starting at the wrong point in the story.’ I’ve never done in media res, but it has to be really carefully done, in my reading experience, for it to be the ‘right place’ to start a story!

    And it wasn’t until I came to this post that I realized yesterday’s post was just about the pro’s of it. I’m pretty sure in my comment I spoke to all the cons. That sounds just like me. 🙂

    • hehehe no worries at all! 🙂 I think it’s EXTREMELY important to consider the difficulties and the drawbacks of any technique we might want to use.

      Writing is all about exploiting strengths and diminishing weaknesses.

  5. I tremble in fear when I think I’ve become ‘artsy’. None of the ‘experimental high literature’ etc stuff I’ve ever read was any good. Like you said, it sounds grasping and pretensious; as if compensating for something else. I prefer the straight forward approach.

    The part about ‘starting in the wrong place’ is helping md decide what to do with my own story. I’m still toying with the idea of changing the opening.

  6. Pingback: Creative Writing and the Frame Narrative | Creative Writing with the Crimson League

  7. Milne’s High Vampire Clan may be drowning in flashbacks.

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