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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