Literary agent Kelly Dyksterhouse explains what it really means to start your story "in the middle of things."
“Start your story in medias res.” This bit of writing advice has become so common it might as well be chiseled in stone. But what, exactly, does it mean to start your story “in the middle of things?”
Usually, the advice to start in medias res is followed by an experienced author or agent or editor stating that many authors take too long to get into the story and that the first couple of chapters can be chopped so that chapter 3 becomes chapter 1.
I am not going to argue with that—it’s often the case in early drafts that the author is working themselves into the story with the first couple of chapters and, upon polishing, discovers that the real story does indeed start in chapter 3.
But I often find that the advice is taken too literally—or maybe I should say too externally. A fantasy starts with a battle scene, a sci-fi with a character fleeing an exploding star, an historical in the midst of a protest, a contemporary with the character sneaking out of the house in the middle of the night, a mystery with the character trying to lose a tail . . .
All are examples of high action, which isn’t necessarily bad, as often this action does identify WHAT the character wants. Knowing what the characters want is necessary for creating those high stakes every story has to have. But knowing what the character wants is only part of the ingredient to creating stakes. The reader also needs to know WHY. WHY does the character need to fight, flee, protest, sneak, or hide? WHY should the reader care?
Readers Have to Care
All the action in the world isn’t enough to hold a reader’s attention if the reader doesn’t care about the character. WHY is the other side of the coin to WHAT, and both are needed in order for the reader to connect to the character and to create tension and stakes. One way to look at this is that WHY tends to be connected to the internal/emotional storyline and that WHAT is connected to the external storyline.
With all of the focus on action, writers often forget that they also need to be “in the middle of things” emotionally/internally.
So, interestingly, I find myself often advising authors to take a step back and to add a scene or chapter to the beginning of the book in order to build up to all the action they’re starting with. With all of the focus on action, writers often forget that they also need to be “in the middle of things” emotionally/internally. Why does the character feel they have to fight the battle? Why are they fleeing the star—or if you can’t show why because it’s the point of the book, what are they feeling about it? Excited? Reluctant? Why does the character need to protest? Are they marching for something or against it? As they sneak out, are they looking forward to something outside, or anxious about something inside the house? Why are they nervous someone is following them if they’re trying to lose a tail? In other words, what is emotionally driving the action? This is the WHY.
The Importance of the Opening Scene
A lot of editorial types call this “grounding the reader in the character” or “Orienting the reader in the story.” In her excellent book, Save the Cat! Writes a Novel, Jessica Brody identifies this first scene as “The Opening Image.” It describes your character’s life before you, the writer, gets in there to shake things up. She says, “This beat helps the reader of your story understand exactly what kind of journey they’re about to go on and who they’re about to go on it with.”
Consider the opening scene of Angeline Boulley’s masterpiece, Firekeeper’s Daughter. It opens with Daunis on her morning run, which brings her to her grandmother’s nursing home where she tells her mother and grandmother that she’s decided to defer her acceptance to the University of Michigan for one year and instead start at the local community college in order to stay closer to home and help her mom take care of her grandmother. This short scene tells us so much about Daunis. She’s athletic, driven, and smart. We know WHAT she wants: She wants to be a doctor, but more than anything, she wants to care for her family, even if that means sacrificing her personal goals for the time being. WHY? Because she loves them. Boulley sets up her story world and Daunis’s character by showing what Daunis wants and why so that when she witnesses a murder and the widespread effects of a new drug on her family and community, Daunis is perfectly situated to investigate, and the reader is ready to follow her.
What In Medias Res is Not
It’s important to note that showing the WHY (internal emotion) doesn’t mean neglecting action. This needs to be a fully developed scene, not an internal monologue or info-dump. When you think about starting your story in medias res with your opening scene, think about situations you can build around your character that can SHOW not only what they want, but why they want it. Often this requires building out the beginning a little or starting in a new place, but it doesn’t have to. It could be that all you need is to polish what you have to give your scene nuance. Adding a line here or there.
Either way, when thinking about starting a story in medias res, don’t neglect your character’s emotions for the sake of creating high action. It could make all the difference between the reader turning to chapter 2 or putting the book down and walking away.