By starting a story in the midst of action, writers can hook readers with a literary technique as old as the Greek epics—in medias res. Paul Buchanan explains how.
IMAGE © GETTY IMAGES: BEA CRESPO
My undergraduate Techniques in Fiction students wanted a prompt—some starting point to ignite a creative spark for their in-class assignment. The answer seemed obvious: I’d give them real starting points from real stories. I pulled a few old issues of the literary journal Ploughshares from my shelf and typed up some opening lines. My students picked folded strips of paper from a cigar box and were asked to begin their own stories using the first line they’d picked.
While laptop keys clacked around me, I unfolded the leftovers.
One of the few friends I have left asks the question.
Betty doesn’t know how much longer she can stall Mrs. Beatrice.
I met my best pal, Phil, about 10 years ago through our mutual wife.
By the third occasion—she couldn’t exactly call them “dates”—Mira thought she had him figured out.
I liked Gretchen better when she wasn’t trying to kill me.
What struck me about these was the implication of how much had already taken place before these stories began. There were betrayals and broken marriages, hard feelings and heartbreaks—all prior to the opening lines.
This is, of course, a simple literary technique, older even than Homer: in medias res. Starting “in the middle of things.”
Gaining traction with a reader has a lot to do with arriving at the conflict quickly. It’s diffi cult to stay engaged in a story, no matter how clever the writing, when there’s nothing at stake from the get-go. Beginning a story (or novel, or chapter) in the middle of action can generate the momentum a reader needs to stay engrossed. When we launch in medias res, the conflict can already be at a high pitch, so our reader has something to worry about right away.
BACKSTORY AND FRONTSTORY
There’s one important consideration when choosing where to start a story. Think of the launching point as a dividing line: That moment in the story’s timeline—whenever it occurs in the chronology of events—determines the status of every event you write from that point on. All the things that happened before the tale begins are the backstory. Everything that happens aft er is, for lack of a better term, the frontstory.
Here’s a simple rule that will help keep everything clear for the reader: Frontstory is told in chronological order, from the launching point on. But backstory can be told in any order you so choose. Th is gives the writer wonderful flexibility in how the narrative is assembled. You can use flashbacks or memories or allusions to arrange backstory in any order that works. Backstory can be shuffl ed like a deck of cards and it will still be clear to the reader—as long as we return to the next event in the frontstory.
THE TECHNIQUE AT WORK
Let’s say you have an idea for a short story about a 30-something high school teacher, Ellen, who lost her father to cancer when she was 12. She’s always struggled to understand men, and her love life has subsequently been a disaster. She’s now in a long-term relationship with Robbie, who treats her poorly. Meanwhile, there’s a warm and thoughtful new teacher at school, James, who seems to like her—but Ellen always plays it safe. Driving alone one night, she witnesses the aftermath of a fatal accident on a back road. The shock of it makes her rethink her own life choices, and she finally breaks up with Robbie to face the world on her own.
That’s a good story arc, but now you must decide how to structure it. The earliest event in Ellen’s story is, of course, her father’s illness. That’s where her timeline starts, but it’s probably not where her story should launch.
Let’s try in medias res very late in the chronology of events—with Ellen’s frantic 911 call—after she finds a hissing, crumpled pickup slammed into a tree on a lonely rural road. That moment will probably hook your readers and make it hard to put the story down. Here’s a sketch of how that first scene might look:
Ellen calls 911, then rushes to the pickup. She finds the driver, a teen boy, unresponsive. She unbuckles his seatbelt, pulls him out and puts him on his back. She can’t find a pulse, so she starts giving him CPR. She tries to remember the process. How many compressions to how many breaths? Stay calm, she tells herself. She continues CPR for several minutes, listening for approaching sirens. The paramedics finally arrive and take over. Ellen sits slumped at the edge of the road, lights flashing around her, stunned. The police come, take down her report, and she’s free to go.
That’s a short sketch of a solid first scene. It has real tension. The reader will likely be drawn in once we fill in all the dialogue and detail—and, of course, the scene’s events are presented in chronological order.
But throughout, you could blend in elements of Ellen’s backstory—without losing momentum. You can present them in any order, as long as you come back to the next moment in the frontstory.
Our finished scene might look something like this:
Ellen calls 911, then rushes to the pickup. She finds the driver, a teen boy, unresponsive. She unbuckles his seatbelt, pulls him out and puts him on his back. She can’t find a pulse, so she starts giving him CPR. She tries to remember the process. How many compressions to how many breaths? [Flashback: We briefly see Ellen’s mandatory training as a public-school teacher. She’s awkwardly bent over the CPR mannequin in the gym, conscious that James, her handsome new colleague, is in line behind her.] Keep calm, she tells herself. Don’t panic. She continues CPR for several minutes, listening for approaching sirens. [Allusion: What must Robbie think? He’s probably waiting at the restaurant, furious at her again for being late.] The paramedics finally arrive and take over. Ellen sits slumped at the edge of the road, lights flashing around her, stunned. [Memory: She has the same lost feeling she had as a 12-year-old, sitting at her father’s bedside in his final days.] The police come, take down her report, and she’s free to go.
Now you’ve got a launch that both pushes the story forward and fills in backstory, adding greater context to the accident. You see Ellen’s traumatic childhood loss, her job as a teacher and her new colleague, her impatient boyfriend and their date for tonight.
None of the backstory is in chronological order, but how it fits in is still clear to the reader because of the way the story returns to the next moment in the frontstory.
Many novels plunge us into conflict and then slowly explain how we got there. Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale begins with a world already fallen into dystopia. Only as we read do we learn how it came about. We can see the principle in the simple fact that so many novels, from Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol to Ian McEwan’s Saturday, take place in a single day, yet we get a full picture of the characters’ history and world. Hook set, backstory forming—soon you, too, will have your readers glued to the page.
Paul Buchanan is a novelist and a professor of English at Biola University.