Starting the Story in Medias Res

The images has nothing to do with the topic at hand, and certainly nothing to do with illustrating my point. But I came across it in one of my many internet searches for meme dumps (oh, and leave a like below if you enjoy those and you’d like to see more!) and it’s funny to boot.

Anyway, now that I’ve dawdled away the first few lines of this article in meaningless introduction (Captain Procrastination does it again!), I’m here to talk about a very effective (but not necessarily common, and I’ll get to that in a second) narrative hook: starting the story in medias res.

The Italian phrase (and you really believe me on that? It’s Latin) means something like “in the midst of things”. The story opens not on a sleepy farm afternoon before the action starts, but a bullet whizzing through the window during a high-speed car chase right after a bank robbery.

You’ve probably seen this before in popular film and literature. Many stories intended to thrill or place their audiences in suspense will go with this beginning, such as spy-thrillers like Inception. However, any story can use the in medias res as a literary hook to catch readers, but some genres and subgenres benefit more from it.

You may be eager to jump ahead and try this new technique, but it’s only fair that I warn you of the greatest danger (not flaw, mind you) that comes when employing in medias res. You see, not many people actually employ this technique because it becomes tougher to build your world. You see, when you start in the middle of the action you have to build your world in retrospective.

Why is this so hard? Well, for one thing, this is one of the reasons a lot of authors favor a young protagonist. It allows the author to explain the world to the reader through the eyes of someone who’s discovering it: this makes it look less like info dumps and more like the reader is actually discovering the world.

When you worldbuild in retrospective, you have to reference key events that have already taken place. Neglecting to do this instantly estrange your reader and keep them lost for the duration of the story. Doing this correctly, however, can be tricky. It’s far easier to worldbuild in the present than it is to build past events. That is, without info dumping.

Lore is easier to work in: just set up an appointment with a historian and have the lore be important to the main goals of the hero/heroine. Since the easiest way to worldbuild is through dialogue, working the past events of the world into a conversation would be the best way to build the world, right?

Not if you’re starting in medias res. The problem here is that recent events don’t naturally come into the story–that is, unless something really bad went down. Then someone can ask the main character, “Where’s Frankie?” to which the hero responds that he died during the start of the op, a few days ago.

However, since not every instance of in medias res includes really bad things happening beforehand, the ability to work in worldbuilding becomes harder. I can’t give too many tips on this as I haven’t tried this beginning too much, but use the general rule of worldbuilding as you go: work important details into dialogue, because people will talk about things that are important to them. Therefore, don’t only make the worldbuilding matter to the reader, make it relevant to your characters. That way, they’ll be less reluctant and more natural to talk about it.

But as long as you can allay the momentary confusion of the early moments of in medias res, it actually works as a very good narrative hook. As I said before, a lot of people underestimate the value of starting somewhere other than the beginning, so it’s a bit rarer than expected. But that makes it all the more a delightful surprise for those who can pull it off.

Good luck, and happy writing! (Is this getting old or cringey yet? Leave a comment below to tell me your thoughts!)

Be sure to check out my latest novel, Book 1 in the Praetors of Lost Magic Series, and our Publications page. Plus, I mean, it wouldn’t hurt to check out the Resources tab. It’s full of super helpful material and I promise it will help you out. Until then, writers!


Published by Van Ghalta

A cold, dark, mysterious character who purposefully wrote a story so that he could fit into it...A story where he himself WRITES stories, practices martial arts, blogs, plays airsoft, collects MTG trading cards, plays outdated video games, and writes weird, third-person bios for himself...

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