So Often We Start in the Middle and Work Our Way Out*
Authors have several choices when it comes to the narrative structure they’ll use. Most authors will tell you that one of their goals is to get the reader’s attention quickly, and that makes sense. If a reader doesn’t get drawn into the story right away, it can mean that the reader never finishes the story. At the very least, it can mean that the reader won’t be invested in the outcome. Some readers meet this challenge by using the in media res structure (Latin for, ‘in the midst of things’).
In this structure, the story begins in the middle of some sort of action – something that will draw the reader in immediately. Once the reader’s attention is captured, then the author goes on to fill in backstory and details. It can be tricky to create this sort of a plot without confusing the reader. But when it’s done well, the in media res structure can be effective at ‘hooking’ the reader.
For instance, Agatha Christie’s Sad Cypress begins at a trial, with these sentences:
‘Elinor Katherine Carlisle. You stand charged in this indictment with the murder of Mary Gerrard upon the 27th of July last. Are you guilty or not guilty?’
That beginning immediately invites the reader to keep reading to find out who these people are and why one of them should want to kill the other. It also makes the reader want to know the answer to that ‘are you guilty’ question. Christie goes on to tell the backstory and to explain what led up to the incident on 27th July. Then she completes the story, and gives the outcome of the trial.
Talmage Powell’s short story To Avoid a Scandal tells the story of oh-so-respectable banker Horace Croyden. It begins this way:
‘My dear fellow, it’s all perfectly simple and clear. I detest discussing such a gory thing, but I must do so.’
Right away, the reader is invited to wonder what the ‘gory thing’ is, and what’s so perfectly simple about it. It’s an effective tool to interest the reader. As the story goes on, we learn more about Croyden, about his life, his marriage, and the terrible incident that changed everything for him. In the end, we also learn to whom he’s speaking.
There’s a very famous example of in media res in Ruth Rendell’s A Judgement in Stone. That novel begins with this sentence:
‘Eunice Parchman killed the Coverdale family because she could not read or write.’
With just that one sentence, Rendell piques the reader’s interest. Why would illiteracy cause someone to commit murder? Who is Eunice Parchman? Who are the Coverdales and how does she know them? As the story goes on, we learn that the Coverdales are an educated, upper-middle class family who hires Eunice Parchman as their housekeeper. At first, the arrangement seems to work well enough, but it turns tragic. Of course, we know that right from the beginning, but Rendell fills in the details as the story goes on.
As Jock Serong’s The Rules of Backyard Cricket begins, Darren Keefe is tied up and being held in the boot/trunk of a car. He’s not sure where the car is going, but he’s sure he’s going to die. Here’s the first sentence:
‘The broken white lines recede into the background as we hurtle forward.’
It’s not a long sentence, but it packs a lot of punch, as the saying goes. The reader’s interest is aroused right away (e.g. Where is the car going? Who’s in it?). It’s not long before Darren starts to tell his story and gradually fills in the details. We learn that he’s a professional cricket player, as is his older brother Wally. And as the novel goes on, we learn what happened to the Keefe brothers, and why one of them is heading towards what he believes is his death. It’s a potent beginning in part because it starts in the middle of the car ride.
And then there’s Ruth Ware’s In a Dark, Dark Wood. The story’s focus is Leonora ‘Nora’ Shaw, who rather unwillingly attends a ‘hen weekend’ for her former friend Claire Cavendish, who’s getting married soon. Needless to say, the weekend ends tragically. Here’s the first bit:
‘It hurts. Everything hurts. The light in my eyes, the pain in my head. There’s a stench of blood in my nostrils, and my hands are sticky with it.’
Right away, the reader is in the middle of what seems to be the aftermath of a terrible event. That piques curiosity, so the reader wants to know what happened. Gradually, Ware tells Nora’s story, and we learn how she knows Claire, why she didn’t want to go to the weekend party, and what the terrible event is. We also learn the truth about what happens during the weekend.
When a novel begins by placing the reader in the middle of an event, the reader is likely to want to know more. This means the reader is more likely to engage with the story, feel drawn into it, and care about the outcome. And that’s just what most authors want.
How do you feel about this? Do you like stories that put you right in the middle of things, so to speak? If you’re an author, do you use in media res? Have you found it to be successful?
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Dar Williams’ The Hudson.