Whether you’re an avid reader or simply watch movies you’ve experienced a story starting in media res. Simply put, it means in the middle of action.
On the first or second page of a book, or as the movie opens, you’re thrown into a scene as something significant happens.
There’s enormous pressure on new writers to grab the reader, an editor, or agent on the first page. Otherwise it’s too easy to set the book back on the shelf. It’s even easier for a professional in the publishing industry to send out a form rejection letter.
Movies have a huge advantage over a published novel. They can lure an audience in with a gripping trailer and once the person has paid for their ticket—cha-ching. It’s also unlikely that someone will walk out of a movie or warn others not to see it if it had a slow start but later picked up, entertaining the audience in a satisfying way.
Regardless of the medium, there's an effective way to execute in media res. There's also a clumsy way that should be avoided unless under duress.
Two solid examples of how to start in the middle of action, filling in the background information along the journey: the movie Cowboys & Aliens (a science fiction Western) and Kelly Meding’s Three Days to Dead (an urban fantasy).
Kelly Meding does a fantastic job of opening the story in the crux of the heroine’s problem. She just died, is now in a new, strange body of another person, and has to figure out who killed her and why. Oh yeah, and she’s in a morgue, naked. Backstory is filled in piece by piece as we go on an adventure starting on the first page.
When done well, opening in media res can be a compelling and unforgettable experience. Done poorly, readers may never buy the book. Even worse, a writer may never have the chance to see their “baby” on the shelves of stores.
What type of beginning in a book or movie do you prefer? Dropped in the middle of action or with a little grounding in the main character(s) right before the inciting incident that sets the story in full motion?