April 19, 2013

In Medias Res or Not, That is the Question

Everywhere I look, I see advice for writers and especially about how to craft the beginning of your story. Most of the time I hear that the reader wants to see action right away, that your opening scene must have something "happen" that gets things rolling. This is a technique that works well a lot of the time, and for some stories I'm sure it's the way to go.

Is it the only way to go?

No, I don't think so. For an example, I recently began reading a YA fantasy that is selling very well. It's all over the shelves and has a zillion sequels in the series. The beginning of the first book takes off right away in an action scene where the villain shows up, we've got the teenage protagonists and the older knowledgeable figure letting them know what's going on. I let myself get in 70 pages, and tons of stuff happens. All I knew about those teenage protagonists was that they were "normal teens" and had iPods, and lots of other buzzwords that labeled them as ordinary.

Oh good, ordinary cardboard teens...my favorite. A whole bunch of interesting stuff happened to people I care absolutely nothing about. I knew nothing about them, and I could care less if the villain showed up and kidnapped them both. I put the book down and stopped reading.

To me, it's more important to learn who the story is about first, before the story happens to them. Authors can do this successfully while showing an action scene, but I don't think it's the only way. In the opening of a novel, I'm happy as long as I'm learning who the character is and some hints about what's going to change for them, or what the big conflict will be.

Yes, I'm a writer...but I'm also a reader. Other readers must want what I do. I have a few examples. (Yes, they're all YA distopias, I'm on a distopia kick. In college, I took a utopian/distopian fiction course that rocked the world.)

For example, the Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins. The opening scene here, Katniss wakes up without her Sister, describes her family, her home, and hints that it is the day of the Reaping which is the early big problem. She leaves the house and goes hunting and talks to Gale. That's all that "happens" action-wise. The opening scenes here definitely do not begin right where the inciting incident does, but we all know how well Hunger Games as done.

Another example, Divergent by Veronica Ross. The opening scene shows Beatrice receiving a haircut from her mother and looking in the mirror. She describes her world, her family, and that today is the day of the Aptitude test (first big problem). She then continues on to school. This is not very action heavy, but we learn a lot about Beatrice and her world.

Final example, Matched by Ally Condie. The opening scene is a dream, and then Cassia wakes up and describes some of her world and that today is the day of her Matching. She has breakfast with her family and continues on with her day. No thrilling action, but again, we learn a lot about who she is, and what is happening in her life.

This brings me to my point. Not all techniques are for all types of fiction, or all stories. Sometimes you do what the advice is, and other times you go with your gut. My gut says that there are lots of readers like me, and that sometimes, action isn't the only way to go.

What do you think?


  1. I prefer character development as well - and I wanna know what that book was you talked about at the beginning :P

  2. I started my novel (which is still a work in progress) off with an action scene. My reason for doing so was chiefly being inspired by the opening of A New Hope, and how it immediately throws you into the story but also slowly builds some of the characters we come to know in that universe.

    I guess it really depends on the kind of story you want to tell and at what point in the characters' lives do you want to introduce the plot to your readers. Is it after they've experienced a traumatic/decisive event? Or perhaps before it and you're building your narrative to a point of tension where the action could break out any moment?

    There's more choices out there, of course, but again it just depends on the kind of story you want to tell.

    1. I definitely agree there's a place for it, otherwise it wouldn't be the main advice people receive. I think you hit the point on the head though, that the opening of a story depends on what kind of story it is. Not everything begins in the middle.

  3. As a reader, I prefer to know the characters--their personality, their looks, their quirks, their motivations--but not to the point where it becomes more important than the story. I love to read mysteries and it's important to know about the characters involved. There is usually not a lot of action in the beginning, just the set up of location, conflicts, history, etc. Without these, there's not much point to the story.

    Lately, I have only had time for reading for school. There is a book I'm reading now about Australia and its early colonization. Instead of being the typical history book with a lot of dry information, this author writes it almost like a novel. He had access to diaries and other personal writings, so he's able to paint thorough and accurate stories of life there. He includes several stories of other people who lived there during that time. With all of this personal interaction of the real people of the time, it makes the story much more interesting.

  4. I agree, not every story has to begin with the MC in the jaws of a lion or a zombie. I think we have to write the story and make every single word grab the reader. Love your blog :)