An age old piece of writing advice is what they call “In Medias Res”, Latin for “In the Midst of Events”.
Yesterday, I saw some quotes from one of my favourite authors, and he said that to start in medias res is old advice that isn’t applicable in modern times and never was in older times either. Now this confused me somewhat, but then I thought of what it could have meant. So here’s my view of it.
If you want to start in the middle of events, do you start with a car chase? With a gun fight? With blood flying around? Not necessarily. One of the most important things I’ve learned is that you cannot put your characters in difficult positions at the start of the book, without your reader knowing him. If the reader doesn’t care about the character, then all the suspense and feelings of danger will be lost on your reader and he or she might even grow bored with it. Most people need to place things within context, so an action scene from the start might not be the best approach.
On the other hand, starting with family history or the story of the country your character is living in is the other side of this and is sure to put your reader asleep before long. So if you want to write a book that readers will read if they need help falling asleep, start with long back story.
So the question remains. Is in medias res bad writing advice? As to my interpretation, no. Starting in the midst of events is exactly what you should do. Unless you’re writing Rambo Returns, there will be some part in your pov character that does not involve danger or suspense. In the scene, you introduce your character, but not with a mirror, please. You show the readers a part of his life. The interactions with other people (or lack thereof) will do well to characterise your hero, and make the reader care about what happens to him.
The part you’ll show will be the life that will be interrupted or changed by the first plot point in your story.
Let’s say your story goes like this:
John is an mathematician that is crazy about numbers and spends his days solving problems in a small room. But one day, a group of terrorists grab him and force him to help develop some kind of formula that will bring the world to its knees.
You will not start this story a minute before John is kidnapped, but rather a day or two. You start with him working on his problems and then show how he ignores all human contact and only eats if someone brings the food to him. You show characters that care about him and characters he cares about, but does not realise. Then, after you’ve set up this character, the readers know enough about John to care about what happens to him.
The part before the first plot point shouldn’t be too long, or the story might become drab, but it should be long enough to convey information about him to the reader and to show the reader why they should care that he is kidnapped.
So, is in medias res good writing advice? Yes. As long as you remember what it means.