Begin in the Middle

I managed to avoid taking Latin in high school. It was eliminated as a required course at my high school the year before I started as a freshman, but I came across a Latin phrase in my writing career that has stuck with me: in media res. It translates as “in the middle of things.”

Craft of fiction books mention this phrase to instruct writers to begin a story or a scene in the middle of the action or at a crucial juncture. There are several ways to do this. One way is to cut down on logistics. UPS may love logistics, but writers should avoid them unless integral to the story.

Let me share an example from my current National Novel Writing Month entry. My NaNo novel was based on a short story I wrote several years ago. I have adapted and expanded it into a full-blown novel. In reviewing the original beginning to the story, the main character’s closest friend is visiting him. I describe the friend, Tom, climbing the stairs, ringing the bell, and entering the house. A woman serves him coffee in the parlor while she gets his friend, Frank. All of these movements were completely unnecessary. The action began when Frank revealed to Tom that he was dying of cancer and his final wish was to see his estranged daughter. Getting Tom into the house and seated at the parlor did not heighten the drama or anticipation, but detracted from it. In short, my original short story started in the wrong place.

The new and improved version starts with some brief context and cuts to the chase quickly. In other words, it begins in the middle of the action.

Here are some ways writers can avoid the boring details:

  • Skip logistics. Start the scene in the location where the action takes place. If there’s an argument at the kitchen table, put the characters there.
  • Imply earlier events. The reader doesn’t need to know how Tom got to Frank’s parlor. He’s already there. A reference to the time of day could be made as a casual aside. I wrote that Tom saw a street light come on, telling the reader it is early evening.
  • Fill in back story later. The reader doesn’t need to know why Frank and his daughter don’t get along. Frank hints at it through dialogue, but the full story unfolds gradually. It could have been handled by an information dump but that would have sucked the suspense right out of the story.
  • Some context is needed, but don’t go overboard. I was tempted to start the scene with Frank telling Tom, “I’m dying of cancer and I need to see my daughter.” That would have been melodramatic and devoid of any meaning. Who is Frank? Why does he need to see his daughter? The reader would have no idea their relationship was strained.

In some cases, the writer needs to set up a dramatic scene over the course of a page or two, but these passages must be handled carefully. Each detail must build on the last until the “big reveal” takes place.

Starting a story in the wrong place is a common mistake, especially in first drafts. I’ve done it many times. The important thing is to think through the entire scene and ask, where is the most dramatic action or event? Start as close to that point as possible.

Have you ever started a scene in the wrong place? How did you fix it?

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4 Comments

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4 responses to “Begin in the Middle

  1. CG, I just did something like that in my current NaNo, Partridge. I’ve made a note to alter it during edits, of course.

    I think one of the reasons that Chuck Palahniuk’s books, for example, atre so compelling, is that they push a reader immediately into the middle of not only a scene, but a complicated life. There is no beginning at the beginning.

    Your point list up there, is well done, and I’ll be keeping it by my side for the rest of the month!

  2. Mary,
    Thanks for your comment. NaNo is the time when a writer is likely to make this mistake because speed is the key, not perfection. In my 2011 NaNo novel I began several scenes in the wrong place. That is why the revision process is key. You can fix these problems. Good luck with NaNo.

  3. James Scott Bell in his book on revision says most writers should cut the first two chapters of their book and start with the third– when most finally build up to the real conflict and tension. I think I’m going to have a bit of work to do in this regard as well.

    • Julie,
      You raise a great point. I ended up cutting the first four chapters of my first novel. I thought I would miss the back story but the reader was able to figure things out. The first draft really involves the process of discovering the core of your story and then you can go back and make revisions, cutting out the extraneous details. Thanks for stopping by.

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