Classical epics begin telling their stories “in medias res,” in the middle of things. Homer’s Odyssey starts like this:
“Tell me, Muse, of the man of many ways, who was driven
far journeys, after he had sacked Troy’s sacred citadel.…
From some point here, goddess, daughter of Zeus, speak, and begin our story.”
The ten years of the Trojan War are over, and Odysseus is in the middle of ten years of wandering back to his wife Penelope. The muse begins this retelling at that point.
Why begin there, instead of at the beginning of the war? Each story defines the chronological spread of actions it covers, and the storyteller chooses where in that action to begin. Where you start determines how your readers read.
Starting at the beginning of the action, a perfectly valid way of telling a story, involves all sorts of background exposition. Starting in the middle, at a high point in the action, hurls the readers into the plot. The telling starts fast, and stays that way.
Homer and his audiences had an advantage: they knew the plots and details of their traditional stories. Our audiences need background, and you supply it just before the readers need it in flashbacks, references, and digressions. The Russian dramatist Anton Chekhov put it this way: “Tear your story in half and start in the middle.”
We can use this technique in non-fiction as well as epics and plays. My friend Wilbur Landry, foreign correspondent for the St. Petersburg Times, revealed his secret for explaining complex events in short space: “Start as close to the end of the action as possible, and stop as soon as possible.”
Here’s an example by Robbie Brown and Carl Hulse of a quick start from the middle:
“In Washington, Representative Joe Wilson of South Carolina was sharply criticized by both Democrats and his fellow Republicans for shouting “You lie!” during President Obama’s health care address on Wednesday. But here in his strongly Republican Congressional district on Thursday, he was celebrated by many of his constituents for his outburst.”
We’re right in the middle of the action as it develops because the authors get it onstage in two clear sentences.
Notice the effect of a more leisurely approach:
Since the earliest origins of deliberative bodies, members of the audience have expressed their disapproval, sometimes politely and sometimes not. In Parliament, legislators heckle each other mercilessly. In our more polite Congress, senators and representatives jab at each other now and then, but nobody, nobody calls the President of the United States a liar to his face in public. But on Wednesday night,…
Sounds more like a column or an editorial, doesn’t it? Starting slowly has its uses, but it creates the expectation in the readers of slow and extended explaining. Let’s try a really fast start:
“You lie!” shouted Rep. Joe Wilson at the President, and the entire Congress turned toward him and scowled.
Very dramatic, but it assumes the readers know what happened, as in the Homeric epics. We have to balance the immediacy of starting in the middle with the potential for confusing readers. Remember that confused readers tend to stop reading. They feel dopey and assume they’ll stay confused, and decide to read something else. So the trick to the fast start in medias res is a first paragraph that orients the readers quickly, gives them the basic information they need, and pulls them into the action.
For more, see Adair Lara, Naked, Drunk, and Writing (San Francisco: Scottwall, 2009) 124-127.
[Know any terrific examples of starting from the middle?]