Starting in the middle

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?]

Published in: on September 11, 2009 at 10:19 am  Comments (9)  

The URI to TrackBack this entry is:

RSS feed for comments on this post.

9 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Don – love reading your blog! Hope all is well.

  2. Thanks, Amy. Blogging is actually fun because people like you respond to it. I moved from being a medievalist writing for 25 people to a journalist writing for thousands to a blogger writing for people who interact with me. Oh brave new world.
    And all is well.

  3. Ah, I will be sending this blog to my editing clients. So many good tips that you’ve written that I simply can pass along. Thanks so much!

  4. Thanks, Jennifer.

    Feel free to use my materials. Just keep my name and address on it. Thanks.

  5. Methods To Come Across Work Lookup Achievement In The New Overall Economy
    Do you want to compose and want persons to know what you
    proper? Effectively if you imagine I’m speaking about you, then you must certainly get a no cost blog, fill it up with adverts, promote advert place themselves, and tell them to get started producing or adding nearly anything they’d like
    to that. Make money blogging is really successful presently.

    Weblogs are the craze proper now, and if his/her good
    friends will tell their pals about his/her blog, he/she is guaranteed to start off creating
    the massive bucks like that. Do you uncover amazing
    humorous or entertaining movies on YouTube all the
    time? Then insert those people videos in your blogs to give it a additional spice.
    Video clips + Blogs = $$.
    Cut down the Social Protection tax fee but uncap the earnings cap so that all money,
    wages, fascination, dividends, etcetera.,
    are taxed at the reduced charge. An American who would
    make about $one hundred,000 a calendar year pays about the similar quantity of Social Protection tax of a person who helps make $ten million a calendar year.
    This 2nd human being can make just one hundred instances as much in a 12 months but pays the exact total of taxes.
    This inequity requirements to be adjusted
    and produced fairer.
    Lower pointless fees straight away. Minimizing
    economic responsibilities and maximizing economic sources will drastically lessen strain.
    This is not the time to acquire your dream holiday.
    The greater your economical resources the much more flexibility you have to take the proper payday loans offer you fairly than grabbing the first
    a person that arrives along.
    Social Protection has been in the news a lot recently, offered that it, along with Medicare,
    have the major prospects of bankrupting the country’s economical health and fitness. With tens of tens of millions of Newborn Boomers about to enter retirement and the connected programs of Social Protection and Medicare, except significant measures are taken before long to get each applications beneath management, the upcoming of the United States and the freedoms it need to find the money for us will be severe jeopardy.
    Stats About how just Career Loss Impacts Marriages: You’re not on
    your own: Proper now, the jobless price for
    both gals and gentlemen is approaching the double digits and is hovering at pretty much nine %.
    (It really is per cent for males.) Not numerous people know they do not
    know anyone who is out of do the job. Adequate motive for corporations implementing employing freezes or laying off, it’s really challenging to come across a situation that compares in status and pay towards the a single that was missing. This is correct even for the most intense occupation hunters.
    Stressed out staff members cannot supply higher efficiency which is why it is crucial to lower the degree of stress inside the place of work to improve the productiveness of workers.
    It can be identified as specific accountability and politicians hate it when we regulate our own destiny. It deprives them of a person less way to divide the country for their very own political advancement, no subject what the price to our pocketbooks.
    I have began to get oneself a large amount of e-mails from people whose spouses have forfeit their jobs in the existing overall economy. Often, this inevitably places an massive strain about the marriage set up few had a fairly powerful romance prior to the position reduction. Even while the spouse who’s however functioning is quite supportive,
    in some cases the non doing the job partner gets to be exceptionally delicate though they
    wrestle with new self self esteem problems that appear out
    of blue. Despair could also develop into a factor.

  6. I don’t even know how I ended up here, but I thought this
    post was good. I do not know who you are but definitely you are going to
    a famous blogger if you aren’t already 😉 Cheers!

  7. Kiedy jesteś łapacz, być pewien, że jesteś obrębie
    prawidłowe miejsce kiedy nikt nie jest na basic.

    To oznacza, angażowanie się niskie zarządzanie Twój niechcianej
    wagi w kulki Twoich Stopy męska. Pobierz jako blisko dna z bat jak można, ale upewnij
    się nie będzie prawdopodobnie uzyskać sukces. pisanie prac licencjackich dhl cennik Target ziemi w piasek na
    plaży capture. Jeśli zlokalizować Twój piłka tenisowa zatrzymany
    w drobny piasek werbel, Idea Spadek. Gdy hitem drobny piasek pod piłka, to by pop piłka tenisowa się
    do tlen i znowu na nieszkodliwe grunt. Nie będziesz uzyskać dużo odległość, ale będziesz pewnością z twojego capture
    pomaga zaoszczędzić szlachetnych incydent naczyniowo-mózgowy w czasie.
    pisanie prac licencjackich cennik uslug Być 100%
    uczciwy z Twoja przedstawiciel prawny, a może być niezgodna z prawdą aby
    zagadnienia. Ujawnienie Twój prawnik każdy szczegół dotycząca
    Twoja scenariusz jest niezbędna aby upewnić się, że może on jest w
    stanie rozwijają idea na najprostsza metoda wygrać sytuacja.
    Pamiętaj, że Twój adwokat nigdy rozłożone dane. pisanie prac licencjackich kraków cena Dowiedz się różnego rodzaju Drewno
    liściaste przed zakupem meble. Jeśli chodzi o drewniane
    meble, jakiego rodzaju Drewno liściaste to jest zbudowana z jest bardzo ważne.
    Koniecznie mieć świadomość mocny drewno umeblowanie i mniej kosztowne meble domowego które ma fornir.
    Meble domowe za pomocą tańsza drewniane klucz nigdy nie będzie a wytrzymały.
    pisanie prac licencjackich cena forum Wizualizacja podejmowania przedstawiciel ustawowy
    który będzie wpisz sali raz pierwszy. To co będzie występuje w drodze ponad wszystko adwokat prawo w scenariusz w którym prawnika jest lepiej Opcja.
    Zapytaj każdej adwokat rozumiesz, w odniesieniu do ich porady i
    będziesz zadowolony z wyniki. pisanie prac licencjackich gumtree warszawa Trzymaj się
    z dala od min. procentowe kredyty finansowe że ma balon rozliczenie do
    wniosku,. Te kredyty Spadek poziomy procentowe i stawki płatności
    jednakże, duży kwota przybywa po finansowanie.
    To kredyt osobisty może się wydawać świetny pomysł niemniej, większość ludzi nie może
    pozwolić sobie balon płatności i normalny na pożyczki osobiste.
    pisanie prac licencjackich cennik Choć może to być chyba coś jeden będzie zamiast nie uwzględniać jak Grupy wiekowe, może to być korzystne zrozumieć znać .
    co uczucie? Cel to nie jest po prostu mieszkać
    w “, ale produkować nam sobie sprawę, że codziennie jest niezbędna, i dlatego życia codziennego jest wielki dar musimy jak najlepiej w każdym pojemność.

  8. very nice

  9. Hello all, here every person is sharing these experience, so it’s pleasant
    to read this weblog, and I used to go to see this website everyday.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: