What is in medias res?

In medias res is a Latin phrase that literally translates as “in the middle of things.” In fiction, it describes the technique of beginning a story by dropping the reader in the midst of the action. The term comes from Horace, an ancient Roman poet, who advised epic poets to get straight to the heart of the story. Fiction writers and readers everywhere can thank Horace for this lasting advice—it’s a great way to immediately engage the reader.

Let’s look at this technique in action. Here are the first few lines of a story that begins at the beginning:

I met Iris shortly after my divorce. My ex-wife and kids weren’t happy about it, especially when we moved in together. But I couldn’t worry about them, even though they gave us a hard time by calling at all hours. Iris is the kind of woman who is easily excitable and that’s part of what I find attractive.

Now look at this opening, from Raymond Carver’s “Whoever Was Using This Bed,” which begins in medias res:

The call comes in the middle of the night, three in the morning, and it nearly scares us to death.
“Answer it, answer it!” my wife cries. “My God who is it? Answer it!”
I can’t find the light, but I get to the other room, where the phone is, and pick it up after the fourth ring.

This opening wrenches you into the story, immersing you in the moment with the narrator and his wife, and leaving you as panicked and disoriented by the ringing phone as they are. For the writer, beginning in medias res encourages dramatization from the very first line. You won’t have much opportunity to tell about the characters or situation when you’re busy showing the moment as it unfolds.

When you use this technique, you may eventually need to fill in some background information. Often this is done with a bit of exposition. Carver explains the couple’s situation in a few brief lines after the narrator answers the phone:

After Iris and I started living together, my former wife, or else one of my kids, used to call up when we were asleep and want to harangue us. They kept doing it even after Iris and I were married. So we started unplugging our phone before we went to bed. We unplugged the phone every night of the year, just about. It was a habit. This time I slipped up, that’s all.

Notice Carver doesn’t go into the details of the haranguing, or the circumstance of why he forgot to unplug the phone that night. Resist the temptation to over-explain. Just give the information absolutely necessary for clarity and then get back to the action.

If you start even later in the action and need to dramatize scenes that came before, you can accomplish that in flashback. This is particularly common in novels. Leila Aboulela’s Minaret, for example, follows an aristocratic Sudanese woman, Najwa, who has to make her way as a maid in London after a government coup in Sudan. The novel begins as Najwa takes on a position as a maid and juxtaposes flashbacks of her life in Sudan with scenes from her life in London to show the way she comes to terms with her new situation.

Beginning in medias res is a sure way to ensnare the reader. Indeed, the technique has survived since ancient Roman times. Give Horace’s technique a try and see what you think.