Hi gang, Craig here again. In my last post, we went over the opening to your book. The nutshell explanation is to take it easy with the volume of characters, make the reader care, and introduce a problem.
I wanted to include starting in what’s called Media Res, but that’s a bigger post. Now here it is, funny how that works out. There are some great reasons to do it, and some reasons not to as well.
There are probably better authors who could write about this. I needed a post, and dammit, it was my idea.
In Media Res is ancient Klingon for, I have to bore you for a while, so let me start with something exciting.
In the good old days, we used to meet characters in their everyday world. I liked this, and occasionally still do it myself. Similar to my last post, it was a way to make readers care about this character before something awful happened to him.
Note: While I admit to using the older style on occasion, even I know I don’t have two chapters, more like two pages or less.
Editors, and modern readers, kind of hate this. We don’t have the luxury of Julie Andrews spinning on a flowery ridge. Today, Julie would be ducking for cover while being strafed by Messerschmitts. We have to get into the story and hook the reader a bit faster. This poses a conundrum, because we still need to accomplish the same goals.
One of the ways to do this is to open the story at some pivotal point, then go back and walk readers into it. It serves the goal of establishing stakes and interest right up front.
Those goals aren’t just important, they’re paramount. Some stories require some boring parts to make the story work, and media res is a good way around this.
If you’ve been with me for any length of time, you know I like movies for examples. Some of my film choices are pretty old, but as classics I assume most folks will have seen them.
Think about this boring story. In 1894, a pretty girl named Catherine traveled back east and got her education. Now she’s coming home to become a school teacher. She intends to live with her widower father on the family ranch. There’s a problem at the ranch, and her father isn’t doing too well. It’s going to take some serious time to unfold all the problems that are going on and just how serious they are. Let alone get to a pivotal point where she decides to do something about it.
We’re talking about five or six chapters here. If we were to write that story, our readers would likely move on to something else. This doesn’t mean it’s a bad story at all, we just need a bit of time to explain things.
By opening in media res, we get to establish some stakes and interest that will make our readers follow along. What if we decided to open the exact same story like this: (And play the damned video, very few readers will watch the video. I’m watching the stats.)
How about that? It’s a hangin’ day, in Wolf City, Wyoming. How’s that for a hook? Take a breath, and we learn it’s a woman that’s being hanged. Don’t you want to know more? The clip ends before we see Hanoi Jane, but she was a beautiful woman and a great actress in her day. That helps too, because we aren’t exactly hanging the wicked witch of the west here. Could there be a misunderstanding of some kind?
Beyond the clip, we learn the townsfolk are looking forward to her hanging. They perceive some great evil that Catherine has done them all, and are ecstatic about getting justice.
Only after all this is established do we go back to the train where Catherine is heading home to become a future schoolmarm. Now the viewers (readers) are likely to take this trip with us, because they want to know what happened.
What happened is one of the greatest movies I know of. The film Cat Ballou is a great example of doing it well.
Unfortunately, we don’t have access to Stubby Kaye and Nat King Cole. Writing and reading don’t allow for audio. We can still write in the part where the Bible-thumper women sing Pray Jezebel Pray outside the jail.
Opening in media res is done way too often, and it isn’t always done well. Many times it’s a sign the author doesn’t have enough story. They have a vignette that might be cool, but they’re trying to stretch it into a novel. Maybe it’s time to embrace short stories and micro-fiction.
It’s also been used when it really doesn’t have to be. It’s almost like the author saw it done well, and wanted to try it out. I’m all for that, but do it with purpose and a reason. I’m known for trying different things, but I usually have a plan.
In the movie, we get through what amounts to the five or six chapters before Catherine decides to act. Even then, she decides to hire out the dirty work. Lee Marvin doesn’t even show up until a big chunk of the movie is over. His character also serves a purpose in the story, but that doesn’t involve media res. I’ll try to focus, but not until we check out this video:
Bonus points for the use of “booger” in a song.
Kid Shaleen injected some comedy and controversy into the story exactly where it needed it. The fact that it needed him at all, illustrates how telling this story any other way wouldn’t have worked out.
Imagine a first person story from Catherine’s viewpoint. Not quite as interesting. Maybe open at the point where her father dies, then use backstory to get us to that point. Kind of boring.
Media res is the best way to open this tale, and it’s a classic. Consider using it, but do it with a reason and a purpose. I don’t want to say use it as a last resort, but I nearly feel that way.
How about it Empire Netizens, do you like stories that open in media res? Do you feel it’s overused or poorly used? Do you find it a useful tool to add to your kit?