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I'm about to start a new story, and I feel it would be better if I started in media res. (aka at some point in the middle.) I know this is a fairly common style used to hook readers into the story but I intend to write a series of stories and as such the start of my first book will not be actually reached until about the middle of the second book.

Is this a done thing? I don't want my readers to be confused or annoyed if and when the scene that opens the book isn't actually in the book.


Sub question: It seems to me that most cases of in media res occur during an action packed sequence or in cases such as Citizen Kane important story points.

I intend to start at a sequence shortly after a later described action scene but the sequence itself will not be action packed or particularly central to another part of the plot either before or after it (The main protagonist has been jailed after a large battle and it's just him sitting in jail being miserable trying to escape.)

Should I avoid this approach entirely or pick a better scene?

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I don't think it's altogether a bad idea, it depends on how you implement it.

One of the ways it can be achieved is to have the present day story and the past story running in parallel. This would mean that events would need to develop for the character in prison, whilst he remembers back to what happened previously.


Answering your question about the scene, having it not plot-oriented or action-packed is very useful, as it will be a time in the character's life where all that he can do is sit and think, therefore he would naturally reminisce about the events that led him there.

The past story would need to develop faster than present one, in order for the timelines to catch up, but it would allow intermissions from the memories to progress the current story slightly. This may simply be the character talking to one of the prison guards about something (like how long is he going to be stuck there), then going back to remembering.

The present story would likely need to eventually progress significantly, such as the character breaking out of the prison within the first book, but without the past story having caught up yet. This way when the past story reaches the part where he is imprisoned, the reader will understand that the two timelines have merged and the story can then be simply told from the present setting.

This way, rather than catching up to the current story in the middle of book two and continuing from there, the end of book two will culminate at the point that you have originally planned, as well as simultaneously allowing them to see how the main character originally landed in jail.


To answer your other question, this is a done thing: a similar example of this is in the book The Name of The Wind by Patrick Rothfuss, who has a character recount tales from his past whilst living in the present.

However, this style has limitations. Firstly, the story would have to be told entirely from the main character's point of view. Otherwise it will make no sense having multiple POV character's when the story is about the experiences of a single person in the past.

In addition, it will need to be made very clear whether the part of the story currently being read is in the past or the present. The example I gave switches from 3rd to 1st person, making it obvious what part of the story is being developed.

You say you're writing a series: I would say it wouldn't make much sense to write in this style to plan on merging story-lines in book 2 if you're planning on doing 7 books. It would change the style of book too much over the course of time, meaning readers might invest in the story but then decide they don't like the change in writing style later in the series.

I would say three books would be acceptable, with the last book the culmination of the character development from the first two books (the character likely learning in the present day from his experiences in his past).

There are probably other ways to do this type of story, but hopefully this will give you at least one idea.

  • From a practical perspective, so do you (the OP) think you can publish book 1 without a climax? Then, do you think there will be enough readers to convince the publisher to take on book 2? If you're an established author, it's probably not a problem. – Stu W Feb 4 '16 at 13:46
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    @StuW Not having the end of book 1 as the climax expected (imprisonment), doesn't mean it can't end in a different climax. If anything, it can have a duo climax where the MC manages to both escape (present) and have a past climax that can be anything else. – Mike.C.Ford Feb 4 '16 at 14:57
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I don't think in medias res should necessarily be understood as jumping into the middle of the story. I think we should look at it more as a story is embedded in a history. You may need to understand the history in order to understand the story, but the story itself -- the character's moral arc -- does not begin at the beginning of the history. So you start where the story begins, but at some point you have to go fill in the parts of the history necessary to understand the story.

If we look at it this way, we realize that the idea that the opening in medias res "hooks" the reader hard enough that they will then plow through pages and pages of background stuff that they would not otherwise read because they are desperate to get back to the action probably does not hold up. A story should follow its story arc. Background should come in only to the extent that the reader demands to know it in order to comprehend what it going on in the story.

There are clearly exceptions to this. Sometimes you get a "how did things end up like this" story, particularly in long running TV shows where we already know the characters. But overall I believe in medias res is not starting the story in the middle, but starting it where the story starts and filling in background later when it is essential.

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The Big Flashback can work, but it's a tired cliché.

The general strategy is to open with Louise fighting for her life the grip of the Acturan Octopus Tyrant, then jump back in time to her childhood in Idaho, and the strange sequence of events which will lead to her becoming Earth's one hope against the alien invaders.

If I read something like this and, by the end of the book, the writer hasn't even touched on Louise and her death struggle with the octopus, I wouldn't bother with book 2.

Writers often came that it's important for readers to know the backstory. Usually it isn't. We are all deluged by stories. We change channels to the middle of a cop drama and pick up the story in minutes.

Unless you have a compelling artistic reason to do otherwise, start with the action and move forward in time.

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One thing I've seen working quite well is to open with a short "action sequence" that naturally leads to (some) back-story exposition. One example would be the start of Charles Stross's "The Atrocity Archives", which starts with a new-ish occult field agent's first assignment and then in a fairly natural way segues into a (small amount) of back-story, interspersed in conversation.

Another thing I've seen is to start with an action sequence "in the past", that naturally leads up to "now" (ideally, this sequence contains useful back-story exposition), the clearest example I can think of is David Devereux's "Hunter's Moon".

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Kurt Vonnegut advised that writers “start as close to the ending as possible.”

I recommend you decide what is the best ending you have right now, and then write that book. After that book is done, you can start a new book and write the best ending you can come up with for that book.

One thing that movies are suffering from right now is they try to make 2 or 3 at once, and actually end up making just one movie that is stretched out to 3 and ends up being 3 bad movies. One is missing a beginning, another is missing an end, another is a jumbled mess. They split one of The Hunger Games books into 2 really weak movies that ended up doing much worse both critically and financially than if they have made just 1 good movie.

If you are going to jump around in the timeline, I think you should have a really, really good reason for that. Don’t do it arbitrarily. For example, do it to hide the true identity of a character that will later be revealed and cast a whole new light on the entire story. Or to hide some important event so that when it is revealed, the reader will understand the true significance of that event. You really put a burden on the reader and if that ends up being for nothing, I think a lot of readers resent it, whether consciously or subconsciously.

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