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My story (novella?) starts in media res, in the middle of the conflict that will set the rest of the story in motion. Currently I am "scene-cutting" between that event and some earlier events that provide context. The current sequence for the first chapter is:

  • main character #1 and main antagonist in main scene
  • flashback to MC #1 and MC #2 earlier that day, in which we learn important things about them, the world, and the antagonist
  • main scene advances; conflict begins
  • flashback to MC #1 and antagonist earlier that day, in which we learn important things about their relationship
  • main scene reaches its climax, with bad outcome for MC #1 and chaos for antagonist

My beta readers think this works ok, but I realized in revising that I need to add some more back-story. I need to replace the scene with MC #1 and MC #2 with one that's earlier in time (which is fine), and I also need to show something between MC #2 and someone else who will become important later. But that feels like too much flashback. Also, in the current version MC #1 is in every scene; in this new plan, the scene with MC #2 (and not MC #1) will need good transitions in and out.

Further, this story is set in an alternate world, so I've been trying to avoid "Earth-based" references to show passage of time. How time is counted in this world will come out, but I don't want to add that into the mix. This means I can't easily mark a flashback by outright saying "six months earlier" or the like. I have to show where each scene is placed in time, at least approximately. (Exact timing is not important.)

How should I approach structuring this chapter so that I can hook people with the main scene and still show this back-story? One approach I've considered is to open with the "main scene advances; conflict begins" part (#3 in my list above) as a sort of prologue, and then start chapter 1 with the earliest point in time. But this is approximately a novella, not a full novel, and I'm not sure if a prologue for a shorter work would be hokey or pretentious.

  • Your title and your summation question talk about hooking the reader with flashback. But the body of your question is about marking the two narrative streams, which is the question I answered. Just a note. – Cyn says make Monica whole Feb 13 at 2:56
  • @Cyn I see them as intertwined; the main action won't make a lot of sense without the flashbacks, so my goal is to start with action and then start feeding in that supporting context. – Monica Cellio Feb 13 at 3:05
  • Nodding. I understand your goal. I was just clarifying what you're asking in this particular question. It sounds like you have a good handle on what to include in the flashback scenes and how to weave them through your narrative. But not so much on how to mark them as flashbacks and link them together. Is that right? – Cyn says make Monica whole Feb 13 at 3:20
  • @Cyn well, I'm also concerned that I might be using too much flashback, but if so, I don't know how else to structure this to jump around less while still pulling the reader in quickly. (Starting narration with the earliest event would not be much of a hook.) – Monica Cellio Feb 13 at 3:22
  • That's a reasonable concern, though one none of us can answer without reading your book. The fact that your beta readers think it's okay is a good sign. – Cyn says make Monica whole Feb 13 at 3:24
4

You can't have your cake and eat it too.

I don't think your opening is in media res if it's cut with exposition flashbacks and the conflict hasn't started yet. To me that sounds like the opposite of in media res.

Diverting away from the main conflict for any reason breaks in media res.

Making assumptions by reading between the lines, I perceive the important information in your chapter is that something transpired between MC#1 and MC#2 that contributes to why MC#1 fails to prevent Antagonist from sowing chaos. MC#2 is only present in the flashbacks, but not in the main conflict scene.

My idea of in media res would be:

Opening scene: Conflict is underway. MC#1 attempts to stop/prevent Antagonist from doing the thing. MC#1 fails, and blames it on the earlier situation with MC#2 whom the reader has not yet seen.

Later in the novella: we learn that the situation between MC#1 and MC#2 was not quite as MC#1 believed, and also (separately) that MC#1 and Antagonist had some crucial interaction earlier too. The flashbacks work as minor plot twists or realizations of MC#1, who has good reason to re-examine these earlier interactions to make sense of his defeat.

Hindsight is 20-20, but right now, in media res, MC#1 does not have time to recall details of earlier conversations. He is acting now on adrenaline and instinct (and training, if he has it). Stakes are already high and escalating. MC#1, like the reader, is struggling to keep up with events generating meta-empathy for the protagonist as their "eye character". MC#1 is suddenly, unexpectedly in over their head, and so is the reader. Little wonder he can't prevent the Antagonist from doing the thing.

Why start mid-conflict, rather than show events leading up to it

In media res is the set up, not the climax, of Chapter 1. It starts high, and all falls apart quickly for the protagonist because he's misjudged the situation from the start. We get to see what kind of character MC#1 is: valiant, but maybe naive or over-confident. MC#1 has a blindspot which Antagonist has exploited, but the reader (and MC) don't recognize it. This is a character flaw that will need correcting before the protagonist can understand why they lost, or it's a handicap the MC can't avoid. MC#1 does not see this flaw, and neither does the reader, yet. These flashbacks are not important right now, they don't change the outcome, they just muddy the conflict and our perception of the archetypes. Worst of all, these scenes delay getting to the action.

The reader perceives that the hero has done everything right. The situation goes badly not because of mistakes, but because the Antagonist is very dangerous, potentially undefeatable. Our "hero" is suddenly the orphan/outsider at the top of the story, and starts with no guarantees.

Because of this, the reader also perceives the Antagonist as extremely dangerous. There is no ambiguity to their evil, no option to stop them preemptively in the flashback scene. The chaos has already happened. The threat is real. Chapter 1 is not about choices or options, MC#1 reacts out of instinct (and training) but can only make small corrective measures: minimize the bad, save who they can, accept that this can't be changed because the game is already lost. In media res is not about the protagonist's choices because they really have no options – it's about their realization of failure. It's the sudden downward slide where they are stripped of their status quo.

Quite frankly, we don't need a lot of worldbuilding or set-up to understand that the hero is losing and that the villain is bad. The hero might have ambiguous feelings about the redeemability of the Antagonist, but the reader needs to see him as 100% evil to be convinced the stakes are real and not just a heartfelt misunderstanding between friends. There are no stakes from a "maybe" Antagonist, the reader should not have doubts the antagonist is willing to go all the way, even when the protagonist feels unsure. We don't need to know about the earlier scene between the two yet, again that muddies the situation: clear goodguy who believes the situation is redeemable and fixable; clear bad guy who has already decided the world needs to end. Of course there will be more to it, but that's not important right now.

To defend their ego, and psychologically unprepared for a surprise defeat, MC#1 reaches for an explanation and blames (or recalls) the earlier situation with MC#2. "If that had gone differently, this would not be happening!" The reader who is hooked by the direct action of the conflict and solidly identifies with the protagonist, hears an unsubstantiated explanation about a third party and an earlier incident. Now we need to know about the earlier situation and this other character. That scene becomes much more important after-the-fact than as a set-up (assuming there was a plot-reason for that scene).

When the reader actually meets MC#2, we see a character that does not entirely conform to expectations, which is great because we are already a bit suspicious and have been seeded doubt. This might be the first hint that MC#1 is unreliable, or the first evidence of their flaw; but also maybe MC#2 is the unreliable one: a frenemy or a de-stabilizer. The reader's flexibility to re-interpret that flashback incident is lost if there is no mystery to the situation. In the as-written version, we've already seen the incident presented as "factual" by the narrator. That earlier scene probably gave us some exposition, presumably to set up the stakes or establish a relationship – but if MC#2 isn't a direct actor in the in media res conflict, she probably shouldn't be seen yet. This flashback doesn't carry any weight with the reader being presented so early in the story before the conflict even begins. It's just a detour. After the in media res defeat where the hero makes reference to earlier events, the flashback has gravity and importance that it didn't have before. It's not infodump and set-up, it's explanation and resolution – or even better, it leads to another interpretation of events for the reader, otherwise known as a plot twist.

Why have 2 flashbacks in the opening scene at all?

The objective "truth" of the flashback scenes should be withheld, until it's clear the events are the subject of interpretation. Present those scenes initially as the MC remembers it (probably not through flashback but just through the MC's testimony), then present it again as the other MC remembers; same for the second flashback with the Antagonist, so there is some dispute about what really happened. By visiting these scenes late in the story, you have opportunity to explore character perspective and reveal relationship issues the MC was blind to at the beginning.

Obviously, I am not in any position to re-write your novella, so these suggestions won't apply to your story without a major re-think. But the goal of in media res is to skip all the lead-up exposition and start in the middle of the unfolding action. I honestly can't see why a story begins, and then hops around to 2 non-linear events earlier that same day, before getting to the action. I assume you have your reasons, but it seems like 2 or 3 false starts before you get to the in media res conflict. For me that doesn't fit the function of either in media res or flashbacks. My suggestion is just write the main scene so we can see the archetypes be who they are as their status quo. Keep the reader in the present where the stakes are escalating. After everything goes to pot for the MC, the reader will share the goal in reviewing the objective truth to these flashback moments.

3

Give the location of the scenes as the chapter/scene headers.

If the present-time scenes are in MC 1's house and the flashbacks are in a local coffeehouse (for example), your readers will be able to piece together which scenes go where and they'll know that they are different timelines (since they have some of the same characters).

Indicate the timing based on the position of the sun or other celestial bodies.

You give an example of how you can't say "6 months earlier" but your specific examples all say "earlier that day." Either way, the amount or quality of light will be different, the position of the sun (suns?) will be different and also the moon (moons?) or the visibility of the stars.

Change things about the shared setting based on the passage of time.

If it's the same day, the earlier scene might have people going to work and in the later scene they're going home. Or the newsstand or bakery windows might go from full to nearly empty. Some flowers only bloom during the day, others only during the night; you can show them at the beginning or end of that process.

For longer periods of time, the leaves on the trees may be different colors, or absent, or starting to grow. The fruit trees may be in bloom, or the blossoms might be all over the ground and small unripe fruits have taken their places.

The elements you will use to decide:

  • How much time has passed.
  • How important it is to show which set of scenes comes first (it might not be important at all because the context of the scenes themselves might reveal that).
  • The locations of your sets of scenes.
  • What you do or don't want to reveal about the world at this point in the story.
  • Thanks. The current flashback scenes are the same day; the ones I now realize I need to add take place weeks to months earlier. Sorry for the confusion. – Monica Cellio Feb 13 at 3:11
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The general rule, as per Samuel Delany, is that you should always present things in the least confusing order, which is generally chronological unless you have a good reason not to.

A good reason that qualifies might be because a past event has a emotional connection to something that is happening in the present. Pausing for an info-dump, on the other hand, is not a qualifying reason. The past always influences the present, and people jump back and forward in their memories all the time, which is why the entire flashback structure works in the first place. But you have to make it serve your characters, and not just be for authorial convenience (or because you think it's cool). If the emotional throughline is solid, people will follow the narrative, even if it is non-linear.

I would suggest writing the entire section in chronological order. After you're finished, you can decide if that's the right order to present it to the reader or not.

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