Even if you haven’t heard the term “in medias res” before, you’ve definitely come across it in your favorite books, films, and TV shows. Most major Hollywood blockbusters use in medias res openings, and so do bestselling novels—particularly in genres like thriller, horror, fantasy, and science fiction. That’s because they know it’s an effective way to grab the audience’s attention.
If you’re struggling to write strong openings in your novel or short stories, embracing the concept of in medias res might be exactly the trick you need.
So if you’re looking for an easy in medias res definition, you’re in the right place. We’ll answer all your questions about this literary term with some in medias res examples from literature, as well as tips and tricks for using this narrative technique in your own writing.
What is in medias res in writing?
“In medias res” is when an author drops the reader and the main characters right into the heart of the action, without a lengthy setup. Information might be revealed later on through flashbacks, or it might be revealed gradually through characters’ thoughts and dialogue. “In media res” a Latin phrase meaning “in the midst of things.”
One of the oldest examples comes from Dante’s Divine Comedy, in which the main character finds in the middle of a dark wood with no context—only questions.
In a mystery novel, for example, the story might begin with someone stumbling over a dead body, or with a police chief calling a detective in the middle of the night and saying, “You’re going to want to see this one.”
In medias res starts the story in the middle of the action, immediately raising dramatic questions and launching them into the story.
Why are in medias res openings effective?
In medias res openings work well in a story because they immediately catch the readers ‘attention. This literary device plays on the readers’ curiosity, investing them in your story’s characters and the events of the plot.
For example, your opening scene may showing a teenager waiting at a police station because they’ve just been arrested. What have they been arrested for? The readers are going to have to keep turning pages to find out.
Instead of using needless exposition to show the events leading up to the opening, you drop the readers right into the midst of things beside the characters. This makes the story feel more real, urgent, and immediate, and makes us want to read more.
3 in medias res examples from literature
Now that you’ve got a solid grasp on the in medias res literary definition, here are some opening scenes from works of literature to show you how it looks in practice.
1. The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle, by Stuart Turton
Turton’s story starts like this:
I forget everything between footsteps.
“Anna!” I finish shouting, snapping my mouth shut in surprise.
My mind has gone blank. I don’t know who Anna is or why I’m calling her name. I don’t even know how I got here. I’m standing in a forest, shielding my eyes from the spitting rain. My heart’s thumping, I reek of sweat, and my legs are shaking. I must have been running, but I can’t remember why.
What the what?! Who’s Anna? Why has the main character been running? Why can’t they remember anything that happened?
This opening scene gives the readers a lot of information very quickly, while, conversely, offering more questions than answers. The distinctive word choice “finish” tells the readers that a pivotal moment has just ended, but the character has been dropped in at exactly the same moment as the readers. They’ll have to put the pieces together side by side.
2. “The Lime-Tree Bower My Prison,” by Samuel Taylor Coleridge
Well, they are gone, and here must I remain,
This lime-tree bower my prison! I have lost
Beauties and feelings, such as would have been
Most sweet to my remembrance even when age
Had dimm’d mine eyes to blindness!
Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s poem was written in 1797, long before the colloquial, conversational poetry that’s popular today. His opening line “Well, they are gone” was startlingly casual for his time. Instead of establishing the setting of the world around him, as most poets did, the poem begins by dropping the reader directly into the scene with him. This gives the poem an immediacy and intimacy, as though the reader was peeking at a private letter between friends.
3. The Last Werewolf, by Glen Duncan
“It’s official,” Harley said. “They killed the Berliner two nights ago. You’re the last.” Then after a pause: “I’m sorry.”
Yesterday evening this was. We were in the upstairs library of his Earl’s Court house, him standing at a tense tilt between stone hearth and oxblood couch, me in the window seat with a tumbler of forty-five-year-old Macallan and a Camel Filter, staring out at dark London’s fast-falling snow.
This novel’s opening scene uses a line of dialogue to immerse the reader in the scene. Duncan chooses not to show the beginning of their conversation—“Hi Harley, how’s tricks?” “Oh yeah grand thanks, the ol’ knee’s acting up.” “Ah well take it easy, so have you heard any news?” “Right I’ve got a paper here, do you want a coffee or maybe a drop of—”
Blah, blah, blah. Instead, the first chapter starts at the moment that really matters, the one that shifts the protagonist’s life forever. Then, once he knows he has your attention, he works backwards and offers the readers some context about where this moment is taking place and what may have led to it—and what’s going to happen next.
How to use in medias res plot structure in your story
Ready to create your own in medias res opening scene? Here are some ideas to keep in mind as you craft the opening to your story.
Start at the end and work backwards
A great way to open your story in medias res is to show the readers a scene from the middle or ending of the plot, and the show the events that led up to it as the story unfolds.
Consider one of the most famous opening scenes in literature:
Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendía was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.
Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s novel One Hundred Years of Solitude is one of the most notable examples of this literary device. He lands the reader squarely in the middle of a thrillingly tense moment: a man is standing before a firing squad, for reasons yet unknown. The reader is left wondering: why is he facing a firing squad? Is he guilty? Innocent? Somewhere in between? And—most importantly—what’s going to happen next?
These questions are what immediately captures the audience’s attention. Marquez then uses flashbacks to past events in the story and slowly reveals what brought the central character’s backstory—what brought them to this moment. In doing so, he performs a kind of literary magic trick, dangling the story’s climax in front of the reader just long enough to imprison their attention before stuffing it back up his shirt sleeve—for now.
To begin your story in medias res, try experimenting with the chronological order of your story. You can start your story in the middle or at the end and use flashbacks and flash-forwards, or try out dual timelines to convey the arc of your story to your readers in a different way.
Start at the beginning
Sometimes, in medias res comes from the editing process. You may need to write out the entire opening to your story in order to see where the action really begins.
For example, maybe you decide to begin your story with a man proposing to his girlfriend and being turned down. Here are a few places you might set your first scene:
As the man is shopping for engagement rings the week before
The evening of their dinner as he picks out what to wear
The moment they arrive together at the restaurant
The moment just before he asks the big question
The moment just after he asks the big question
The moment he steps outside the restaurant, reeling from the unexpected turn of events
To open your story in medias res, you’ll probably begin the action in one of the last three moments. However, during your writing process you might start the story earlier and then re-examine it with fresh eyes. After taking a step back, you’ll be able to see which parts of your opening are dragging along and which feel more engaging.
Remember: it’s absolutely okay to delete paragraphs, or even entire chapters, from the beginning of your story. They’re not wasted work—they’re tools that showed you what your story needed. Then you can use exposition to convey information your readers need later on as the plot moves forward.
Consider opening with dialogue
As we saw above in The Last Werewolf, dialogue can be a great way to hit the ground running in your story. Opening a story with in medias res dialogue makes the reader feel as though they’ve walked into a private conversation and get to sneakily listen to what unfolds from it. And because there isn’t any establishing information right away, it forces the reader to ask questions about what’s happening in the scene.
Consider this opening scene:
“I have a question.”
“Why is there a goat sitting in my bathtub?”
And we’re off to the races.
You can also choose to open with a single line of dialogue from a conversation to give your story a head start. For example,
“Don’t be such a baby. It’s only wrong if you get caught.”
“This might actually be the best not-date I’ve had in a long time.”
“I thought lilies were only supposed to be for funerals.”
Each line uses in medias res to make the reader want to know what led up to that moment, and what’s going to happen next. A word of advice, however: use your dialogue to quickly set up a dramatic question for the reader, but don’t remain in it exclusively for more than a few lines. If you go too long without an action beat or supporting detail, your reader will start to feel unmoored and unable to visualize the scene in front of them. Make sure you balance your dialogue with setting, characterization, and context.
Use in medias res plot structure to kick start your story
Many of our most beloved stories begin in medias res. They’re the ones that arrest our attention right from the very first line, that make us feel like we want to know the characters even before we learn anything about them. By using in medias res as a literary device to present your characters to your readers, you’ll have them hungering to be a part of your story world too.