Even if you haven’t heard the term “in media res” before, you’ve definitely come across it in your favorite books, films, and TV shows. Most major Hollywood blockbusters use in media res openings, and so do bestselling novels—particularly in genres like thriller, horror, fantasy, and science fiction. If you’re struggling to write a strong opening to your novel or short story, embracing the concept of in media res might be exactly the trick you need.
So if you’re looking for an easy in media res definition or wondering, “what does in media res mean?” you’re in the right place. We’ll answer all your questions with in media res examples from literature, as well as tips and tricks for using it in your own writing.
What is in media res in writing?
“In media res” is a Latin term that means “in the midst of things.” An in media res synonym might be, “without preamble.” This means that your story begins right in the heart of the action, rather than with a lengthy setup.
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 media res puts the reader right in the middle of the action, immediately raising dramatic questions and launching them into the story.
Why are in media res openings effective?
In media res openings work well in a story because they immediately catch the reader’s attention. This literary device plays on the reader’s curiosity, investing them in your story’s characters and the events of the plot.
For example, you may open a story in media res by showing a teenager waiting at a police station because they’ve just been arrested. What have they been arrested for? The reader’s going to have to keep turning pages to find out.
Instead of showing the events leading up to the opening, you drop the reader 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 media res examples from literature
Now that you’ve got a solid grasp on the in media res literary definition, here are some in media res openings from works of literature to show you how it looks in practice.
1. The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle, by Stuart Turton
Turton’s novel begins 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 protagonist been running? Why can’t they remember anything that happened?
This opening section gives the reader a lot of information very quickly, while, conversely, offering more questions than answers. The distinctive word choice “finish” tells the reader that a pivotal moment has just ended, but the character has been dropped in at exactly the same moment as the reader. 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, he drops 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 opens with 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, he skips ahead to 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 reader 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 media res plot structure in your story
Ready to create your own in media res opening? 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 media res is to show the reader a scene from the middle or ending of the plot, and the show the events that led up to it.
Consider one of the most famous opening lines 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 lands the reader squarely in the middle of a thrillingly tense moment: a man is standing before a firing squad, for reasons yet unknown. Why is he facing a firing squad? Is he guilty? Innocent? Somewhere in between? And—most importantly—what’s going to happen next?
Marquez then takes the reader back earlier in the story and slowly reveals what brought the central character 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 media res, try experimenting with the chronological order of your story, use flashbacks and flash-forwards, or try out dual timelines to convey the arc of your story to the reader in a different way.
Start at the beginning
Sometimes, in media 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 your book might open:
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 media 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 reader needs 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 media 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 story opening:
“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 media 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 media res plot structure to kick start your story
Many of our most beloved stories in literature begin in media 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 media res as a literary device to present your characters to your reader, you’ll have them hungering to be a part of your story world too.