In a recent episode of Overdue (Episode 108: Preacher vol. 1 and 2), host Andrew asked what the point of an in media res beginning was when the author had to include so many flashbacks to the protagonists’ pasts? Why not just start the story earlier in the timeline? Andrew’s questions got me thinking about the use and overuse of one of the oldest literary devices in fiction.
In medias res means to begin in the middle of the action. The narrator plunges us right into a battle or a trial or some other conflict. The reader is bewildered until they get their feet under them enough to know why the characters are where they are. Having a character facing down the barrel of a gun or having learned some shocking fact immediately raises the stakes; we have to pay attention to what comes next because we know where it will all end up. It’s a wonderful way to immediately create narrative tension.
Another reason to start in medias res is that the story proper can commence closer to the climax of the plot. Flashbacks can provide just enough backstory to help us understand a character or explain something about the characters’ world, rather than starting in the protagonist’s childhood before leaping into the present of the plot. The narrator can leapfrog through a character’s life, only stopping at the parts that are necessary to explain the conclusion. Big jumps in time are tricky to pull off without a peek ahead at where the story is going. Without that peek, a reader like me will immediately start to question why we needed to back in time as far as the narrator took us.
Because there are sound structural reasons to start in medias res, the device has become overused. It’s a cliché in the fantasy genre to start with a prologue that is incomprehensible until many chapters into the book. (This isn’t quite what happens with Preacher, as described on Overdue. Rather, the through lines of the plot and subplots are meandering enough that it’s hard to figure out what to pay attention to.) But having characters and plots that require a lot of background to understand will make a reader (again, like me) wonder why the narrator began in medias res because I’ll be too busy trying to figure out what is going on the prologue and not letting the story just play itself out. Essentially, deploying an in medias res incorrectly will violate Kurt Vonnegut’s rule about wasting the reader’s time.
Choosing the right moment to commence the narrative is a delicate decision. If one has to include a lot of flashbacks to make the characters’ understandable, perhaps it’s best to start at the beginning and use a lot of foreshadowing. Deciding on the structure of a story is fundamental to creating that story. It determines who the audience sympathizes with. It determines what the audience will pay sharp attention to. It determines what the audience’s expectations will be.