“In Medias res’ if the Latin term for the middle of things, and that’s how Homer opened the Iliad and that’s where you should usually start, although rules can always be creatively broken.”
—So You Want To Write” by Marge Piercy and Ira Wood
Starting your story in the middle is like telling a joke. As we’re hanging out, I tell you about a Rabbi and Monk at a bar. Keep in mind we are also at a bar and our attention span is shrinking as our liquor intake increases. I tell you and everyone around what the punchline is. This was a quick joke. I set it up nicely, but quickly and kept it moving.
Now imagine I’m telling the same joke, but long before the punchline, I begin to tell you the family history of the Rabbi starting back in 1945 — see you’re already turned off. By this time, you’ve probably interrupted me or cut me off long before I could tell you the Monk’s background. At this point, forget the punchline.
The second example feels like a buzz kill, huh? It was the Rabbi’s biography or his background that did it because in reality, everyone really just wanted a joke. Writing is the same way. Everyone wants to read the punchline, so get to it! It makes it more fascinating, but how do you write from the middle? Better yet, where is the middle? My suggestion is to start your story close to or as near the conflict as you can. You can fill in the “beginning” when or wherever you may need.
So let’s say this is your story:
- The calm before the storm—the husband comes home tired and she a good housewife.
- This is when we have a couple having a drink and going over their bills for the month. But no action is taking place.
- The couple, after about twenty minutes discovers a transaction made by his wife that he didn’t know of. It’s a dinner for two at the city’s finest restaurant coupled with an overnight hotel bill charged to the card.
- The couple has a heated argument and a lot is said, but he forces her to apologized for her actions.
- However, the husband leaves wife, files for divorce and falls in love with a beautiful new woman.
- While reflecting on his decision, he analyzes the pros and cons and is now in contempt with his decision.
- He returns back to his normal life.
My advice would be to start your story on point 3 and end it at point 6. You can use points 1 and 2 for background info, keeping with the pace of points 3 through 6, but do so sparingly.
In fact, I would start with the husband’s emotion when he finds the bill. I would then write about her response to the argument, allowing action or dialogue to develop the conflict. That usually makes the conflict more interesting, as long as you’re showing and not telling. You can keep the story moving by omitting unnecessary dialogue and unnecessary one-liners. Try removing one-word dialogues like “what” or “huh” unless they somehow add to the character’s mood or book’s setting. If the dialogue is going to be a back and forth conversation, it’s probably best to summarize it.
Be sure to answer the question: “Why am I reading this?” This is what every reader is going to ask themselves—almost like they’re asking the story the question. By starting with the conflict, or a small build up for the conflict, you answer that question almost immediately. This example was another creative take on cheating couples, but your craftsmanship of the sentences and storytelling will hold their attention, or it should, until the end. However, if you start it off with point one, the answer to the reader’s question is “This is another take on a tired husband coming home from a day’s work.” There’s no action or intrigue about that and any given reader would know that husband came home and took the load off—so what? You just lost your reader.
Remember to start just at the conflict and keep the background info, even names of characters, until later in the story, and you can add them in without messing up your flow.