Beginning your story right in the thick of things, in the middle of some powerful and tense scene, is a tried-and-true method of storytelling. The beginning of your story is the most important part, and using that moment to introduce conflict can really clinch your audience and get it drawn in. Of course, the method isn’t without its pitfalls, and it’s not appropriate to every story, so let’s talk about it a little.
What is in medias res? It is Latin for “into the middle of things” and is the concept of starting your story somewhere other than the beginning. Some stories jump right into the middle and a few of the more daring ones come in right at the end. When a story begins in medias res, it provides no context and the audience is left trusting to the storyteller to fill in who the people are and why they are acting in a dramatic manner. As the storyteller, then, it falls on you to provide that explanation. How is up to you, but there are several tried-and-true ways.
One of the easiest but least interesting ways of providing context is through flashbacks. Better is through conversation. You can go Homer’s route in the Odyssey and combine the two: much of that story is Odysseus telling how he got to the start of the story in the first place! You can also provide backstory through exposition, preferably in small chunks; think about how mystery stories slowly reveal all the clues you and the protagonists need to uncover the who, how, and why behind the crime. If you’re feeling really bold you can just not explain what led up to your starting scene at all, although I think that’s probably best done rarely (although you can get away with it more, I suspect, if your opening scene is a fight of some kind).
So what is the major benefit of in medias res? Instant conflict means instant interest from your audience. If you do it right (and this part, at least, is hard to do wrong), you’ll hook your audience without a lot of effort or risk. I think that must be one reason in medias res is so popular with storytellers.
“Without a lot of risk” isn’t the same as “without risk,” though. I think the biggest danger you run into as a storyteller using in medias res is to not follow through well with the rest of your story. Yes, you’ve captured your audience with your opening scene, but if you can’t keep your audience engaged you can still lose it. How many stories have you started because they had such amazing beginnings but that you later abandoned or thought about abandoning because the rest of the story was dull and lifeless? It does happen! Fortunately, I think it’s a pretty rare occurrence, but it does happen.
But don’t let that risk discourage you! I do heartily believe it’s pretty hard to mess up by starting a story in the middle! If you can write a strong opening scene there’s a really good chance you can write a strong everything-else. Storytellers and readers of a story seem to really like in medias res and I think most audiences are more than willing to trust that you’ll explain what’s going on—assuming that’s even necessary.
So when should you use in medias res? I’d say pretty much whenever you think it appropriate. You can use it in any genre or with any medium. Starting off with a dramatic, high-conflict scene doesn’t have to mean violence (although that’s certainly appropriate for multiple genres). A simple conversation can be in medias res if it carries high stakes with it and the rest of the story is affected by it.
Examples of in medias res abound. It seems to be a favorite of Homer and of war movies, and of course a lot of mysteries begin with the commission of crime, but perhaps the most famous modern example is Star Wars: A New Hope. You know how that begins, right? Two spaceships fly in across the screen, clearly in the middle of a battle. Minus the word scroll at the front of the movie there is precious little context to define who the opposing sides are and why they are shooting at each other in space. That comes a little later. You can find a bunch of other examples at the Wikipedia page.