In Medias Res

pulp fiction

In medias res‘ (‘into the middle of things’) is a Latin phrase denoting the literary and artistic narrative technique wherein the relation of a story begins either at the midpoint or at the conclusion, rather than at the beginning (‘ab ovo,’ ‘ab initio’), establishing setting, character, and conflict via flashback or expository conversations relating the pertinent past.

The main advantage of in medias res is to open the story with dramatic action rather than exposition which sets up the characters and situation. Because it is a feature of the style in which a story is structured and is independent of the story’s content, it can be employed in any narrative genre, epic poetry, novels, plays, or film.

In medias res often, though not always, entails subsequent uses of flashbacks and nonlinear narrative for exposition of earlier events in order to fill in the backstory. For example, in Homer’s ‘Odyssey,’ we first learn about Odysseus’ journey when he is held captive on Calypso’s island. We then find out that the greater part of Odysseus’ journey precedes that moment. On the other hand, Homer’s ‘Iliad’ has relatively few flashbacks, although it opens in the thick of the Trojan War.

The Roman lyric poet and satirist Horace (65–8 BCE) first used the terms ‘ab ovo’ (‘from the egg’) and ‘in medias res’ in his ‘Ars poetica’, where he describes the ideal epic poet: ‘Nor does he begin the Trojan War from the egg, but always he hurries to the action, and snatches the listener into the middle of things…’ The ‘egg’ reference is to the mythological origin of the Trojan War in the birth of Helen and Clytemnestra from the double egg laid by Leda following her rape, as a metamorphosed swan, by Zeus. ‘In medias res’ is also featured in the Indian ‘Mahābhārata’ (8th century BCE); the Portuguese ‘The Lusiads’ (1572); the Spanish ‘Cantar de Mio Cid’ (14th century); the German ‘Nibelungenlied’ (12th century); and the stories ‘Sinbad the Sailor’ and ‘The Three Apples’ from the ‘One Thousand and One Nights’ (9th century).

The Classical-era poet Virgil continued this literary narrative technique in the ‘Aeneid,’ which is part of the Greek literary tradition of imitating Homer. Medias in res narration further continued in early modern poetry with ‘Jerusalem Delivered’ (1581), by Torquato Tasso, ‘Paradise Lost’ (1667), by John Milton, and generally in Modernist literature. Modern novelists known to extensively employ in medias res in conjunction with flashbacks include William Faulkner and Toni Morrison. Well-known films that employ it include ‘The Godfather’ and ‘Raging Bull.’

Occasionally adaptations of source material may employ in medias res while the original version did not. For example, the film adaptation of the stage musical ‘Camelot’ employed in medias res while the original Broadway version did not (although revivals of the musical have). Stanley Kubrick’s 1962 film adaptation of ‘Lolita’ begins in medias res although the novel does not. Herman Wouk’s stage adaptation of his own novel ‘The Caine Mutiny’ begins in medias res as it opens with the court-martial that occupies the final section of the novel, telling the earlier part of the story through flashbacks in court-room testimony.

It is typical for Film noir to begin in medias res; for example, a private detective will enter the plot already in progress. ‘Crossfire’ (1947) opens with the murder of Joseph Samuels. As the police investigate the crime, the story behind the murder is told via flashbacks. ‘Dead Reckoning’ (1947) opens with Humphrey Bogart as Rip Murdock on the run and attempting to hide in a Catholic church. Inside, the backstory is told in flashback as Murdock explains his situation to a priest.

In television and movies, the technique of having a pre-credits sequence in which some of the story takes place prior to any credits is called a ‘cold open.’ Many television shows in the 1960s had a pre-credits ‘teaser’ which hooked the audience to keep their attention. It is often accompanied by in medias res writing. Beginning mainly with the James Bond films, many action films have a prologue pre-credits action sequence unrelated to the main storyline of the film – however, after the opening credits the main storyline of the film gets started with traditional exposition. About half the James Bond films open this way.

In medias res should not be confused with a self-contained story that later has a prequel, although either a prequel or the techniques accompanying in medias res, such as flashback or exposition may help to explain the original story’s context and backstory. For example, much of the backstory of ‘Lord of the Rings’ is later filled in in Tolkien’s ‘The Silmarillion,’ but this would not make Rings an example of in medias res writing. ‘Star Wars IV: A New Hope’ could be considered in medias res since it opens in the middle of a chase and battle scene, but not because of having subsequent prequels.

Similarly, the existence of a ‘frame story’ around which the major story is told in flashback does not necessarily constitute in medias res, although they may coexist. The film version of ‘Amadeus’ is framed as a story that Antonio Salieri tells in his old age to a young priest. This would not constitute an example of in medias res. Although ‘Wuthering Heights’ opens with a frame story, it can be regarded as an example of in medias res as there is an encounter with a ghost and a dead character’s diary prior to the launch of the backstory narrative. The same can be said of Mary Shelley’s ‘Frankenstein.’

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