How to Write In Medias Res

Don’t you hate long, boring introductions that drone on and on when all you want to do is find out —

 

What is in medias res?

In medias res” is Latin for “into the midst of things.” This popular literary technique refers to a way of starting a story, novel, or play without any introduction.

The key is the “without any introduction” part. In medias res openings begin in the thick of an emotionally charged moment. They present the effect first, then backtrack to explain the cause.

Fairy tales don’t do in medias res. Neither do breaking news stories in the New York Times or the Old Testament.

“Once upon a time, in a great forest, there dwelt a poor woodcutter with his wife and his two children. The boy was called Hansel and the girl Gretel.”

“At least 50 people, including seven children, were killed in western Kenya when a bus swerved off a road, rolled down a slope and crashed, ripping off the roof, an official said on Wednesday.”

“In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth. And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters. And God said, Let there be light: and there was light.”

Contrast these backstory-laden, slow to ramp up beginnings with the first sentence of One Hundred Years of Solitude.

“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.”

By starting in the middle of a highly charged scene, Gabriel García Márquez follows K.M. Weiland’s advice about in medias res: “Cut the throat clearing [and] get right to the good stuff.”

In medias res is easy to do — too easy, in fact. The trick is, it’s hard to do well.

 

How to write a bad in medias res opening

There’s some confusion among aspiring writers about in medias res versus the natural starting point of a story. Skipping unnecessary backstory is not in medias res. A popularly cited example of in medias res, the opening of The Divine Comedy (a.k.a. Dante’s Inferno), is not actually in medias res.

“Midway upon the journey of our life
I found myself within a forest dark,
For the straightforward pathway had been lost.”

Dante begins the story with a description of the protagonist’s current situation, introduces the main conflict, then lays out the choice that the plot hinges upon (to take a guided tour of hell and save his soul … or not). What the protagonist was doing before this moment, including the specific sins that led him off “the straightforward pathway,” is irrelevant.

To make his opening in medias res, Dante would have been obliged to open his story much later in the action — in the fourth circle of hell, for example, where we find the following lines:

“‘Pape Satan, Pape Satan, Aleppe!’”
Thus Plutus with his clucking voice began;
And that benignant Sage, who all things knew,
Said, to encourage me: “’Let not thy fear
Harm thee; for any power that he may have
Shall not prevent thy going down this crag.'”

This, however, would have been a terrible choice, as it’s a bad in medias res opening.

A bad in medias res opening tests the reader’s patience by withholding crucial information about a situation and characters they don’t care about yet. Who is Plutus? Who’s the Sage? Where is this scene taking place? Why is the protagonist trying to go down a crag — and why is he afraid? What is happening???

TV Tropes lays out the in medias res writer’s good faith impulse gone wrong thusly: “The writer just can’t wait to get started, so he throws the reader in at the deep end and expects them to figure things out on the way. … The writer [is] attempting to avoid including too much exposition in the opening; unfortunately they don’t always remember that there’s a lot of room between ‘too much exposition’ and ‘no exposition at all.’”

One of the worst examples of in medias res can be found on the first page of the crowd-sourced YA-satire-cum-Cthulhu-romance-novel Awoken, concocted by YouTuber Lindsay Ellis. Though intentionally awful, it captures all the worst features of in medias res: unclear characters, an ill-defined setting, confusing action, and absolutely no stakes for the reader. Also, maybe it’s just a dream?

“The preternatural landscape was descended upon by fog. Everything around me was hidden in misty grey. Even my own senses seemed distant, as if someone else were feeling for me. I stood on stone, ankle-deep in shallow water.”

Awoken

When you force your readers to interest themselves in an irrelevant mystery that’s only a mystery because you refused to provide basic information, you risk losing them before they finish the first paragraph.

 

How to write a good in medias res opening

 

1. Hook the reader with an emotionally-charged mystery

One of the best in medias res openings I’ve ever read is found in The Virgin Suicides by Jeffrey Eugenides.

“On the morning the last Lisbon daughter took her turn at suicide — it was Mary this time, and sleeping pills, like Therese — the two paramedics arrived at the house knowing exactly where the knife drawer was, and the gas oven, and the beam in the basement from which it was possible to tie a rope.”

Eugenides presents the reader with a compelling question: Why did all the daughters in a family kill themselves? To answer it, they must keep reading.

 

2. Be clear and concise

 Vladimir Nabokov deploys an extremely simple yet intriguing in medias res opening in his novel Lolita.

“Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul. Lo-lee-ta: the tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth. Lo. Lee. Ta.”

Nabokov hints at the salacious elements to come and invites the reader to participate in the sensual act of pronouncing the name “Lolita.” Don’t throw a complex situation that takes place in an unclear setting with a cast of dozens at your reader right off the bat. Start with a moment that is easy to grasp, like pronouncing a name, and invite the reader to experience it with you.

 

3. Cut to the chase — but make sure your reader knows who’s chasing whom

“Little Charlie Manson was a disagreeable child.”

Author Jeff Guinn knows that his readers are already aware of who Charles Manson was and what he did before they pick up his 2013 biography, Manson: The Life and Times of Charles Manson. Citing famous people, specific locations, and universal emotions are effective elements to include in an in medias res opening.

What are your favorite in medias res openings? Share them with me on Twitter.

Katherine Luck is the author of the novels The Cure for Summer Boredom and In Retrospect. You can read more of her work, including the “Dead Writers and Candy” series, at the-delve.com.

How to write like Emily Dickinson

She wore all white, she hid herself away from the world, and she was an urban legend in her hometown. She also wrote some of the most unusual and enduring poetry of all time — and nobody but Emily Dickinson herself realized it until after her death.

Who is Emily Dickinson?

Nineteenth-century American lyric poet Emily Dickinson wrote nearly 1,800 poems, but only 10 were published in her lifetime, which began in 1830 and ended in 1886. After living all her 55 years in Amherst, Massachusetts, she was memorialized as a master gardener fascinated by botany and an eccentric recluse rather than as a poet.

Dickinson grew up in a strict, religious household ruled by evangelical Calvinism. She and her younger sister, Lavinia, never married and lived at home with their parents all their lives. Her older brother, Austin, did eventually marry, but only moved as far away as next door.

Though Dickinson eventually gained small-town notoriety as a shut-in, she wasn’t a true hermit, especially early in life. During her childhood and teenage years, she attended Amherst Academy and Mount Holyoke Female Seminary. As a young woman, she entertained guests, went to events in town, and was a frequent visitor at her brother’s house.

Dickinson started writing poetry in her teens, creating the majority of her poems between 1861 and 1865 — years which coincided with the American Civil War. Fully two-thirds of her poetic output occurred before 1866.

That year, a series of personal tragedies struck. Her beloved dog died, her mother was bedridden, and Dickinson was obliged to take on the household chores when the family lost their servant. She stopped going out, stopped communicating with friends except through letters, and stopped interacting with visitors to the house (though she would occasionally leave them poems and floral gifts from her garden). She started wearing all white. And this is how she continued to live for the final 15 years of her life. During this latter period, she wrote, on average, 35 poems per year.

Her first major publication came in 1890, four years after her death, when a collection of her poems was published under the title Poems. Dickinson’s idiosyncratic diction, grammar, meter, and rhyme were all edited to conform to contemporary poetic conventions, and titles were added to her untitled poems. A full collection of authentic versions of her poems — including “Hope is the Thing with Feathers,” “Because I Could Not Stop For Death,” “I’m Nobody! Who are You?” and “Tell All the Truth But Tell it Slant” — wasn’t published until more than 100 years later in 1998.

 

Write like Emily Dickinson in three easy steps
(plus one bonus step!)

Step 1: Watch Gilligan’s Island

Dickinson was a lyric poet, writing verses in a style similar to the vocal music of the hymns and ballads of her time. Lyric poems have been around for more than 500 years and are typically short, express the feelings of a single protagonist (often the poet herself), and give the overall impression that they could be sung, should you happen upon the right tune.

Enter Gilligan’s Island.

Structurally, Dickinson’s poems were frequently written in common meter: four lines per stanza and an alternating iambic tetrameter and iambic trimeter pattern having a stressed-unstressed rhythm, (or, put more simply, an 8-6-8-6 syllable pattern in which the words read as STRESSED SYLLABLE, unstressed syllable).

Common meter is very popular with writers of vocal music. This is why you can easily sing Dickinson’s poems to the Gilligan’s Island theme song. “The Yellow Rose of Texas” also works.

 

Step 2: Stop and smell the roses. Then add death.

Dickinson’s poems are elusive, evasive, first-person narratives that hide as much as they express. Her keen interest in the natural world, her religious faith, and her struggle to express emotions best kept repressed according to the mores of her time all contributed to a wholly original poetic style.

Bees, flowers, the sun, the woods, or even the great indoors were all favorite subjects. Take a walk in a park or sit in your backyard, and write down what you see and hear.

Now add death. And immortality. But don’t go all goth on us; don’t mistake Dickinson’s understanding of immortality for some kind of cool vampire existence. It isn’t about fame-mongering, either. This immortality is of the religious salvation variety.

While you’re at it, embrace your daddy issues and put in an aloof god-father-master figure who’s also an imaginary lover to whom you chastely submit yourself. Add a couple more flowers, a beam of sunlight, a dash of existential loneliness, and you’re done.

 

Step 3: Listen to some hip hop

To get the Dickinson flavor, you need to slant a few of your rhymes, then meddle with the meter you worked so hard to master.

What’s slant rhyme, you ask? If you’ve listened to hip hop, you’ve encountered slant rhyme. The best way to describe it is to say it’s words that almost rhyme, but not quite.

One of my favorite (and druggiest) examples comes from Dead Obies towards the end of their song, “Montréal $ud

Sorry bruh, been hard to reach
Tell Momma that it wasn’t me
I’ll be home in a couple weeks
With a duffle bag and a pound of weed
For real.

In this stanza, each end-line word slant rhymes with all the others (the “ee” sound).

As for meter, Dickinson wasn’t always strict about the regularity of her iambs, occasionally relaxing the strictures of the common meter to allow a syllable to slip in or out. Whether Dickinson actually intended to include slant rhymes in her poems, and whether her verse was meant to vary in meter is debatable (by yours truly, at least).

My theory? The regional dialect of early- to mid-19th century New England, coupled with variations in poetic pronunciation might have allowed some of Dickinson’s slant rhymes to be read as full rhymes, and the syllables in certain words to increase or decrease.

One need look no further for an example of this phenomenon than the two American pronunciations of the word “poem.” A recent online debate over whether the word is pronounced with two syllables (“poh-em”) or one (“pome”) illustrates the point.

Using the contested word, it’s quite easy to create two poems that will or will not display correct meter and a full rhyme, depending on your U.S. regional speech pattern.

“Poem” as a two-syllable word:

I have a pair of socks with holes
I really need to sew ‘em
I meant to do it, truthfully!
Instead, I wrote this poem.

And as a single-syllable word:

I went into the library
And grabbed a weighty tome
I kept it, though it’s overdue.
It’s where I wrote this poem.

To get an idea of what Dickinson may have sounded like, listen to a recording of President Calvin Coolidge, who grew up in New England and was educated at Amherst College in Dickinson’s hometown during the 1890s.

 

Bonus points: Add some dashes and capitalize the nouns

The original versions of Dickinson’s poems are marked by odd capitalizations and unexpected dashes. Though often characterized as unique to her writing style, they’re more likely a product of her early 19th-century education. A contemporary book, A Grammar of the English Language: For the Use of Schools, believed to have been part of the curriculum during Dickinson’s time at Mount Holyoke Female Seminary, prescribes the same use of dashes for transitions and dramatic pauses, as well as capitalization for common nouns when serving as personified concepts like “Love” or “Glory.”

 

Emily Dickinson dash

Emily Dickinson capitalization

 

Dickinson’s dashes and capitalization in action:

Hope is the thing with feathers

As you can see, the dashes are modest, no larger than periods, almost stray marks. And the capitalizations are unobtrusive.

In its dashless, conventionally capitalized and punctuated state, the poem is rendered:

Hope is the thing with feathers
That perches in the soul,
And sings the tune without the words,
And never stops at all,

But some versions double-down on the dashes, transforming them from scant hyphens into meaty M-dashes:

“Hope” is the thing with feathers—
That perches in the soul—
And sings the tune without the words—
And never stops—at all—

Which do you prefer? Personally, I like the dashes. I’m not completely sold on the capitalizations, however. You can see how this hybrid approach to Dickinson’s style worked in a poem at the-delve.com.

Katherine Luck is the author of the novels The Cure for Summer Boredom and In Retrospect. You can read more of her work, including the “Dead Writers and Candy” series, at the-delve.com.

How to write like Ernest Hemingway

This is the big Kahuna. The guy with an app named after him. The generalissimo of sturdy, stark, macho American prose. The one and only author that your dad, your boss, your pothead roommate, your English teacher, and that Guy in Your MFA all agree is a Good Writer™.

Can you learn to write like America’s most consistently admired author? Indeed you can. But there are five very important steps you must take.

Who is Ernest Hemingway?

20th-century novelist, short story author, and journalist Ernest Hemingway was born about 10 miles outside of Chicago in 1899. After a boyhood straight out of Boys’ Life — hunting and fishing at a cabin in Michigan in the summer; boxing, football, and other competitive sports during the school year — he went straight from high school to a newspaper job.

After a stint of World War I military service, Hemingway spent the 1920s writing in Paris. Besides churning out scintillating prose for the Toronto Star, such as his 1922 article, “A Canadian with $1,000 a Year Can Live Very Comfortably and Enjoyably in Paris,” and hanging out with Gertrude Stein, James Joyce, Ezra Pound, and F. Scott Fitzgerald, Hemingway began to produce fiction. In 1926, he published the novel that put him on the map: The Sun Also Rises.

The hits kept coming: a book of short stories titled Men Without Women in 1927, the novel A Farewell to Arms in 1929, the war-time novel For Whom the Bell Tolls in 1940, and your grandpa’s favorite novella, The Old Man and the Sea, which gained a wide audience thanks to its publication in Life magazine in 1952 and garnered Hemingway the Pulitzer Prize.

Hemingway was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1954. He committed suicide in 1961 at his house just outside of Idaho’s famed Sun Valley ski resort.

What’s so special about Ernest Hemingway’s writing?

Hemingway’s extremely simple, journalistic writing style was a breath of fresh air to the post-war literary landscape of the 1920s. It’s a style that remained largely unchanged throughout his career, and it still appeals to 21st-century readers both casual and scrupulous. Whether you’re a kid halfway through the fourth grade or a grad student, a CEO or a factory worker, Hemingway’s precise deployment of nouns and verbs can make a complicated scene come to life.

The hills across the valley of the Ebro were long and white. On this side there was no shade and no trees and the station was between two lines of rails in the sun. Close against the side of the station there was a warm shadow of the building and a curtain, made of strings of bamboo beads, hung across the open door into the bar, to keep out flies. The American and the girl with him sat at a table in the shade, outside the building. It was very hot and the express from Barcelona would come in forty minutes.

“Hills Like White Elephants” by Ernest Hemingway

No muss, no fuss. No SAT vocabulary words. No semi-colons. No exclamation points! No adverbs. Nearly no adjectives. It’s a writing style any English-speaker can understand, yet through the power of rhythm, repetition, and ironic understatement, it rises above the clunky naiveté found in basically-worded texts like children’s books or school essays.

Write like Hemingway in five easy steps

Let’s Hemingway-ify what many consider to be the worst piece of prose ever written in the English language.

It was a dark and stormy night; the rain fell in torrents, except at occasional intervals, when it was checked by a violent gust of wind which swept up the streets (for it is in London that our scene lies), rattling along the house-tops, and fiercely agitating the scanty flame of the lamps that struggled against the darkness. Through one of the obscurest quarters of London, and among haunts little loved by the gentlemen of the police, a man, evidently of the lowest orders, was wending his solitary way. He stopped twice or thrice at different shops and houses of a description correspondent with the appearance of the quartier in which they were situated, and tended inquiry for some article or another which did not seem easily to be met with.

Paul Clifford by Edward Bulwer-Lytton

Step 1. Simplify the sentences
All those run-on sentences, taped together with semi-colons and commas? Turn them into simple sentences. If you’ve got more than twelve words in a sentence, cut five. If you’re concerned that your sentences are too short, staple three at time together with ands.

Step 2. Delete all the adverbs
While you’re at it, delete most of the adjectives, too. And substitute one-syllable words for any words more than three syllables.

Step 3. Change the setting to Spain or Paris
And make sure a world war is underway. Don’t forget to mention the names of the streets your protagonist walks down and landmarks they glimpse.

Step 4. Make sure your protagonist is a manly man
Don’t describe him. Give him a manly sport to engage in: a rugged, dangerous activity that’s typically done solo. Bullfighting, fishing, and big-game hunting are all safe bets. If he feels an emotion, we don’t want to hear about it. Should a woman happen to stray into your story, keep her at arm’s length for the reader with a vague, slightly unsympathetic characterization.

Step 5. Add alcohol
Your characters should always be drinking. Do not mention famous name-brands, but do state the specific type of liquor they are consuming. They can get drunk, but never sentimental. Sentimentality has no place in Hemingway’s prose style.

Okay, let’s take a look at our Hemingway-ified text:

It was night and it was dark and rain was falling on the streets of Paris. The rain fell hard and the wind blew along the rooftops and the yellow flames in the street lamps flickered.

Nick Adams walked down the Rue des Criminels. He walked alone. He went into the bar in the Hotel de Chien for a glass of fine de Bordeaux but there was none tonight because the supply lines had been cut by the Germans. He walked to the Rue de St. Martin to buy a newspaper. The evening edition was sold out. He asked for the bullfight reports from Barcelona and paid the old woman two francs for the papers and went back out into the rain.

Your turn! Are you trying to write ad copy that will appeal to a broad audience? An essay for school? A business report for work? Then Hemingway’s unadorned, direct-to-the point, jargon-free style will serve you well.

Just don’t, um, include the booze.

Katherine Luck is the author of the novels The Cure for Summer Boredom and In Retrospect. You can read more of her work, including the “Dead Writers & Candy” series, at the-delve.com.