Struggling to know how to start your story? Do what Christopher Nolan and Tarantino do: Start it in the middle.
We're used to hearing that the beginning is usually a great place to start a story. Some movies like Memento begin at the end.
But there is another way...
"Yep, that's me. I bet you're wondering how I got here."
You've seen stories start that way, right?
Let's dive into some in media res examples and talk about why when used correctly it can help propel your story forward.
What does "In Media Res" mean?
In Media Res Definition
In medias res is Latin roughly translated to "into the middle of things." It describes a story that begins in the middle, at a crucial point in the action.
Who coined the term?
The ancient Roman poet Horace was the person came up with while seeking some brevity in epic poems. He's quoted in saying:
"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..."
Who is good old Horace talking about there? Why Homer of course. The writer (sort of, but that's another story) of the great epic poem the Illiad.
Let's dig a little deeper on this though because it'll help us all recognize some very important points about story crafting.
The Illiad is a really really long story mostly about a war. It doesn't start at the beginning of the war, and it doesn't end with the end of the war.
In fact, the stories about the beginning of the trojan war are famous in their own right (Paris, some goddesses, an apple, the theft of a queen from her home) NONE of that stuff is in Homer's epic. It all happens off-camera. How about the ending?
Even if you aren't familiar with the Illiad or the Trojan War at all, you might be familiar with the story of the Trojan Horse, and how that trick is how the Greeks won the Trojan War. Maybe you're familiar with one hero named Achilles (star of the Illiad) who had that heel and died?
Well the end of the war with the Trojan Horse and Achilles' heel isn't in the book either.
The book starts AND ENDS in the middle of things. The rest of that stuff is back story, and fore-story if there is such a thing, all hinted at and informing the story we see.
Sometimes the things you do offscreen have a greater impact that way.
And all of this is to say that starting in media res is a great way to immediately engage your audience by forcing them to ask questions like. What is going on?
Who is fighting this war?
Why are they fighting it?
And on it goes. You drive their attention both forwards and backward at the same time, and it's immediately engaging.
Why do filmmakers use In Media Res?
We've all heard the Shakespeare saying "Brevity is the soul of wit," but how does it apply here? Well, that saying comes from Hamlet, whose story only begins after his father's tragic death. Thus, the opening of our play has Hamlet's father's ghost haunting the castle, prompting Hamlet's return.
Since our story begins on this action, we're on the edge of our seat right away.
It even works in the Hamlet movie!
Using in media res makes the audience have to catch up. When you start mid-conversation or mid-action it makes the reader or viewer have to work. That's good work. When the reader is intrigued or excited right away, the pages keep turning. You can hook them immediately.
I hate being "that guy" but in the Shovel Buddies script, I opened on kids riding bikes fast, struggling to get somewhere. Many people I met in generals told me the first thing they liked was how much they were rooting for the kids without knowing where they were going.
But you don't have to take my word for it. Let's look at some examples of in media res from the pros!
In Media Res Examples
One of the hottest shows on streaming right now is The Boys.
When we meet our lead character, he's already involved in a walk and talk with his girlfriend. We jump into the scene kind of late, and we have to learn what they're talking about. This distracts us and also dulls our senses in a good way. It means we don't see the plot twist coming out of nowhere.
Video is no longer available: www.youtube.com/watch?v=N2ZIlc9k-YA
What's nice is that the walk and talk is so natural it disguises the fact that we are jumping in late. Instead, it makes us feel like we're there at an intimate moment.
Tarantino loves dropping us into worlds where stuff is already happening. The "Like a Virgin" debate was reeling long before we entered that world. And Pumpkin and Honey Bunny had been having breakfast and arguing about robbing places before we met them too.
In both instances, the audience gets excited to be there and to enter the world.
These are all conversation-level entrances into the middle of scenes. But what about utilizing it in the plot?
Video is no longer available: www.youtube.com/watch?v=yHfLyMAHrQE
Star Wars is the king of that version.
Every movie always drops us into the middle of things. I mean...we started on Star Wars IV, come on!
Think about that dramatic opening scenes though, we enter in the midst of a battle. We sort of know the good and the bad, and we've read a scroll about why it's happening, but it's so exciting. We enter in the middle of a space battle. Lasers are flying around, there's a guy in a black cape strangling people.
This flurry of action makes us understand the tone and genre as well.
This in media res example actually carries the franchise so much that when it came time to reboot Star Wars for the new generation with The Force Awakens, they used a similar opening to excite a new generation.
Video is no longer available: www.youtube.com/watch?v=nuf4BQwuhos
What's next? Learn screenplay theme!
Your script theme needs to carry both the weight of the story and a connection to the audience. That's a significant burden to bear. So how can you tell if your theme is coming across, or if you even have one?
Click the link to learn more!