Have you ever watched a movie or read a book and found yourself thrown headfirst into a whirlwind of action, drama, or mystery right from the get-go? Well, chances are you've encountered the intriguing narrative technique known as "in medias res."

In medias res, a Latin phrase meaning "in the midst of things," is a literary device that has been used in storytelling for centuries.

In this article, we'll explore the definition of in medias res and provide some notable examples from film and literature to illustrate its effectiveness.

Let's dive in.

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In Medias Res Definition

In medias res is a narrative structure where a story begins in the middle of the action, rather than at the chronological beginning.

This technique engages the audience by throwing them directly into the plot, usually at a point of tension, conflict, or intrigue. By doing so, it piques the audience's curiosity and encourages them to piece together the backstory as the narrative unfolds.

The Non-Linear Usage of In Medias Res

'The Last Duel'

Credit: 20th Century Studios

In contrast to linear storytelling, which starts at the beginning and moves sequentially, in medias res is a nonlinear approach that can make stories more dynamic and immersive.

It's a technique that challenges the audience to make sense of the narrative puzzle, often revealing essential information about the characters and their motivations gradually.

Why Use In Medias Res? 

In medias res is a versatile narrative tool that can be adapted to various genres and mediums. Whether in film, literature, or other forms of storytelling, it remains a valuable technique for captivating and engaging audiences from the very beginning.

Here's how you can use it in your work:

  1. Immediate Engagement: By starting at a critical moment, the audience is immediately drawn into the story, creating a sense of curiosity and urgency.
  2. Character Intrigue: It allows writers to introduce complex characters with intriguing qualities or dilemmas, leaving the audience eager to learn more about them.
  3. Tension and Suspense: The technique often creates a sense of tension and suspense as the audience tries to piece together the events leading up to the opening scene.
  4. Information Control: Writers can control the release of information, providing backstory and context at their discretion, which can lead to powerful reveals and plot twists.

In Medias Res Examples in Film and TV

'Saving Private Ryan'

Credit: Dreamworks

If there's one thing that cinema does exceptionally well, it's plunging us headfirst into a whirlwind of stories, emotions, and unforgettable moments. And what better way to start a film than by throwing us directly into the heart of the action, igniting our curiosity from the very first frame?

Check out these examples in film and TV.

  1. Pulp Fiction (1994): Quentin Tarantino's iconic film opens with a conversation between two hitmen, Jules and Vincent, who are en route to a job. The audience is immediately thrust into the world of crime and moral ambiguity, with little context. As the film progresses, it provides flashbacks and other narrative devices to fill in the missing pieces, creating a complex and engaging story.
  2. The Dark Knight (2008): Christopher Nolan's second film in his Dark Knight trilogy begins with a bank heist masterminded by the Joker. This high-stakes action sequence sets the tone for the film and introduces the Joker's character in a captivating way. The film later provides background information on the Joker and his motivations.
  3. Saving Private Ryan (1998): Steven Spielberg's World War II epic starts with an intense and chaotic depiction of the D-Day landings at Omaha Beach. The audience is immediately immersed in the brutality of war and the uncertainty of the characters' fates. The backstory of the mission to save Private Ryan is revealed gradually throughout the film.
  4. Breaking Bad (2008-2013): This critically acclaimed series often used in medias res to kick off episodes. One notable example is in Season 2, Episode 1, "Seven Thirty-Seven," where the episode starts with a pink teddy bear floating in a swimming pool, hinting at a tragic event. The backstory behind this image is gradually revealed as the season progresses.
  5. Lost (2004-2010): This amazing show is frequently employed in medias res to introduce episodes and provide viewers with tantalizing glimpses of the mysteries on the island. The show often began with a flashback or flashforward that left viewers with more questions than answers.
  6. How to Get Away with Murder (2014-2020): This legal drama series frequently uses in medias res to create suspense. Many episodes begin with scenes from a crime scene or a tense situation, and the rest of the episode explores how the characters got into that predicament.
  7. The Walking Dead (2010-2022):In this post-apocalyptic series, in medias res is often used to start episodes with intense zombie encounters or dire situations. It's a way to thrust viewers into the dangers of the world immediately.
  8. The Sopranos (1999-2007): This crime drama series used in medias res in various episodes to set up complex situations. For example, Season 1, Episode 1 starts with Tony Soprano experiencing a panic attack, leading to his need for therapy. The audience is immediately introduced to the main character's inner turmoil.
  9. Battlestar Galactica (1978-1979): The pilot episode of the reimagined "Battlestar Galactica" series begins with a surprise Cylon attack on the human colonies. This sudden attack throws viewers into the middle of the chaos, setting the tone for the series.
  10. The Leftovers (2014-2017): In the opening scene of the first episode, viewers are presented with a chaotic and unexplained event: the sudden disappearance of people. The show then explores the aftermath and the lives of those left behind.

In Medias Res Examples From Literature


Credit: Warner Bros.

Movies and TV shows were not the first ones to come up with in medias res, it came from literature.

So check out these famous examples as well.

  1. The Iliad (Homer): One of the earliest examples of in medias res in literature, this epic poem begins in the midst of the Trojan War. It opens with the conflict between Achilles and Agamemnon, providing little context about the events leading up to this point. The backstory is revealed through flashbacks and dialogue.
  2. The Odyssey (Homer): Like The Iliad, Homer's The Odyssey begins in the middle of the story, with Odysseus stranded on the island of Calypso. The narrative then follows his adventures as he attempts to return home to Ithaca. The backstory of his journey is disclosed as the tale unfolds.
  3. The Catcher in the Rye (J.D. Salinger): J.D. Salinger's novel starts with the protagonist, Holden Caulfield, in a mental institution. The reader is immediately introduced to Holden's troubled state of mind, and the events that led to his hospitalization are revealed gradually through his narration.

By starting in the midst of things, writers and filmmakers can create a captivating and suspenseful experience that keeps audiences hooked and eager to unravel the story's mysteries.

So, the next time you dive into a gripping story that starts with a bang, you'll know you're experiencing the power of in medias res.

Let me know what you think in the comments.