Things I Hate: In Medias Res

Posted: September 25, 2012 in Uncategorized
Tags: , , , , ,

I’ve finally had enough. I’m about ready to snap with rage and boiling anger. And why is this?

Three words.

In medias res.

If you don’t know what in medias res means, it’s Latin for in the middle of things, or something similar. It’s a storytelling technique that basically can be summed up as starting the story in the middle, rather than at the beginning, and having previous events revealed either in flashback or through the narrative of the story itself.

Now, if taken on the face of it, this is the most common storytelling technique in the world. All stories begin in the middle, rather than at “the beginning”.

I’ll give an example: Star Wars. The story begins in medias res, with a star destroyer hot on the tail of Princess Leia, a pitched space battle, action, tension, the droids getting escape-podded down to Tattooine, and finally ending up with the principal players all ready to set out on their galactic space-romp. It doesn’t start you off with the whole history of the Republic and the Empire, boring you with the details of Luke and Leia’s childhoods, until we finally get to the action. (Okay, I’ll admit it– when I say Star Wars, I’m discounting the prequels. Largely because A New Hope came first, but partially because the prequels are complete bullshit.)

Without in medias res, all books would be a trillion pages long. Every film or TV show would last as long as the universe.

So you see why it’s useful.

So why does it piss me off so much?

Well, simply put, because it’s terrible, lazy storytelling. Most of the time, when you see in medias res used, it’s on terrible third-string procedural dramas– say, when we see the grizzled veteran police detective get shot by a mysterious crime boss who nobody has ever seen before, and then suddenly there’s a cut to three days earlier, when he’s in the station tracking down a drug runner who’s terrorizing the denizens of South Ethnicville…

I can see why people use it. It’s a way to create tension in your story. When Detective Hugh McStubble gets shot, it’s meant to provoke a reaction in the audience: “Is he okay? What will happen to him? WHAT CHAIN OF EVENTS LED TO THIS OCCURRENCE?????”

Of course, it’s not real tension. It’s fake tension, and it supports the weight of the story about as well as a bungie cord made of bubble gum. It’s an easy device, true, but it’s still a device. You can’t artificially inject tension into a story by using hackneyed plot devices like in medias res and expect it to work as well as a good story well-told. A story isn’t a sequence of narrative tricks all strung together. It’s something that needs to feel natural. A Rube Goldberg device of tropes and plot devices isn’t a story. You know what is a story? A goddamn story.

It’s the same problem I have with TV Tropes. Let’s face it, that website is amusing, and also a huge waste of time. But I don’t like the fact that it seems to be teaching people that writers create stories by taking a bunch of tropes and putting them together. As if a story is some kind of recipe you have to follow, or some kind of chemical reaction as predictable as baking soda and vinegar. And I feel like a lot of the more terrible genre I’ve read lately seems to think that you need to follow some kind of recipe to make a successful story, whether you’re reading out of a cookbook entitled Lord of the Rings or The Great Gatsby. It’s the TV Tropes mentality, and unfortunately it seems to be taking hold everywhere.

You don’t create stories– good stories– by following a recipe. You do it by telling the story well, and telling it in a way it hasn’t been told before.

Argh. This got kind of ranty. Forgive me, gentle readers. I’m tired and annoyed, and I wanted to get this ramble about in medias res off my chest. Believe me, it’s been brewing for a long time. I just needed to ramble about writing for a while, and all I could think of was taking potshots at a lazy, overused plot device.

Not that in medias res doesn’t deserve my rage. It does.


Never use it.

~ Ian


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