One of a writer’s most useful tools is “in medias res.” It means “in the middle of,” and as the Roman poet Horace put it, the writer “always moves swiftly to the issue and rushes his listener into the middle of the action.” The term has been around as early as 65 BC when Horace, mentioned it in his ambitious work of literary theory, Ars Poetica. That centuries-old advice is still relevant to today’s fiction writer. Most readers enjoy being plunged into the middle of the action, whether it's the beginning of the novel or the chapter. It’s where all the excitement is.
Many classic novels begin in what Joseph Campbell, an American professor and mythologist, called “a mundane situation of normality,” also referred to as the protagonist’s “ordinary world.”
Charles Dickens titled his opening chapter of David Copperfield, “I WAS BORN.” In the first paragraph, the protagonist says, "Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station will be held by anybody else, these pages must show. To begin my life with the beginning of my life, I record that I was born (as I have been informed and believe) on a Friday, at twelve o’clock at night. It was remarked that the clock began to strike, and I began to cry, simultaneously.”
Now that’s really starting at the beginning, and although David Copperfield was a sensation in 1849 and is still often read in English classes, I’m not sure contemporary readers have the patience to wade through the young hero’s first few years until they got to “the exciting part.”
In 1991, a magazine reporter sent out the first few chapters of Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings' Pulitzer-Prize-winning 1938 novel, The Yearling, to 22 publishers. Just for the fun of it, he’d retitled it A Cracker Comes of Age. Twenty-one publishers either didn’t reply or rejected this coming-of-age classic about a boy who grows to love a fawn but later must kill it. Only one small publisher recognized the submission was The Yearling retitled. ''We caught it in the first few pages because it was so obvious,'' he said.
Even Charles Scribner’s Sons, the original publishing house, turned it down.
An editor at Scribner’s wrote, ''Unfortunately, I lack the necessary enthusiasm for the project to recommend its publication.”
So what happened to change the attitude toward a book that captured the hearts of readers in 1938 but not half a century later?
The Yearling begins with page after page of a rural boy’s harsh daily life. It doesn’t have an explosive opening. It doesn’t begin “in medias res.” Today’s agents and editors look for an electrifying hook, one that’s so gripping the reader can’t help but turn the page. A well-crafted literary novel may open with a slower pace and less action, but it still must captivate the reader within the first chapter.
In comparison, John Sanford begins his highly charged novel, Eyes of Prey, with the words, “Carlos Druze was a stone killer.” Sanford then proceeds to demonstrate that disturbing fact in the first chapter.
Clive Cussler’s book, Iceberg, opens with “The drug-induced sleep wore off into emptiness and the girl began the agonizing struggle into consciousness.” Soon, she’s bathed in yellow slime.
Notice that the very first sentences begin “in medias res” and contain story questions. Why was Carlos Druze a stone killer? Who will be his next victim? What’s happening to this unfortunate girl in yellow slime? Authors use these dramatic openings because they affect the reader emotionally. They play into our feelings of fear and revulsion. This type of hook is common and almost required in today’s popular fiction to make a novel a bestseller.
One might argue that because of their impatience, readers are missing out on some great novels, but writers want to sell their work and readers apparently prefer a riveting, “in medias res” opening. It already appears to be imbedded in our contemporary publishing culture. It’s something to consider when you’re planning your novel.