In Medias Res

Starting your story "in the midst of things"

My first book got rejected by literary agents because (among other things) it started with a prologue. Turns out they hate that.

Instead, they look for a story that starts with action. Many of the best openings in movie history start this way:

In Medias Res is a storytelling principle that says starting “in the midst of things” creates forward momentum, introduces immediate conflict, and grabs your audience’s attention.

But why’s it so effective? Why do people from producer Christopher Nolan to author James Clear use it?

Because they know backstory can wait, intrigue cannot.

The Information Gap Theory of Curiosity, an idea from the world of psychology, explains what makes In Medias Res so powerful:

Information Gap Theory of Curiosity: Curiosity arises when we feel a gap “between what we know and what we want to know.”

Starting with action (“in the midst of things”) makes the audience wonder how the story got there. It creates a sense of mystery, a need to fill in the gap in the story.

To use it, here are three simple techniques you can try:

  • Start stories with physical movement

  • Establish a location (time and place)

  • Use present tense

I used In Medias Res in this guide. Yeah, you fell for it. I gave you no background on my first book, really no additional context at all. You might not know how the publishing industry works or what a literary agent does. That’s okay.

You’re smart enough to catch up. To get the info you need, and be okay not knowing everything. Besides, if your audience needs to know everything, now you’ve got them hooked and can add the additional detail throughout the story.

One more idea you can use to start stories In Medias Res:

  • Write your entire story as usual

  • Search the 10-20% mark to see if you can start there

  • If so, scrap that first 10% and start in the new spot!

Cut out backstory. Start with the action. Then work in the needed details later. Works for emails, essays, books, speeches, and videos. Anywhere you tell stories.

Let me give you some more examples of In Medias Res:

  • The opening line of James Clear’s Atomic Habits: “On the final day of my sophomore year of high school, I was hit in the face with a baseball bat.”

  • Homer’s masterpiece, The Iliad: The reader is dropped straight into the brutal Trojan War.

  • Andy Weir’s The Martian starts with: “I’m pretty much fucked.”

Cheers. Hope you give In Medias Res a shot.

PS: This is not a hard and fast “rule.” There are so few of those. It’s a guideline and helpful frame to help you start stories strong.