“Alex wheeled the Range Rover into the parking lot of MNY Bank. He grabbed his portfolio from the backseat and sprinted to the doors. A quick check of his watch made it official: 9:06 a.m. He was late—again.
***That’s the first paragraph of Built to Sell, a business book that could have been dry as dust. It’s also an example of beginning in medias res.
In medias res just means starting in the middle of the story. “Plunging into a crucial situation that is part of a related chain of events,” as Britannica says.
Maybe the book begins in the heat of an argument during a war that has already started (like the Iliad). Or it begins with the protagonist already in financial trouble, like the paragraph above.
The opposite of in medias res is ab ovo—”from the egg”—starting the story at the earliest chronological point.
Ab ovo: the place where many of my motivated, eager writing clients begin their books. “A very good place to start” as Fraulein Maria might say.
So what’s wrong with starting at the beginning?
These same eager writers don’t want to write a boring book. But telling a story in chronological order is a great way to write a book that’s… dry as dust. (I’m not saying if you’re writing a book that lays out a framework, that you shouldn’t tell it in order.)
But sometimes you actually do a better job of not only engaging, but also orienting the reader if you start the book in the middle of a high-stakes moment.
So, if I start reading “Alex wheeled the Ranger Rover etc… ,” what do I know already?
- Alex drives a nice car
- Alex runs late a lot
- Alex is at the bank… so we’re going to be talking about money.
But I’m also wondering:
- What does this have to do with the book’s title, Built to Sell?
- Why is Alex frantic?
- Is Alex in money trouble? But he drives a nice car?
As a reader, I’m engaged because I’m asking questions.
If the author had started with “Alex started his business in 1998. He offered branding services,” what questions would I, the reader, be asking?
When your reader is not asking questions, your in boring territory. Straightforward sequencing, drained of all suspense. Textbook.
In medias res allows you not to start not at the beginning, but at the time and place where your readers will actually care.
Maybe you’re not writing a book (yet). You can practice with social media posts.
Would you normally post something like,” “I was sitting with a friend, having coffee and we were talking about the holidays, when I said, ‘I hate Christmas.’”
What if you tried, “I hate the holidays.”
Important: no one nails in medias res in their first draft. When you physically sit down and begin to write, you need to write a few lines to warm up.
Go ahead, write first, finish your thought, then chop. Something like:
I was sitting with a friend, having coffee and we were talking about the holidays, when I said, ‘I hate Christmas the holidays.”
If you need to edit your initial draft, that does not make you bad at writing. In fact, my point is you don’t need to be a “naturally” talented writer (whatever that is).
No doubt, some people have an instinct for how to tell a story that keeps the audience engaged.
But for the rest of us, we can learn storytelling devices and practice using them.
In medias res is one of those devices. Let me know if you use it this week?
Have you bought my book yet? Here are reviews from actual human readers (excerpted from Amazon)
“Maggie is not offering the ‘same old, same old’ writing advice.”
“This book was really, really good. Go buy a copy.”
“This book shows you how to do it and make it your own.”
Get the Kindle version (book only)
Get the PDF version (plus a mini-course and live help from me.)
PPS: I don’t hate the holidays. It’s just an example!