The Wikipedia "In Medias Res" article is woefully inadequate. The essay uses the same generic definition that dictionaries and many other sources use, online and in print: "in or into the middle of a narrative or plot" (Webster's 11th Edition), or similar terms. The article cites numerous examples of visual and written-word narratives that are or are not in medias res, shown, though does not tell (summarize, explain, or explicate) common features they share that are benchmarks of in medias res.
"Middle" is a key word. The middle of a narrative is agonist or agonists efforts that struggle with a dramatic complication: antagonal personal wants and problems wanting satisfaction.
In medias res skips a start's introduction of a dramatic complication, the exposition (introductions) begins without preamble, and launches directly into the middle efforts to satisfy the complication, all the while development of the complication given through implication and reality imitation, plus, of course, event, setting, and character development in reality imitation mode: mimesis, not diegesis (summary) or exigesis (explanation).
"Antagonal" is also a key in medias res feature: personal antagonism that causes an agonist to act proactively to satisfy a personal tensional complication--Antagonal, Causal, and Tensional: A.C.T.
Shakespeare's Hamlet starts in medias res. Prince Hamlet's father King Hamlet is already dead, the usurper Claudius on the throne, wed to Hamlet's mother Gertrude, Hamlet's birthright stolen. The play, Hamlet's struggles and efforts start midaction to satisfy the problem and want of a usurped birthright.
The "backstory" details fill in by leavened revelations through scene mode--reality imitation--while the present now moment action unfolds chronologically. Some scenes, dialogue reveals the backstory, the opening scenes' encounters with the ghost father, for example. Some scenes, through analogy; Hamlet reenacts the regicide to imply backstory details. Two scenes reveal Hamlet's internal struggle as well as reveal further backstory details: the suicide ideation soliloquy and the "To be or not to be" graveyard soliloquy.
Each scene forwards the action chronologically, without anachronic backtracks, leavens in a portion of backstory, and backstory that personally matters at the now moment of the action to Prince Hamlet. A masterful example of in medias res features and methods.
None as masterful. Kurt Vonnegut's "Harrison Bergeron" opens in medias res. Hazel Bergeron is the viewpoint persona of the short story, the persona mid crisis. Vonnegut toys with in medias res, though. Hazel's personal awareness of the crisis is blunted by the "equalizer" effects the dystopian milieu satirizes. Although, the personal crisis of substance happens to Harrison, not Hazel.
That's also an in medias res key, personal awareness of a complication's crisis mid crisis. Ray Bradbury's Farenheit 451 starts mid crisis, though Guy Montag learns he's in crisis at the start--not in medias res. Likewise, Bradbury's "There Will Come Soft Rains," the automated house is unaware at the start it is in crisis. "Housing Problems," Cyril M. Kornbluth, contemporary (urban) fantasy, likewise, the opening develops the crisis start.
I disagree with the Wikipedia article Star Wars episode IV begins in medias res. The short text preamble summary and explanation introduces the overall complication and crisis. The first scene then launches into midaction events, an introductory crisis moment that in isolation reveals no direct relation to the larger crisis introduced by the preamble. In other words, the scene is a start, not a middle crisis. Taken denotatively--literally--yes, in medias res. Connotatively--figuratively--no. To me, an obvious gimmick from missing the figurative value of in medias res; that is, personal awareness of midcrisis action. Leia is aware of the larger crisis; however, the immediate personal crisis of the moment she becomes aware of mid scene. On balance, so-so in medias res, maybe.
For unity's sake, an in medias res start ideally begins mid crisis, is a personal crisis and awareness of the crisis mid action, and doesn't later flash back or recollect merely to reveal backstory, rather raises backstory because a backstory detail matters at the immediate, personal moment of the action. Otherwise, chronologically linear action unfolds progressively forward so time disruptions do not disrupt reading. Nonlinear chronologies notwithstood; they have their own challenges apart from in medias res.
A tall order for flash fiction, let alone any narrative length. A guidance I might offer is to clearly define and focus the dramatic complication for flash fiction's abbreviated length. Note that an agonist's personal transformation is an essential for the end.
For example, Complication, lost wand; in medias res, the search of a limited setting, a wardrobe closet perhaps; end, wand found, though for personal transformation's sake, along the way a personal revelation occurs, say, finding the wand as a personal journey through the wardrobe bottom shelf's detritus of abandoned possessions and passions, the revelation that "magic" is the root of all the agonist's desires. The personal, immediate mid crisis awareness then of lost passion and attendant doubts. Rifling through the wardrobe then is a reawakening of passion.
Ample opportunities to use all four of the challenge triggers, too.
Use the wand as a metafictional symbolism for a pencil. Ah-hah, writing is real magic. In medias res at its strongest artful, not mere mechanical, expression!?
There was a previous challenge here at Hatrack, I now discover, that featured in media res, and used the Wikipedia definition. For the purposes of the challenge I propose a simple definition that some might use to trigger a story: in media res opens a story that has a beginning, middle and end, by starting in the middle. The challenge for the writer is to cover the beginning and end in an entertaining fashion, maybe with flashbacks, certainly not with "as you know, Bob" dialogue.
If a contestant wants to be more subtle with the definition of in media res, along the lines extrinsic suggests, so much the better.
I happen to like the Star Wars example because the first time we meet the characters - after the text preamble - we're dropped into action. For me, when I first saw it, that was wonderful: believable action in space on a movie screen. (We'd had it before, but never this good.) So it was a great hook. (And the text preamble gave moviegoers time to get sitting and quit rustling.)
I think I found some more modern examples of in media res starts. What do you think?
Heinlien does something similar to Star Wars with Time Enough For Love. After a prologue, we first meet Lazarus late in his long life, and he's grumpy. The rest of the novel is about how he got to live so long, and what'll happen next. It's done with him answering questions for the writer of his biography, and a whole bunch of stories within the story.
But there are some fascinating examples which I suspect go more to extrinsic's ideas.
Glen Gold's "Carter Beats The Devil" opens with the death of President Harding shortly after a magic show in San Francisco. The police suspect the magician of murder. Then the story splits into two, each interleaved with the other. One flashes back to San Francisco at the turn of the century and follows Carter the magician's life through a wonderful reconstruction of Americana and vaudeville. We forgive the flashback because we want to know what happened, and the combination of olden America and Gold's narrative style is beguiling. The other story follows the police and their efforts to discover what happened. Both stories eventually get to the magic show and Harding's death again, but differently, and go on to resolution. Gold's story-telling is exquisite, for he includes misdirection in the style of a conjurer without making the reader feel that this is an unreliable narrator.
Ruth Ozeki's "A Tale For The Time Being" begins with the diary of a Japanese girl, Nao, which tells us about her grandmother, a Zen Buddhist nun some 104 years old. We land in the middle of the story of the grandmother and the girl and wonder (alongside Ruth, who happens across Nao's diary on a Vancover Beach) what's the nun's story, and where's Nao?
Audrey Niffenegger's "The Time Traveller's Wife" starts in media res and it's intrinsic to the charm of this story. Here, the narrator has an alternative to flashbacks: time travel. Yet, as with flashbacks, the trick is in doing it artfully, which Niffenegger pulls off superbly. (But not all time travel stories start in media res: IIRC The Time Machine didn't. Neither did the very first episode of Dr Who.)
Um, so, extrinsic, you seem to have a magical idea for a story that could show in media res can indeed be done in a flash fiction format - you going to set pen and wand upon it? Matt, you up for a Shakespearean attempt?
We'll see whether I may work around privacy concerns.
As regards Robert Heinlien's Time Enough for Love, the nonlinear timeline of the start prelude, a now present time start, then a flashback to an earlier time, I don't see the structure as in medias res per se. The literal meaning of in medias res, perhaps; that is, in the middle of the action, though loops back to an earlier time that develops backstory of the future now. Audrey Niffenegger's The Time Traveller's Wife start more closely fits the full dimensions of in medias res, though it too is a nonlinear timeline.
Another way to consider in medias res is to approach other forms as "begun with the egg." the ancestral pedigree and conception of a viewpoint agonist, her or his or its birth. A traditional convention details the viewpoint agonist's background at the outset. Often related in introductions, the opening or exposition backstory, which is how "exposition" came to be a label for a backstory summary and as well any summary or explanation block--"exposition dump" in disparaging terms.
However, then flash back to an earlier time changes a structure's timeline, though nonetheless later details fill backstory in scene mode's reality imitation instead of a front-loaded backstory introduction. In medias res avoids backstory altogether.
A Realism convention evolved over a century or more, later Modernism and Postmodernism's, likewise, backstory introductions were replaced by varied achievements of in medias res, mostly the mechanical middle efforts of a life's action contest sense: Three hundred sixty-five or six days in a year, the one that's different is where the action--the story, the contest--starts, the day of a moral clash with a natural human condition, the contest, as it were. The event of substance, a crisis contest which an agnoist is intimately aware of and caught up by.
Though, for me, the truest artful sense of in medias res is in the middle action of a crisis' awareness of the crisis. For instance, the lost wand example from above. In order to be genuinely in medias res, the child of power must be equally aware of lost passion and doubt for magic study from the outset, which is the classic definition of exposition: the opening act outset, introductions, the setup of the theme, and setup of the dramatic complication.
The lost wand, lost passion, and doubt contests' action then is a struggle to accommodate to or triumph over lost passion--loss of faith. Costly stakes, too, for failure, and ample reward for success. Obviously a maturation tableau apropos of young adult crises, though not per se exclusive to young adults.
When I started this thread the purpose I had in mind was to enable discussion of how to write a story that starts in media res.
Webster's defines "in media res" as "in or into the middle of a narrative or plot."
The OED defines it similarly as "adverb: in or into the midst or middle; without preamble."
I don't think the Wikipedia article is "woefully inadequate"; it's just not to one Hatracker's taste.
For anyone interested, here's some more guidance that I've been finding helpful in learning about in media res openings, in addition to extrinsic's valued opinions on taste and style (which seem to me not incompatible with Webster's and the OED).
The key, everyone seems to agree, is that the story starts in the middle.
Many of the examples are from movies and TV, where they like to grab the audience's attention. Not unlike the idea of a first 13, really, and perhaps a tempting technique for standing out in the slush pile.
It mentions use of flashbacks to provide the backstory (or the beginning of the story, if you will) that was missed by starting in the middle. (So, despite the possibility of disapproval from one, maybe more Hatrackers, the flash fiction challenge will accept flashbacks in a story that starts in media res.)
OSC says, in 'Characters and Viewpoint', "As a rule of thumb: If you feel a need to have a flashback on the first or second page of your story, either your story should begin with the events of the flashback, or you should get us involved with some compelling present characters and events before flashing back."
Ben Bova writes in 'The Craft of Writing Science Fiction that Sells' that "It is important that the flashbacks you use should not interrupt the main flow of the story. Flashbacks should support your story, not interrupt it. Think of them as clues you offer the reader, clues to help the reader understand who your characters truly are and why they are behaving the way they do. Get back to the main story promptly." Especially if it's flash fiction!
With this in mind I think Star Wars is a useful illustration of an in media res start for us at Hatrack with our interests in SF&F. Not only did the movie throw us straight into Princess Leia's losing battle, it could be regarded in its entirety an in media res start to a series of movies, being Episode IV.
We pieced together the backstory we'd missed largely by watching the action and guessing some of it, listening to dialogue (e.g. Luke's Aunt and Uncle talking about Luke, yet leaving much unsaid; Obi Wan, Yoda and even Darth Vader telling Luke more about his father). But in a technique perhaps unique to SF&F, some backstory came from characters returning after death from some kind of afterlife. On a grander scale, more backstory came from complete flashbacks in the form of whole movies, episodes 1 through 3. (Although some, like me, thought those were inferior.)
Here's a TV scriptwriter's guide to in media res, which it describes as "a quick and easy way to have an action sequence at the beginning of an episode".
Its 'Films - Live Action' section lists several movies from various genres with in media res openings.
And as an aspiring SF writer I'm pleased to see that its 'Live Action TV' section not only lists Firefly's original pilot episode "Serenity", but also the episode "Out of Gas" which it describes as "a master class in how to use this literary device without losing focus or characterisation," which for me, it is.
Hope this helps anyone considering an in media res opening, for the challenge or for a WIP, or using flashback and other techniques just to fill in backstory where it's needed.
Another approach to in medias res derives from the act functions of a three-act structure: beginning fourth, middle half, and end fourth. A beginning act is for introductions, mainly a dramatic complication, though that is personal to a setting and intimate to an agonist character. Middles are for efforts to satisfy the complication against length-proportioned opposition. Ends are for outcomes of the efforts, or the denouement (act): "the final outcome of the main dramatic complication in a literary work" (Webster's 11th Collegiate).
In medias res, therefore, would be two acts. For a five-act structure, the entire first act and a portion of the second act are skipped past, though an in medias res narrative may still comprise three or more acts. An act division can be identified by structural signals, like empty line breaks, perhaps section breaks, maybe chapter breaks, maybe even paragraph breaks for micro fiction's abbreviated length. However, two aesthetic features distinguish act divisions: revelation and reversal related to a dramatic complication.
Revelation is a discovery that informs the dramatic complication, raises a further want, further problem--further in the sense of the same complication with deeper significance--for partial effort satisfaction of a want or problem. Which is a partial reversal. Reversal is an alteration of a dramatic complication's forces of opposition. Reversals can be partial or complete satisfaction progress or setback or both.
Like in medias res, and most if not all literary and rhetorical devices, dramatic complication, too, has structural and aesthetic properties. In medias res' structural property, as outlined above, is in the middle of an action--the middle act of a dramatic complication. In medias res' aesthetic property, not given in generic definitions, is agonist prior awareness of a dramatic complication: into the middle of dramatic complication satisfaction efforts.
Dramatic complication's structural property is problem and want in opposition. The aesthetic property is complication efforts for satisfaction.
Flash fiction also has structural and aesthetic properties; structural, brief length; aesthetic, emotional rawness, written in a flash of emotional inspiration. Written rapidly, flash fiction's greatest appeal is its emotional rawness preserved and not polished away into a faceted gemstone. One flash fiction emotional rawness identifier is use of figurative language that economically and quickly pulls readers into emotional alignment with a reality imitation. The William Gibson Neuromancer novel opening line is a classic example: "The sky was the color of television--a dead channel." Raw emotion that estranges reader alpha world and estranges narrator and strikes immediately an intimate, personal chord. Gibson uses the metalepsis figure of speech in that sentence.
Likewise, metalepsis has a structural property and an aesthetic property. The structural property, a connection between disparate items; the aesthetic property, stretched or farfetched comparison.
The classic metaphor "My love is a rose" exhibits structural and aesthetic properties; likewise simile structure and properties, "My love is as like a rose." The aesthetic properties of metaphor and simile are by degree abstract representation: reality imitation. Structural, abstract analogy. Metalepsis strengthens and clarifies abstract figures of speech through personal, emotional, and concrete meaning. "My love is a stem rose--of pretty blossom and bitter thorn."
Noir, likewise a structural and aesthetic property: adventures of a hard-boiled cynic in bleak settings. Femme fatale: a seductress who tempts men (otherwise any gender's love interests or suitors) into dangerous compromises. A picaresque form: episodic adventures of a roguish agonist. Likewise, a story "shape:" a quest adventure--also known as a personal journey, the structure property one of seeking a goal; the aesthetic property, personal growth at a proportionate personal cost. An in medias res flash fiction story does not exclude a quest. Dramatic complication, event, setting, and character quantities limit the scope of the quest.
Conflict too has structural and aesthetic properties, structural, stakes in opposition--life or death, for example; aesthetic, polar opposite stakes in proportion keep doubt of outcome open until a bitter or sweet or bittersweet end.
An aesthetic property ideally informs a structural property, such that writing and reading appeal. In medias res, for example, the aesthetic property transcends the structural property, becomes the appeal of import. As an event, an agonist's prior awareness of an antagonal complication raises reader curiosity first and foremost. While the action unfolds, then, other emotional alignments develop: empathy or sympathy or other emotional appeals.