This is topic Story Opening Class 03 in forum Writing Class at Hatrack River Writers Workshop.

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Posted by Grumpy old guy (Member # 9922) on :
The purpose of the first class was an exercise in quickly invoking reader empathy for a character. The second exercise was all about swift characterisation. So, what’s this third one about?

The in medias res opening is becoming cliché amongst new writers and some more experienced ones. So often they start with, “Stop! Look over there! Shiny thing!” Effectively, what I want people to try with this exercise is to write a true in medias res opening without resorting to colour, movement, and action.



in medias res, (Latin: “in the midst of things”) in narrative technique, the recommended practice of beginning an epic or other fictional form by plunging into a crucial situation that is part of a related chain of events; the situation is an extension of previous events and will be developed in later action. The narrative then goes directly forward, and exposition of earlier events is supplied by flashbacks. The principle is based on the practice of Homer in the Iliad and the Odyssey.

New writers often mistakenly think this means the story opens with Capt’n Jack diving for cover behind stacked boxes of Kewpie space-dolls as the beam of a nano-blaster goes phwerrrr-buzzzt overhead while never mentioning how he got there. It doesn’t. What it does mean is that the writer, having created a plot that goes: A, B, C, D, E, then decides that the story will open at point ‘C’ because it is the most exciting place to start in order to grab reader attention—the hook. He does, however, still intend to reveal the journey through ‘A’ and ‘B’ to ‘C’ by using flashbacks or reflective, narrative exposition.

This week’s task is to write an in medias res opening of two sentences where nothing is actually happening. By this I mean there is no action etc, just a character, or two, doing nothing much in particular; it could be waiting, wondering, planning, etc. The real mind bending problem you need to solve is how to make it plain that this opening IS in medias res—in the middle of something.

Good luck, I think we’re all going to need it. [Smile]


[ August 01, 2015, 10:43 PM: Message edited by: Grumpy old guy ]
Posted by Disgruntled Peony (Member # 10416) on :
Quick note! The link accidentally attached your colon to the URL, which made the link go to a 'nonexistent page', but once I deleted that the link worked.

With regard to the thread as a whole: This is, indeed, going to be difficult. On the other hand, it sounds like an interesting challenge.
Posted by Grumpy old guy (Member # 9922) on :
Thanks for the note about the link, it now works properly.

Posted by JSchuler (Member # 8970) on :
Capt'n Jack tried to get comfortable behind the stacked boxes of Kewpie space-dolls. If it came down to it, they couldn't stop so much as a nano-blaster beam, but no one would think to look for him here.
Posted by extrinsic (Member # 8019) on :
A Postmodern consensus does indeed consider in medias res cliché. Fortunately, a replacement consideration Edgar Allan Poe advised is available -- telos res; at the end [of things], as near to the end of an action as practical. Poe's "The Cask of Amontillado" starts at the end, the denouement act, without an exposition start or development middle, straight into an outcome end.

Begun at the start, the middle, or the end of an action, a narrative's opening need only evoke emotion and express what the whole is about -- one act in three parts, three acts in three parts, or five acts in three parts. The three parts are tensional emotion anticipation's preparation, suspension, and resolution and of a whole and single, unified action. Poe again.

This exercise asks for an in medias res opening. So long as the middle is anywhere except the final outcome of the dramatic complication, nearest the end though not quite, that's middle enough, I think.

Further, the exercise prompts for eventless action that is pendent and implies events have hurtled headlong up to this midpoint. Poe's "The Cask of Amontillado," 1846, opening is a valuable model for realization of the exercise's rationales.

"The thousand injuries of Fortunato I had borne as I best could, but when he ventured upon insult I vowed revenge. You, who so well know the nature of my soul, will not suppose, however, that gave utterance to a threat."

Pendent and a plan of action expressed and set in motion in the middle, near the outcome end of the circumstance's action. Personally, I'd do away with the conjunction "but" and readjust that conjoined clause.

[ August 07, 2015, 03:24 PM: Message edited by: extrinsic ]
Posted by wcoditwgth (Member # 10431) on :
Capt'n Jack, bored to the point of mental suicide, erratically snapped a beat off his right hand while his behind fell asleep on the floor. His backrest, a now permanently disfigured pillar of boxes inhabited by Kewpie space-dolls, threatened to collapse and cover him with squishy creatures.

I'm going to assume that we didn't need to use your example, Grumpy old guy, but couldn't resist using old Capt'n Jack and a bunch of Kewpie space dolls.

Wait....snapping fingers is an action. Darn it.
Posted by extrinsic (Member # 8019) on :
Another facet of in medias res -- the mechanical facet is the start is in the middle of a scene sequence segment, middle of a timeline, middle of a transformative process -- is the aesthetic facet. Grumpy old guy's description of a guy diving for cover as a sequence's middle event intended to hook, line, and sinker readers' engagement through spectacular action illustrates a cliché characteristic, if not the characteristic that draws the cliché label.

Also, that characteristic intent is a feature that solely serves plot exigencies and, therefore, is melodramatic. Non-melodramatic, non-cliché characteristics serve character movement, and plot movement then is a consequence.

Character movement is a consequence of complication: agonist want and problem wanting satisfaction -- self-involved complication and satisfaction. Though institutional writing programs and workshops -- and John Gardner -- emphasize want satisfaction over problem, problem is a first cause behind a want. Want for candy, money, love, respect, acceptance, work, etc., want is incited by a problem, oftentimes a lack. An invasion is a problem first that incites a want. Likewise a dead person is a problem first.

A want may precede a problem; in existential and maybe ontological realms could be altruistically concerned about social cooperation for common good. Self-involved complication is no less a proportion. If an individual doesn't give sufficient care to the self, the self cannot give care to a common good. That's a rationale for, not self-justification for, selfishness for a common good. Bug-eyed aliens invade, problem; self-preservation is a powerful compulsion, want; due to the action the planet and life are saved. Though such a narrative would be superficial plot movement only: Character movement is a requirement.

This exercise prompts for no plot movement, per se. Nothing much happens. Nor is any overt character movement a necessity. In medias res, in the sense of character movement could portray an agonist in suspended transformative transition -- on the horns of a dilemma, so to speak, mid evaluation of a problem and want decision. This compares to a liminal space or time, though is mid-decision amid thoughts. Liminal means a sensory threshold of pendent transition, an intermediate state, phase, or condition according to Webster's.

In medias res, therefore, is liminal as well, the middle sequence segment of preparation, suspension, and resolution, mid suspension or near the end of a suspension segment.

These above are in medias res' aesthetic functions that propel character movement: mid complication, mid character movement, and mid action movement.

A flip side, though, is the dread stuck-in-a-bathtub navel contemplation indecision and ennui and angst, suspension -- state of being suspension: stasis, static. Some degree of implied forward movement is necessary at the start and all along an action's sequence. Pendency is a strategy for that implicature feature.

Poe's above cited start does that in two sentences; the first clause, a preparation segment, portrays a problem that has long irritated Montressor; and he is at the end of his patience. The second clause portrays a generically formed, pendent implementation, plan of action -- a self-involved revenge want in suspension. The second sentence portrays Montressor's guile, suspends resolution and pendently propels character movement. As to a common good want for the whole? No plot spoiler's from here. Poetic justice is not served; the proverbial cold dish is served. The two sentences also imply a moral human condition in crisis that the story is really about: a vice of envy (jealousy) realized as wrath.

[ August 07, 2015, 03:29 PM: Message edited by: extrinsic ]
Posted by Grumpy old guy (Member # 9922) on :
Everyone has gone very quiet; I hope this is an indication that you're having as much trouble with this as I am.

But, as moderator and judge, I feel I should set an example, poor as it may be.

Someone once said that you are gifted with only so many heartbeats in your life. I reckon I spent most of mine in that last ten minutes; now I'm just waiting for the other shoe to drop.

Yes, there is an allusion to an old joke; but hey, who cares? Yet, on a serious note, that joke, told in that way, reveals character traits.


PS. I reserve the right to change it if I come up with something better--you can too.
Posted by extrinsic (Member # 8019) on :
The bosses who cornered her, they said actions not promises reveal strength of character, exposed their self-interested motivations for persistently correcting her trivial mistakes -- keep her subservient in her place. What and how much self-interest, July Maddoc thought, could she get away with, of untarnished integrity, and meet their peer-to-peer level of tolerable even admirable vices.

[ August 07, 2015, 03:31 PM: Message edited by: extrinsic ]
Posted by Disgruntled Peony (Member # 10416) on :
Jonathan Stone huddled in the hallway closet, eyes wide and ears open. He held every shallow breath back as long as possible, because each one might give him away.
Posted by Grumpy old guy (Member # 9922) on :
That's two; I don't count me [Smile] . So--Hurry, hurry, hurry! Step right up! Only eighteen hour, or less, to go. There's a gold star and an elephant stamp up for grabs.

Posted by extrinsic (Member # 8019) on :
wcoditwgth and JSchuler entered earlier in the week.
Posted by Grumpy old guy (Member # 9922) on :
Point taken, although I felt their entries were closer to parodies. [Smile]

Posted by Grumpy old guy (Member # 9922) on :
When I first came up with the idea for this exercise I made a fundamental flaw; making the task so much harder than it should have been. That some people tried, none the less, is heartening. The problem is that in coming up with a true in medias res opening you need a story within which to place it; giving it context.

My opening example of Capt’n Jack didn’t provide anything more than suggesting its genre was probably satirical space-opera. It certainly didn’t provide any setting or story context. So, without any ado, the clear winner of this week’s task is extrinsic—hands over gold star and looks for a place to stamp the elephant. He successfully set up a conflict prior to the opening moment, he developed character as she thought about that past and, in thinking about the possible implications of what had happened, hinted at future complications. Well done! Although—mate! That’s a hard read; you might want to consider rephrasing . . .

There are no HM’s this week because I feel everyone else, including me, failed the brief. Of course, that’s just my silly opinion; you are free to disagree [Smile]

Posted by Kathleen Dalton Woodbury (Member # 59) on :
Your efforts are appreciated anyway, Phil. It got people thinking, and that is all to the good.

Best wishes on future exercises.
Posted by JSchuler (Member # 8970) on :
Originally posted by Grumpy old guy:
Point taken, although I felt their entries were closer to parodies. [Smile]


Can parodies not open in medias res?
Posted by Disgruntled Peony (Member # 10416) on :
Honestly, the big problem I had was with the lack of action. I don't try to start every story off with a bang, but it's always important to me as a writer (and a reader) that something is *happening*.

I do actually have a story in mind that this little snippet could be part of. The main reason I haven't started writing it yet is because I have a beginning and some bits that could go in the middle, but no idea what to do with the ending.
Posted by Grumpy old guy (Member # 9922) on :
Yes, JSchuler, they can. I sit corrected.

Posted by extrinsic (Member # 8019) on :
Oh, and I tried so hard to self-sabotage and conceal the inner workings of my entry so I couldn't win -- why it's wordy: exaggerated for effect.

Originally posted by Disgruntled Peony:
I have a beginning and some bits that could go in the middle, but no idea what to do with the ending.

Why does Stone hide? might guide an answer. Obviously, he fears the stalkers. Who are they? What do they want? How did they come across Stone? Context's who, when, and where questions; texture's what, why, and how questions artfully posed and delayed answering. Consider the stalker's viewpoint known to Stone as a starting point that sets up the ending. Beginnings imply endings and the action between, based on personal, self-involved antagonal want and problem wanting satisfaction. What did Stone want that drew the stalkers' attention?
Posted by Disgruntled Peony (Member # 10416) on :
The story as I see it opens with eight-year-old Jonathan's physically abusive father attacking his mother badly enough to hospitalize (or potentially kill) her.

Due to a lack of immediate family, Jonathan ends up in foster care. He bounces around a lot; around age 15 ge ends up with a family that has a physically imposing ex-military foster father. A few months in he sees his foster parents having an argument. It looks to him like the father is about to attack the mother, so he strikes first. The mother is furious because she didn't actually feel threatened and Jonathan beats the hell out of the dad. This (combined with a host of other things) results in Jonathan being committed to a juvenile psychiatric ward.

The main part where I'm having trouble is figuring out what an appropriate resolution of Jonathan's personal conflicts are.

There's also a part of me that wants to throw an element of fantasy and/or horror into the mix, but I don't like the idea of possession and that's all I've come up with so far. (Essentially, my thought process is that Jonathan notices unusual warning signs in his own father/the foster father's behavior, the kind of thing that could be misinterpreted as hallucinations if described to someone else.)
Posted by extrinsic (Member # 8019) on :
Single out a vice and Stone's self-involvement influences from the vice. What does he selfishly want of which he is the problem? His family and he are dysfunctional. Stable family and social life, belonging, being wanted and needed, and to which he is a meaningful participant and contributor are possible wants, though he's too young and emotionally undeveloped to self-actualize them.

Internal conflict and complication are more or less universally moral tableaus based on vice (selfishness) and agonists are oftentimes oblivious to internal moral tableaus. Internal moral tableau action is intangible and abstract. External tangible action is necessary to package internal action.

A satisfying end at the least necessarily self-discovers a moral truth that forwards personal growth at a personal cost (compromise, sacrifice), whether or not a companion tangible action satisfies or resolves an external complication or conflict. Even narratives with empirically "good" and "evil" personas and forces in external diametric opposition discover a moral truth by the end, though the action is largely or solely tangible, external, superficial. Superficial in the sense of on the surface, tangible, external not internal; not per se shallow.

Assigning Stone a tangible complication shapes the external action that packages the internal action. He could, for example, want a doll house (where his imagination symbolically emulates the stable family life he wants and doesn't have), a potentially powerful want, possibly a reason his birth mother and father quarrel, the father a problem opposing Stone having a doll house. That want then is a self-involved complication and conflict from which Stone feels he's the cause of his parents' fatal quarrel.

Mom says let the boy play with dolls. Dad says no son of mine plays with dolls, period. Quarrel on. The argument is between them and about the father's pride (household dominance) and the mother's envy (want for shared spousal and parental partnership at least). Stone's vice, too, is pride (wants to do what he wants to do regardless of parental approval or disapproval). His attack on the foster father is a matter of pride, too, no matter how socially responsible his defense of the foster mother appears to him.

He could then discover through the action that he is an impetuous youth curse-blessed with the birth parents' likewise impetuous actions. That he then runs away from all adult supervision to forge his way on his own then could be a third phase of the action, where he could find himself guiding runaways less mature than him.

Through that third phase he discovers responsibility, obligation, duty, and accountability for others. A proverb will serve for distinguishing the moral truth discovery and unifying the whole: "When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became an [adult], I put away childish things." (1 Corinthians 13:11; brackets mine for "adult" substituted for "man.")

Stone may or may not acquire a satisfying doll house, find it either childish or approach doll house ware as an adult pastime (building or collecting and trading) or develop a similar though possibly more "masculine" passion -- housewright, that he discovers as a day laborer picked up to go to a house construction site and do the menial chores. In any case, he experiences personal growth at personal cost and at least satisfies a moral complication and conflict.

A moral tableau packaged by a tangible action is a key to starts, middles, and ends.

[ August 10, 2015, 01:19 PM: Message edited by: extrinsic ]
Posted by Disgruntled Peony (Member # 10416) on :
The dollhouse angle caught me by surprise in a good way. I may well end up using that, at least in part. Regardless, it got me thinking in new and interesting ways. I think I'll be able to find resolution for the story, now.

I also think it may not be a short story anymore, but that's okay. XD
Posted by extrinsic (Member # 8019) on :
Adjusted for less wordiness: fewer modifiers, fewer prepositions, stronger, more natural stream of consciousness.

Brown-nosers, the bosses who cornered her, they said actions not promises strengthened character, revealed the reason they corrected her -- keep her in her place. What and how much, July Maddoc thought, could she get away with and join them at their admirable vices.

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