by Karen Debonis
Over twenty years ago, when I decided to write a memoir, I knew next to nothing about creative writing. But I had a story to tell—the tale of my eleven-year-old son’s diagnosis with a brain tumor. After enough friends told me, “You should write a book,” I decided to dive in.
I’d already written a master’s thesis, a health education curriculum, public service announcements, and business letters. How hard could it be to write a memoir?
(I’m chuckling with you.)
I started at the very beginning; I’d heard it was a very good place to start.
My first chapter focused on my upbringing so readers would understand how I came to be the insecure mother and conflict-averse woman I was. The next chapter told about meeting and marrying my husband. Chapter three began with my high-risk delivery and ended with my healthy newborn.
Are you bored yet?
The inciting incident—the onset of Matthew's unusual eye-rolling tic at age eight—didn’t show up until chapter 9. Like Herman Melville’s Moby Dick, I had pages and pages of exposition before the real action began.
As I would later learn, the chronological beginning of a story is not always the best place to start. In fact, beginning a story in the middle is sometimes the best place to start.
A few years into the writing, I discovered—Over My Head by Claudia L. Osborn. I decided to restructure my manuscript to align with this engaging memoir. In her opening, Osborn—a doctor who suffered a brain injury in a bike accident—recounts in breathless detail the challenges of finding her way to a recovery program in New York City. It sucked me in and kept me turning the pages to the next chapter when she goes back in time to the hospital where she had practiced a year earlier.
I want that, I decided. I want a reader to be so engaged, they can’t help but keep reading.
I moved the inciting incident—Matthew’s eye-rolling tic— to the first chapter, filled in the backstory, and proceeded chronically from there.
Years later, one of my critique partners said I used a technique called in medias res. (This Latin phrase means "in the midst of things.")
In medias res is the technique of beginning a story in the middle of the action--usually the inciting incident or the climax.
Since I still knew next to nothing about creative writing, I studied to understand.
The most cited examples of in medias res are Homer’s epic poems The Iliad and The Odyssey. To help me remember what I learned, I created the super-simplified graphic below.
In red is the typical narrative arc of a story told in chronological order, as my original manuscript was. The inciting incident— “the triggering event that puts the main events of the story in motion” —usually occurs in rising action.
In blue is a story told using in medias res. Starting with the climax or inciting incident entices the reader to want to know the back story, and because they’ve been drawn in by the drama-filled opening, they are now invested in learning more about it.
(Of course, not all plot lines follow these neat paths, but it’s helpful to understand the basic building blocks.)
After the opening scene or chapter in medias res, the story usually jumps back in time to provide backstory. Then, it can proceed chronically. The author will want to remind readers when they reach the point in the narrative where the opening scene or chapter naturally occurs.
However, not all stories must follow this narrative arc. A writer has choices about what happens after their in medias res opening .
1. Make your opening scene urgent and integral to the plot, with high stakes for the main characters.
2. In medias res works best if the opening is closer to the middle or end of the story.
3. If the opening comes from early enough in the narrative, the writer may not need much backstory, and may be able to provide it in dialogue.
4. In medias res may work better for stories (in this case, memoirs) spanning many years or where the natural beginning is boring.
5. A traditional narrative arc may work best for stories (in this case, memoirs) that cover a short time period (one to five years), because:
A. There’s less ground to cover between the chronological beginning and the heart of the action
B. The version of the narrator at the beginning and end of the story are more-or-less the same.
Additional structure options for my fellow memoirists (and novel diagnostics, including medias res, for novelists)
I took to my bookshelves to see what other books could teach me and here are three examples of in medias res in memoir:
The book begins with her sitting in a taxi, dressed up for the evening. She looks out the window and sees her mother dumpster-diving. After that introductory scene, Walls’ next chapter begins with her earliest memory when she was three.
The novel opens with words she wrote several days after her husband died of a massive coronary event. Then it jumps briefly to a day nine months later, then back to the year before her husband’s death.
This starts in the Brussels airport where her bag stuffed with drug money finally comes through baggage, then jumps back to her college graduation a year earlier.
The book begins when Lily, the teenage protagonist, intends to show her emotionally abusive father a swarm of bees in her bedroom. But the bees have mysteriously vanished, angering her father. Then Lily brings us back to the day her mother died ten years earlier, and tries to understand who killed her.
This novel starts in the Falling Action, when Amir, an Afghanistan emigre living in San Francisco, receives a call as an adult to atone for sins he committed as a twelve-year-old.
Kristin Hannah’s book begins even later—decades after the action is resolved. Vianne is a dying elderly woman who hid her link to the French resistance in World War II. When she inadvertently reveals a trunk full of secrets to her adult son, her story spills out from the beginning.
So, although, when you read, you begin with "A B C," and when you sing, you begin with "Do Re Mi," when you write, you get to decide for yourself the very best place to start.
Do you have other examples of books that use in medias res? What about your own writing—how do you decide where to start your story?
* * * * * *
Karen DeBonis writes about motherhood, perseverance, and people-pleasing, an entangled mix told in her memoir GROWTH: A Mother, Her Son, and the Brain Tumor they Survived, available for representation.
A happy empty-nester, she lives in an old house in upstate New with her husband of thirty-nine years. You can see more of her work at www.karendebonis.com.
Top Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay
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That was a fascinating read and incredibly helpful. Thank you ?
I'm so glad it was helpful, Indira. I hope it helps you find the best place to start your WIPs!
Excellent explanation of the value of "starting in the middle." I agree with this approach with any story I write, fiction or non-fiction. Thanks for the diagrams, too! And the examples are perfect.
Thank you for reading and for your comment. I've been paying more attention to this approach, and so many TV shows and movies use it too. Happy writing in 2022!
Wonderful post. I'm a fiction writer, but these words resonate with me. I will definitely consider this approach in my next novel.
Thanks for your comment! I'm glad this technique is something you feel you can use. I wish you much luck with it and with your next novel.
It's so interesting to me that you too found a book that inspired your memoir's structure. For me, it was WILD by Cheryl Strayed. My mountain was high-risk pregnancy, but when I looked at the trauma and the layout of her book, I realized immediately how mine could lay over that framework. It is an amazing feeling, isn't it?
Yes, there's nothing like having a good model to follow. And WILD is often mentioned as an example of In Medias Res. I hope your memoir is just as successful, Jenny!
Ha! From your lips to God's ears, Karen!!
This is a helpful rendering of beginning story structures. It's good to know that you can start your story with whichever event will grab the reader the most right away. We only have a few pages to hook their interest and keep them turning pages.
I love that you added the visuals to this post, too.
Thanks Kris! Yes - those first pages, first paragraphs, first lines are so critical. I'm glad you liked the graphics. I had several iterations of them, and hopefully these will be helpful, especially for newbies like me.
I really had not thought of this approach before but can already see how if would work for one of my "stuck" ideas. Thank you very much!
I'm excited that this approach will work for you, Sharne. I hope it gets you unstuck!
Thank you, Karen, for your advice. I just made a major change in the first chapter of my novel.
After reading your excellent article I now believe I made the right decision.
Thanks for letting us know, Mary! I'm so glad I could help you make that change, and I hope it keeps your readers riveted to the action!
Thanks so much for sharing this, Karen. I’ve been doing a lot of writing since COVID began, even a novel, which I never imagined I’d ever try! This information will be very helpful in your re-writes.
A novel--that's wonderful, Judy! I'm glad you'll find this information helpful, and thank you for letting us know!
Sally Hepworth is really good with this.
Thanks for the recommendation, Denise. I'll check her out!