Friday, April 10, 2009

In the Muddle of Things

in medias res--literally in the middle of things; a reference to dramatic works that begin with a good deal of backstory having already taken place; a dramatically convenient way to expose the reader to the main characters.

One of the older, more enduring narratives with an in medias res beginning is The Iliad, where the Trojan War has already been raging for six years, and begins with a relatively minor incident in which one of the major players, Achilles, feels he has been insulted and consequently decides to stop fighting, indeed removes his Myrmidon warriors from the forces attacking Troy, a decision that could turn the tide of battle. Some of the other major players try to talk him out of his decision, during the course of which we get doses of backstory.

In medias res openings begin at some dramatic point which sets opposing forces in enough motion to engage the readers before taking a dramatic pause to fill in relevant details, descriptions, stakes, and issues. No less popular now than they were back in the early centuries, these openings become a valuable tool for writers to study. They support the removal of chronological constraints, and they guide the writer into beginning with situations where characters are actively engaged in conflict, by their very nature making it difficult for the writer to spend too much time on description or backstory the reader has not yet been prepared to accept.

A more recent in medias res novel worth study is Ford Maddox Ford's The Good Soldier, which in addition to its jumbled chronology, features John Dowell, at first a seeming naive narrator then, by degrees, an unreliable one.

There is nothing toxic or wrong with telling a story in more or less strict chronology. Tobias Wolff's memorable short story, "Bullet in the Brain," is a compelling example. "Anders couldn't get to the bank until just before it closed," it begins, "so of course the line was endless and he got stuck behind two women whose loud, stupid conversation put him in a murderous temper. He was never in the best of tempers, anyway, Anders--a book critic known for the weary, elegant savagery with which he dispatched almost everything he reviewed."

From this beginning, it proceeds in close chronology to the dramatic payoff.

In medias res openings often come as a result of a revision tactic in which the writer purposefully reviews the entire narrative, searching for the most ideal place to begin. Sometimes moving the furniture about for a better arrangement will transform a story from the ordinary to the memorable.

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