Yup. More Latin.
I was wracking my brain trying to figure out what my next blog post would be about. Naturally I kept coming up with video game related posts, since that’s what I’ve been up to once break started.
WHY WON’T YOU LEAVE ME BE!?
However I try to avoid two of the same mediums in one week. Then the other night I was talking to my room mate about the latest book I loaned her, The Dogs of Babel, and I brought up in media res.
In media res translates to “into the middle of things”, and is one of the most common literary conceits used in storytelling. Why? Because it’s just that. It’s in the middle of things. All of our popular media use in media res frequently to hook their consumers and drive their story because we live in a fast paced, instant consumption world.
SImply put a typical plot arc can be boiled down (and I mean really boiled down) to three major points.
1. We’re introduced to the character, their daily life, their friends and family, background, characteristics and personality.
2. The character is posed a task, question, or anything that generates conflict. This is where the bulk of the story takes place, and there are plenty of different subpoints to this part of the plot arc. We’re just focusing on the big three, though.
3. The character overcomes the conflict. This is best known as the climax, and is often characterized by the character gaining new skills or insights that they gained from the previous points.
Now I’m sure someone out there could explain it much better than that, but we’re just using this as frame work. In media res plays with this three point plot arc in order to drive us directly into the action and hook the readers/viewers/players, and it does so by starting with the second plot point as opposed to the first. Once the conflict is established we’re told the missing pieces over time, or all at once. Two excellent examples of this are Breaking Bad and Star Wars: A New Hope.
Most of Breaking Bad‘s episodes start with us in the middle of the conflict, then we jump back to the “beginning” and work our way up to that opening scene. A lot of season two actually foreshadowed the finale in this manner by using a form of in media res. However the clearest example is in the pilot episode of the series (as is the case for almost any TV show), when Walter confesses to his camera in the opening scene.
Since when did Malcolm in the Middle get so violent?
Star Wars: A New Hope uses the other tactic. It uses the opening scene to introduce the villain, our hero(es), and then jumps right into the journey that Luke must undertake. While we’re going on this journey, we’re revealed bits and pieces of the past and Luke’s qualities from the first plot point. These points were later made into a new trilogy that no one needed to see.
Those movies don’t deserve a picture on my blog. So here’s a kitten instead. You’re welcome.
Both of these methods are effective and powerful because it does one of two things: a) it raises questions that we want answered, or b) it involves us immediately–and sometimes it accomplishes both.
Other times it just doesn’t work. Although I encourage the use of in media res as a literary conceit it’s often times overused or used incorrectly. “How can you use it incorrectly though?” you may ask. Well it can happen in one of two ways. Either we start too far in the middle (like the aforementioned prequels), or we start with the second point and then never fill in the blanks of the first point.
Now this can be used to our advantage, causing the audience to ask questions that lead them to be more interested in the character. Other times it leaves them feeling like they’ve been given an empty character. I really hate using this next movie as an example, because I love it, but…
Much scarier than a Xenomorph.
Ridley Scott’s Prometheus is an excellent example of in media res not working as well as it could. It’s a great movie, and it has so many good qualities (acting, pacing, foreshadowing, I could go on). However, post opening scenes, the story is propelled using in media res (spoilers). We know that the ship Prometheus is going to an unknown planet to discover humanity’s origins. Elizabeth Shaw, our protagonist, is revealed to be a religious woman who lived with her father in another country for unclear reasons (maybe missionary work) in the first few scenes. Later we’re shown that she’s also infertile, and… well that’s pretty much all we get about her.
We’re given a character who has loads of potential to explore the origins of man and the implications and importance of faith. Instead the focus is on the origins of the Xenomorphs in Alien. It’s more than alright to reveal little about the character’s past when using in media res, but it’s easy to get wrapped up in revealing too little. There’s a fine balance between consumers having questions about the character that entice them and questions that leave us confused or lost.
There are alternatives to in media res that I find much more involving and useful, but then this post would twice as long. So unless the world is ending today, I’ll see you all next week when I talk about The Dogs of Babel and its use of the literary conceit known as frame story.
Thanks for reading.