“In Medias Res” is a Latin phrase that roughly translated means “in the middle of”. It’s a common technique in fiction of all types to begin a story in the middle of some kind of action that occurs later on in the narrative, before cutting back to the story’s true beginning. It’s a very effective tool for a writer to use, because it catches their attention with some kind of spectacle or tense moment that makes them want to know how the character or characters got into said situation and why.
A really good example of this comes from the Uncharted series of video games, specially Uncharted 2: Among Thieves. The game opens with the main character, Nathan Drake, waking up alone on a train with a gunshot wound in his chest. As if that isn’t bad enough, Drake soon realizes after looking out the window that the carriage is dangling over the edge of a cliff. Seconds later, falling debris knocks him out of his seat and nearly plunges him straight off the cliff. Fortunately he manages to grab hold of the rear railing just in time.
The reason this opening sequence is effective is because it isn’t a trick or some kind of cheat. This is actually happening to the character at a later point in the story, a point that players then slowly catch up to as the play. But what makes it even better is that, for the opening hour or so, the game cuts back and forth between the beginning exposition and the train wreck, keeping players engaged with the story without making it drag on. The only thing I think that could have made this introduction better is if the train wreck scene was used a few more times throughout the game before players caught up to it in terms of the timeline. But that’s less a complaint and more of a personal wish on my end, as I’ve always enjoyed disjointed chronologies when it comes to storytelling. Telling a tale out of order is so much more interesting to me.
In Medias Res is a very popular tactic in storytelling, one that you’ve likely seen used many times without really realizing it. But it’s not always elegant. Sometimes, it ends up feeling tacky or even downright deceitful. It can feel contrived, meant only as a cheap trick to hook the audience with a scene that has little to no impact on the rest of the story.
Which brings me to the first John Wick movie.
At the beginning of John Wick, we see the titular character clambering out of a car, battered and severely wounded. Sitting down on a sidewalk, he pulls out his phone and watches a video clip of his wife before collapsing unto the pavement. The movie then jumps back in time to the beginning, exploring Wick as a character and his motivations.
While I appreciate that this opening scene sets up Wick’s attachment to his wife, the whole “is he dead or not” ploy fell flat for me. It’s too common a trope in movies and television shows. Usually, it just ends up being there solely to trick the audience into being interested. Eventually, you discover that the main character doesn’t actually die or was even all that injured in the first place. Part of my dislike of John Wick‘s use of the trope is likely due to the fact that they made two sequels, which would be impressive if they made an entire trilogy about a character who died in chapter one. But even despite that, it still feels a little cheap, especially when later you find out that he basically just stands up and walks away without much of a problem.
By the way, John Wick is a fantastic action movie. I feel like I should mention that before I give the impression that I thought the movie sucked. My gripe with the opening scene is one of the only minor complaints I had with the movie.
But I digress. There are even cheaper forms of In Medias Res. And one of my biggest pet peeves with the trope goes a little something like this:
“Oh no big action scene! SPLOSIONS! BANG BANG shooty shooty! Oh no, main character got hit! He’s gonna die! Nope, just kidding. It was all a simulation or a practice drill of some kind.”
I absolutely hate this version of In Media Res, primarily because it has barely any impact on the rest of the plot, if at all. It usually functions to reveal a character flaw or failing that they will overcome sometime later in the episode, in the midst of a situation that somehow happens to mirror the opening simulation or drill. Far too often, it just feels lazy and tacked on, especially when the character only has the failing for that one episode and it is never brought up again.
Television shows are guilty far too often of lazily using this trope. There are so many episodes of television shows that either begin with “oh this character might die” or “big action scene is revealed to merely be a training exercise” that I could probably fill a small book with them all. And while tropes can be used effectively (such as with Gothic architecture in horror movies), oftentimes it becomes little more than a cheap fallback for writers who can’t think of something better.
And especially nowadays that television has gotten more serialized and complex, this type of bland writing really stands out. It’s one of the reasons I don’t really care for procedural-type shows anymore, because you could almost make them a case study in tropes just based on how often they use them. In fact, the show Robot Chicken made a skit making fun of Law and Order for how formulaic it is by replacing all of the characters with chickens.
The fact that you can actually suss out some of the details of the “story” in that skit makes it even funnier.
But much like other writing tropes, In Medias Res has great power, but it has to be used responsibly and correctly to truly have an impact. It works best when used to highlight a poignant or climactic moment for a character, which emphasizes the contrast of how said character was in the beginning of the story compared to how they have changed during the event and its aftermath. But it’s also far too easy to use as a crutch, as a gimmick to entice the audience into paying attention, only to realize that they’ve been played when it’s revealed that said event barely even mattered at all.
Because after all, even in the lightest of stories, we like events to have meaning or importance for the characters. Otherwise, the journey is pointless. And the audience is left unsatisfied.
Thanks for reading! Check back on the third Wednesday of December for my next post. Have a wonderful Thanksgiving and stay warm out there!