When beginning writers are tasked with writing a narrative essay, most pick an event and start telling the story at the beginning, and the subsequent details follow in chronological order. This seems logical: beginning, middle, end. Sometimes these narrative essays will incorporate a brief flashback, but never deviate from the chronological retelling of events.
The problem with this kind of storytelling organization is that it can become tedious to a reader. Writers tend to begin too far back to the beginning, then proceed to tell every detail up to the end. By the time the reader gets to the conclusion, he or she may lose interest. By taking the narrative out of chronological order and begin “in media res,” or “in the middle of things,” we get off to a swift start that will sustain the narrative through to the end and hook the reader’s interest.
In medias res (or medias in res) is a Latin phrase which simply means the narrative story begins at the mid-point of the action rather than at the beginning. Setting, characters, and conflict can be set up immediately via flashback, conversations, or inner reflection. The main advantage of in medias res is to open the story with dramatic action rather than exposition, which sets up the characters and situation.
In medias res often, though not always, entails nonlinear narrative, or non-chronological order, for exposition of earlier events in order to fill in the back story. Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey use this technique to begin with the action of the Trojan War. To Kill a Mockingbird begins with Jem’s broken arm, which doesn’t happen in the narrative until the conclusion. Think about the stories you’ve read for class; where in the story has the action begun? I’ll bet you’ll find it is seldom in the actual beginning of events.
When composing your own essay, there is no magic answer on where to begin your story, but one technique writers use in the revision process is scissors. Take your draft and cut apart at each paragraph, then lay each paragraph out on the floor. Try to envision where the narrative could be re-arranged, and play with the organization. Place the end at the beginning. Place the beginning in the middle. Throw out all the middle that is taking the reader away from the essence of the story. One writer I know who is about to publish her fifth book used this technique to organize her last collection of essays, taking each chapter and throwing it on the floor, then visually studying how best they would fit together.
Once you begin to play with the possibilities of organization, think about the use of “white space,” or the breaks in the narrative where you placed a double space to visually separate the paragraphs. Remember in creative writing, white space means something – a jump in time, a jump in place, or a shift in perspective. How are you using your white spaces? If you tend to use a lot of paragraph breaks, but with no discernible reason, maybe that paragraph is in the wrong place in the narrative.
Once you shift your perspective to consider other possibilities of organization for your narrative other than chronological, you will avoid spinning your wheels in the beginning and hook the reader by placing him or her immediately into the action. For further reading on essay organization and structure read Robert Root’s, “This is What the Spaces Say” and “Collage, Montage, Mosaic, Vignette, Episode, Segment.”