In medias res
A narrative work beginning in medias res (Classical Latin: [ɪn mɛdiaːs reːs], lit. "into the middle things") opens in the midst of action. (cf. ab ovo, ab initio). Often, exposition is bypassed and filled in gradually, either through dialogue, flashbacks or description of past events. For example, Hamlet begins after the death of Hamlet's father. Characters make reference to King Hamlet's death without the plot's first establishment of said fact. Since the play focuses on Hamlet and the revenge itself more so than the motivation, Shakespeare utilizes in medias res to bypass superfluous exposition.
Works that employ in medias res often, though not always, subsequently use flashback and nonlinear narrative for exposition of earlier events in order to fill in the backstory. For example, in Homer's Odyssey, we first learn about Odysseus' journey when he is held captive on Calypso's island. We then find out, in Books IX through XII, that the greater part of Odysseus' journey precedes that moment in the narrative. On the other hand, Homer's Iliad has relatively few flashbacks, although it opens in the thick of the Trojan War.
First use of the phrase
The Roman lyric poet and satirist Horace (65–8 BC) first used the terms ab ōvō ("from the egg") and in mediās rēs ("into the middle of things") in his Ars poetica ("Poetic Arts", c. 13 BC), wherein lines 147–149 describe the ideal epic poet:
Nor does he begin the Trojan War from the egg,
but always he hurries to the action, and snatches the listener into the middle of things. . . .
Likely original to the oral tradition, the narrative technique of beginning a story in medias res is a stylistic convention of epic poetry, the exemplar in Western literature being the Iliad (7th century BC) and the Odyssey (7th century BC), by Homer. Likewise, the technique features in the Indian Mahābhārata (c. 8th century BC – c. 4th century AD); the Portuguese The Lusiads (1572); the Spanish Cantar de Mio Cid (c. 14th century); the German Nibelungenlied (12th century); and the stories "Sinbad the Sailor" and "The Three Apples" from the One Thousand and One Nights (c. 9th century).
The Classical-era poet Virgil (Publius Vergilius Maro, 70–19 BC) continued this literary narrative technique in the Aeneid, which is part of the Greek literary tradition of imitating Homer, in medias res narration further continued in early modern poetry with Jerusalem Delivered (1581), by Torquato Tasso, Paradise Lost (1667), by John Milton, and generally in Modernist literature.
Modern novelists known to extensively employ in medias res in conjunction with flashbacks include William Faulkner and Toni Morrison. Well-known films that employ it include Raging Bull and City of God.
Occasionally adaptations of source material may employ in medias res while the original version did not. For example, the film adaptation of the stage musical Camelot employed in medias res while the original Broadway version did not (although revivals of the musical have). Stanley Kubrick's 1962 film adaptation of Lolita begins in medias res although the novel does not. Herman Wouk's stage adaptation of his own novel The Caine Mutiny begins in medias res as it opens with the court-martial that occupies the final section of the novel, telling the earlier part of the story through flashbacks in court-room testimony.
It is typical for film noir to begin in medias res; for example, a private detective will enter the plot already in progress. Crossfire (1947) opens with the murder of Joseph Samuels. As the police investigate the crime, the story behind the murder is told via flashbacks. Dead Reckoning (1947) opens with Humphrey Bogart as Rip Murdock on the run and attempting to hide in a Catholic church. Inside, the backstory is told in flashback as Murdock explains his situation to a priest.
The technique continues to be used in modern crime thrillers such as Grievous Bodily Harm (1988), The Usual Suspects (1995), and Kill Bill Volume 2 (2004). and action thrillers such as Firestarter (1984), and many James Bond films.
The technique is not limited these specific genres, and has been used in other types of films, including drama. It has also been used in such diverse films as Through a Glass Darkly (1961), 8½ (1963), and Dr. Strangelove (1964).
In television and movies, the technique of having a pre-credits sequence in which some of the story takes place prior to any credits is called a cold open. Many television shows in the 1960s had a pre-credits 'teaser' which hooked the audience to keep their attention. It is often accompanied by in medias res writing. Beginning mainly with the James Bond films, many action films have a prologue pre-credits action sequence unrelated to the main storyline of the film - however, after the opening credits the main storyline of the film gets started with traditional exposition. About half the James Bond films open this way.
What in medias res is not
Not a story with a prequel
In medias res should not be confused with a self-contained story that later has a prequel, although either a prequel or the techniques accompanying in medias res, such as flashback or exposition, may help to explain the original story's context and background. For example, much of the background of The Lord of the Rings is later filled in Tolkien's The Silmarillion, but this would not make Rings an example of in medias res writing.
Some stories like this do begin in medias res but that is not what makes them so. Star Wars IV: A New Hope has been described as in medias res: what makes this so is that it opens in the middle of a chase and battle scene explained by a prose prologue, not because it has subsequent prequels. The Iliad and The Odyssey begin in medias res. Both are parts of a longer epic cycle, but that is not what makes them in medias res.
Not necessarily a story with a frame narrative
Similarly, the existence of a "frame story" which gives structure to the main story told in flashback does not necessarily constitute in medias res, although they may coexist. The film version of Amadeus is framed as a story that Antonio Salieri tells in his old age to a young priest. This would not constitute an example of in medias res.
Although Wuthering Heights opens with a frame story, it can be regarded as an example of in medias res as there is an encounter with a ghost and a dead character's diary prior to the launch of the backstory narrative. The same can be said of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein.
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- The dictionary definition of in medias res at Wiktionary
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