In Medias Res refers to the narration of a story beginning partway through, skipping over the exposition. It starts out in the middle of events, presuming that the reader or listener is aware of what has come before. Most often, when narration or storytelling begins in the middle of a story, the author chooses to eventually move backwards. This is done in order to clear up things that the reader might not have understood or reveal a crucial detail that helps one understand what is coming next. An author accomplishes this through dialogue, details, and even flashbacks. They can shift between the future, past, and present in order to tell the story in a more roundabout way.
History of In Medias Res
The phrase reaches back to the Roman poet Horace. It appeared in his poem Ars Poetica. In Latin, the phrase means “in the midst of things” or “into the middle of things”. This translates well to how it is used to this day. Horace’s poem defines the term while also using it for the first time. The lines read:
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. . . .
Purpose of In Medias Res
In Medias Res is a literary technique that is used to complicated the plot of a story. It keeps the reader on edge, guessing what’s going to happen next while also wondering about how the characters got to the point they’re at when the story began. The technique creates suspense in the story while also encouraging the reader to question what they know or think they understand about the characters.
Examples of In Medias Res in Literature
Example #1 Odyssey by Homer
One of the most popular and far-reaching examples of in media res comes from Homer’s Odyssey. The epic poem begins with Odysseus having reached Calypso’s island. He’s imprisoned, and it takes several books for the reader to find out who Odysseus is and how he ended up with Calypso. This is accomplished primarily through flashbacks, making what happens after all the more poignant.
Example #2 The Divine Comedy by Dante Alighieri
Alighieri’s masterpiece, The Divine Comedy, begins with the first book, The Inferno. This part of the epic poem details the character’s journey through hell. It starts right in the middle of the action. Take a look at the first lines of the poem:
In the midway of this our mortal life,
I found me in a gloomy wood, astray
Gone from the path direct: and e’en to tell
It were no easy task, how savage wild
That forest, how robust and rough its growth,
Which to remember only, my dismay
Renews, in bitterness not far from death
The first line is itself a hint that things are not going to proceed in a linear order. The poet tells the reader that the story is starting in the middle of his life. There, he found himself in the wood, his direction lost. Plus, due to the nature of the narration, a reader is hearing of events from the future. The speaker is remembering what happened to him and reliving each moment. In this way, he has an understanding of what happens next, as is often alluded to in the poem, but the reader does not. This makes the story all the more interesting.
Example #3 The Tell-Tale Heart by Edgar Allan Poe
The narrator, a madman, begins The Tell-Tale Heart with lines outlining his mental state. A reader is completely unaware of who this person is, why he as been “very ill” as he says, or what events led up to his telling of a story at all. Here are the first lines of the story:
It’s true! Yes, I have been ill, very ill. But why do you say that I have lost control of my mind, why do you say that I am mad? Can you not see that I have full control of my mind? Is it not clear that I am not mad? Indeed, the illness only made my mind, my feelings, my senses stronger, more powerful.
He asserts that something is wrong with him, but is unable to fully understand how he sounds or what effect his tone might be having on the consumer of his story. It is through the very suspenseful text that Poe reveals the source of this man’s madness.