In medias res

A narrative work beginning in medias res (Classical Latin: [ɪn ˈmɛdɪ.aːs ˈreːs], lit. "into the middle of things") opens in the midst of the plot (cf. ab ovo, ab initio).[1] Often, exposition is bypassed and filled in gradually, 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 is about Hamlet and the revenge more so than the motivation, Shakespeare uses in medias res to bypass superfluous exposition.

Works that employ in medias res often later use flashback and nonlinear narrative for exposition to fill in the backstory. In Homer's Odyssey, the reader first learns about Odysseus's journey when he is held captive on Calypso's island. The reader then finds out, in Books IX through XII, that the greater part of Odysseus's journey precedes that moment in the narrative. In Homer's Iliad there are fewer flashbacks, although it opens in the thick of the Trojan War.

First use of the phraseEdit

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:[2]

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. . . .

The "egg" reference is to the mythological origin of the Trojan War in the birth of Helen and Clytemnestra from the double egg laid by Leda following her seduction by Zeus in the guise of a swan.

Literary historyEdit

With likely origins in oral tradition, the narrative technique of beginning a story in medias res is a stylistic convention of epic poetry, the exemplars in Western literature being the Iliad and the Odyssey (both 7th century BC), by Homer.[3] Likewise, the Mahābhārata (c. 8th century BC – c. 4th century AD) opens in media res.

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.[3] Later works starting in medias res include the stories "Sinbad the Sailor" and "The Three Apples" from the One Thousand and One Nights (c. 9th century),[4] the Italian Divine Comedy (1320) by Dante Alighieri,[5][6] the German Nibelungenlied (12th century),[citation needed] the Spanish Cantar de Mio Cid (c. 14th century),[citation needed] the Portuguese The Lusiads (1572) by Luís de Camões,[citation needed] Jerusalem Delivered (1581) by Torquato Tasso,[citation needed] Paradise Lost (1667) by John Milton,[citation needed] and generally in Modernist literature.

Modern novelists using in medias res with flashbacks include William Faulkner and Toni Morrison.

Edgar Allan Poe's "The Tell-Tale Heart" is written in medias res.[7]

Cinematic historyEdit

It is typical for film noir to begin in medias res; for example, a private detective will enter the plot already in progress.[8] Crossfire (1947) opens with the murder of Joseph Samuels. As the police investigate the crime, the story behind the murder is told via flashbacks.[9] 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.[9]

The technique has been used across genres, including dramas such as Through a Glass Darkly (1961),[10] (1963),[10] Raging Bull (1980), and City of God (2002);[11] crime thrillers such as No Way Out (1987), Grievous Bodily Harm (1988),[12] The Usual Suspects (1995),[13] and Kill Bill Volume 2 (2004);[14] horror films such as Firestarter (1984);[15] action films such as many in the James Bond franchise;[13][16] and comedies such as Dr. Strangelove (1964).[10] Notably, Star Wars takes advantage of the technique across its multi-part epic series of films with the first-released film, A New Hope, being the fourth episode in a nine-part epic.[17][18]

Superhero films with a satirical edge such as Deadpool (2016) and Birds of Prey (2020) have utilized in medias res to frame their stories.[19]

Animated films such as The Emperor's New Groove (2000), Hoodwinked! (2005), Happily N'Ever After (2006), Megamind (2010), and The Mitchells vs. the Machines (2021) got their opening scenes in medias res, with a brief but significant scene that foreshadows the events that occurred earlier. This scene is then seen again afterwards (although in a different way than how it was shown at the beginning).

Many war films, such as The Thin Red Line (1998), also begin in medias res, with the protagonists already actively in combat and no prior domestic scenes leading up to the film's events.[20]

Occasionally, adaptations of source material employ in medias res when 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).[citation needed] Stanley Kubrick's 1962 film adaptation of Lolita begins in medias res although the novel does not.[citation needed] 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.[citation needed]

See alsoEdit


  1. ^ "In medias res". Encyclopædia Britannica. Retrieved July 31, 2013.
  2. ^ Horace. Ars poetica (in Latin). nec gemino bellum Troianum orditur ab ovo; / semper ad eventum festinat et in medias res / [...] auditorem rapit
  3. ^ a b Murray, Christopher John (2004). Encyclopedia of the Romantic Era, 1760-1850. Taylor & Francis. p. 319. ISBN 1-57958-422-5
  4. ^ Pinault, David (1992). Story-Telling Techniques in the Arabian Nights. Brill Publishers. pp. 86–94. ISBN 90-04-09530-6.
  5. ^ Forman, Carol (1984). Dante Alighieri's Divine Comedy: The Inferno. Barron's Educational Series. p. 24. ISBN 0-7641-9107-1
  6. ^ P. Raffa, Guy (15 May 2009). The Complete Danteworlds: A Reader's Guide to the Divine Comedy. University Of Chicago Press. p. 12. ISBN 978-0226702704.
  7. ^ Attolino, Paolo (2018). "Chapter Ten: The Tell-Tale Heart… of Mine: Poe Told by Stewart Copeland". In Amendola, Alfonso; Barone, Linda (eds.). Edgar Allan Poe across disciplines, genres and languages. Newcastle upon Tyne, UK: Cambridge Scholars Publishing. ISBN 9781527506985.
  8. ^ Knight, Deborah (2007). Conard, Mark T.; Porfirio, Robert (eds.). The Philosophy of Film Noir. University Press of Kentucky. p. 208. ISBN 978-0-8131-9181-2.
  9. ^ a b Mayer, Geoff; McDonnell, Brian (2007). Encyclopedia of Film Noir. ABC-CLIO. pp. 146, 161. ISBN 978-0-313-33306-4.
  10. ^ a b c Miller, William Charles (1980). Screenwriting for Narrative Film and Television. Hastingshouse/Daytrips. p. 66. ISBN 978-0-8038-6773-4.
  11. ^ "What is the term, In Medias Res?". Archived from the original on 2017-11-07. Retrieved 2011-11-01.
  12. ^ McFarlane, Brian; Mayer, Geoff (1992). New Australian Cinema. Cambridge University Press. p. 100. ISBN 978-0-521-38768-2.
  13. ^ a b Murfin, Ross C.; Ray, Supryia M. (2009). The Bedford Glossary of Critical and Literary Terms. Bedford/St. Martins. p. 245. ISBN 978-0-230-22330-1.
  14. ^ Chan, Kenneth (2009). Remade in Hollywood. Hong Kong University Press. p. 147. ISBN 978-962-209-056-9.
  15. ^ Muir, John Kenneth (2007). Horror Films of the 1980s. McFarland. pp. 135, 389. ISBN 978-0-7864-2821-2.
  16. ^ Donnelly, Kevin J. (2001). Film Music. Edinburgh University Press. p. 36. ISBN 978-0-7486-1288-8.
  17. ^ Danesi, Marcel (2008). "Chapter 6, Cinema and Video". Popular Culture: Introductory Perspectives. United States: Rowman & Littlefield. p. 177. ISBN 978-0-7425-5547-1. Retrieved July 25, 2020.
  18. ^ Nystedt, Brendan (6 June 2016). "Here's Where the Fun Begins: Star Wars and 'In Medias Res'". Lucasfilm Ltd. Retrieved 5 July 2019.
  19. ^ "Film Review: Deadpool". Red Fence.
  20. ^ Glassmeyer, Danielle (2009). "Ridley Scott's Epics: Gender of Violence". In Detora, Lisa M. (ed.). wHeroes of Film, Comics and American Culture. McFarland. pp. 297–8. ISBN 978-0-7864-3827-3.

External linksEdit