5 Great Examples of in medias res

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You remember it from high school English, but how often do you notice the classic technique of starting a story "˜in the middle' in the books you read, the movies you see, and even the games you play? Here are 5 of my favorite examples:

1. The Odyssey

The advantage of starting a story in the middle, or even at the end, and then doubling back to the same point is the ability to hook the audience immediately, without any exposition, plopping him down right in the middle of the action. Some of the earliest uses of in medias res are still the most formidable. Homer's Iliad makes use of the technique, but The Odyssey is an even better example. If you recall, it starts with most of Odysseus' journey already finished. The story up to that point is then told through flashbacks as we learn about all the fantastic characters he met along the way.

2. The Divine Comedy

Dante-The-Divine-Comedy-Inferno-Purgatory-Paradise-Carlyle-Okey-Wicksteed-unabridged-Blackstone-Audio.jpg Another long, narrative poem that makes great use of the technique is Dante's The Divine Comedy . In fact, not only does it start in the middle, the first line of the Inferno (that's part 1 for those who haven't yet read it), starts Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita, Italian for "Midway into the journey of our life."

3. The Gambler

The_GamblerFyodorDostoyevsky.jpg I'll skip some of Shakespeare's works that make use of the technique ( Cymbeline for example) and jump up to Dostoyevsky and a story you may not have read. Most people are familiar with his biggies, like Crime and Punishment or The Brothers Karamazov, but it's his lesser-known work, The Gambler, that makes use of in medias res. The novel begins like this:

At length I returned from two weeks leave of absence to find that my patrons had arrived three days ago in Roulettenberg. I received from them a welcome quite different to that which I had expected. The General eyed me coldly, greeted me in rather haughty fashion, and dismissed me to pay my respects to his sister. It was clear that from SOMEWHERE money had been acquired. I thought I could even detect a certain shamefacedness in the General's glance.

It works so well because it immediately and irrevocably immerses us in the world of the protagonist, begging us to ask questions, to turn the page and find out who the narrator is, and what his plight is.

4. Raging Bull

225px-Raging_Bull_poster.jpg While there are more films that use the technique than there are novels (again, because movies need to hook their audiences in even faster than novels do), my absolute favorite is Scorcese's Raging Bull, with Robert De Niro. It starts in 1964 as the hero, Jake LaMotto (De Niro) is rehearsing for a one-man show. The movie ends when Jake walks on stage to deliver the show. What happens in between is the stuff of Oscar-winning films. Through a series of amazing flashbacks, we get the story of how Jake became a pro boxer, married a woman he thought he loved, and lost everything along the way. This enables us to understand why he's an overweight loser at the end of the film doing stand-up for a living.

5. God of War

godofwar.jpg Of course, the technique isn't limited to just books and movies. Many video games have made great use of in medias res, like Final Fantasy X. But to come full circle back to where we started, how about the PlayStation 2 game, God of War, an action-adventure game based on Greek mythology. Dubbed the "Greatest PlayStation Game of All Time" (or something similar) by many (including IGN), God of War pits Kratos, a former captain in the Spartan army, against Ares, the god of war. The story begins at the very end, and then moves chronologically through flashbacks. But it's the bloody battle at the beginning that really sets the pace for the rest of the game and immediately hooks the player in.

What are some of your favorite examples?

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January 15, 2009 - 3:04am
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