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Against Starting in the Middle
Once upon a time—and by “time,” I mean roughly 43% into the story currently in progress.
I watched the first episode of 1923 on a flight. And because the flight was very long—and one of many—I also watched the second and third episodes. That proved beneficial. The story starts with a literal bang: The very first scene sees Helen Mirren’s character, Cara Dutton, chase down and execute a man in the Montana wilderness. It’s a gripping moment, tense and somewhat confusing. What led to such wanton violence? Who’s supposed to be the “good guy?”
No answers are immediately forthcoming. The next couple of hours of television set up the plot, the characters, the setting, the stakes. It’s not until near the end of episode three that we see that initial scene play out in context. And now the stakes are clear—and high.
1923 is a Western drama starring Harrison Ford and Helen Mirren. It’s a prequel story to Yellowstone and also a sequel to the original prequel to Yellowstone, 1883. I can’t tell you anything about those other shows—I haven’t seen them. The only reason I watched 1923 was because of the star-studded cast, a very long series of flights and the fact that I could continue watching the show on Paramount+ once I was back home.
But none of that matters. What matters is this: 1923 presents an ideal example of the storytelling tactic in medias res. That’s Latin for “in the midst of things.” The reason it shows up in storytelling—and probably in nightmares about your high school English class—is because it’s a way to jumpstart a story. You drop your reader or viewer into an action-packed, high-stakes moment, razzle dazzle them with blood and sword fights and fast-paced escape scenes, and then freeze the frame, rewind the tape, say something like, “You’re probably wondering how we ended up here…”
And if your opening sequence was at all successful, the audience nods, says, “Hey, yeah. We are wondering that very thing.” They’re invested. They’ll sit around as you build the world, introduce the characters, pan over the landscapes because they want to know how that moment of chaos and tension fits in. What it means.
You’ve gotten your audience to care.
I was at a cookout recently where I met a number of new people. Lots of scenes played out like:
“Hi—I’m Eric. What’s your name?” “Oh, hi. I’m [insert name here].” And then the usual litany of Where do you live? and Where are you from? and What do you do? Typical small talk, right?
Twice throughout the evening, though, the script veered off course: “So, what about you?” was the response I got. And I paused, mouth agape.
What about me? What do they want to know? I started to say where I was from, where I live now, what I do for a living. But that’s not what they asked…
“I—uh. Well, what are you—I mean, what do you want to—”
My counterpart shrugged and then—thank God—one of my kids started crying. “I gotta—” I stammered, thrusting my thumb toward the offending sound. “You understand.”
A friend once introduced himself to me and then said, “So, what’s your story?” I loved that. No small talk. Head right into the deep. What’s your story? A wonder and awe at all that I was. In that moment, two strangers meeting for the first time, all that I was was mystery.
I tried that once in a group—What’s your story? People rolled their eyes, laughed. I was dismissed. I haven’t tried it again. Too open-ended, perhaps. Too time-consuming, most likely.
Because at the edge of our vision, just out of sight, is that dark spirit whispering: No one really cares. No one wants to hear your ‘story.’ No one’s got the time or the interest.
I think that’s what startled me at that cookout.
Here’s a stranger who’s given me a blank check to say anything about myself. “I had a ferret growing up. I once got lost in a market in Hội An Vietnam. And let me tell you something about Star Wars.” What’s the most interesting thing about me? What would pull this person in and leave them wanting more?
Or, no. They don’t want to hear all that. I’ll just say where I work, maybe where I’m from. That’s enough, right? That’s what I’m supposed to say.
In medias res works in storytelling because it’s assumed the reader or the viewer will sit and read or view until the story is complete. So long as you get them up front, you have them until the end.
But that’s not always how conversation works, how relationship works. If we really answer the question, What’s your story?, we necessarily bump up against details and anecdotes that may be deeply personal but not terribly interesting or flattering.
And then what? We share a piece of ourselves with a stranger that could walk away? They didn’t pay to be here. Our vulnerability goes unrewarded. Or, do we share something shocking, something magnificent, something awe-inspiring simply so that the person stays—and stays interested?
A movie, a TV show, a book—they need a hook to catch you. They need to pique interest because otherwise they’ll flounder and fail.
Our stories—our lives—are not movies or TV shows or novels. And I wonder about the damage we do to ourselves when we view our lives through the lens of in medias res, looking for a tantalizing tale simply to win (to trap?) the affection and attention of strangers.
We hope it’s enough to keep people interested because maybe—just maybe—we don’t really believe the regular moments in our own lives matter all that much. What a terrible thing that is, to miss the holy potential glistening in each moment.
We all know our lives are made up of mundane, ordinary, nitty gritty details. Each and every one of us. What happens when, instead of trying to out-do one another at the next BBQ, we seek instead that common ground of shared living? We reverence the tiny, seemingly insignificant scraps of story? We share what we do, where we’re from, what we studied not just to fill small talk but because those little details are crucial to who we are and are becoming.
After all, we necessarily meet one another in stories already in progress, in medias res. We’ve all already been places in life, and we’ve got places yet go. We’re already in the midst of things. But we can be in it together. We can look back, we can look ahead—but we can also just be with one another, a wonderful amalgamation of so many little moments and experiences and insights.
There—in the midst of things.