In medias res

In medias res

In medias res or medias in res (into the middle of things) is a Latin phrase denoting the literary and artistic narrative technique wherein the relation of a story begins either at the mid-point or at the conclusion, rather than at the beginning (cf. ab ovo, ab initio), establishing setting, character, and conflict via flashback or expository conversations relating the pertinent past. The main advantage of in medias res is to open the story with dramatic action rather than exposition which sets up the characters and situation. It can be employed in any narrative genre, epic poetry, novels, plays, or film.

In medias res often, though not always, entails subsequent uses of flashbacks 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 ovo ("from the egg") and in medias res ("into the middle of things") in his Ars poetica ("Poetic Arts", ca. 13 BC), wherein lines 147–149 describe the ideal epic poet:[1]

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 rape, as a metamorphosed swan, by Zeus.

Literary history

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 (9th c. BC) and the Odyssey (9th c. BC), by Homer.[2] Likewise, the technique features in the Indian Mahābhārata (ca. 8th c. BC – ca. AD 4th c.); the Portuguese The Lusiads (1572); the Spanish Cantar de Mio Cid (ca. 14th c.); the German Nibelungenlied (12th c.); and the stories "Sinbad the Sailor" and "The Three Apples" from the One Thousand and One Nights (ca. 9th c.).[3]

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,[2] medias in 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.[4]

Modern novelists known to extensively employ in medias res in conjunction with flashbacks are William Faulkner and Toni Morrison. Well-known films that employ it include The Godfather and Raging Bull.[5]

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.

Cinematic history

It is typical for Film noir to begin in medias res; for example, a private detective will enter the plot already in progress.[6] Crossfire (1947) opens with the murder of Joseph Samuels. As the police investigate the crime, the story behind the murder is told via flashbacks.[7] 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.[7]

The technique continues to be used in modern crime thrillers such as Grievous Bodily Harm (1988),[8] The Usual Suspects (1995),[9] and Kill Bill Volume 2 (2004).[10] and action thrillers such as Firestarter (1984),[11] and many James Bond films.[9][12]

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.[13]

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),[14] (1963),[14] and Dr. Strangelove (1964).[14]

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 backstory. For example, much of the backstory of Lord of the Rings is later filled in in Tolkien's The Silmarillion, but this would not make Rings an example of in medias res writing. Star Wars IV: A New Hope could be considered in medias res since it opens in the middle of a chase and battle scene,[15][16] but not because of having subsequent prequels.

Not necessarily a story with a frame narrative

Similarly, the existence of a "frame story" around which the major story is 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 also regarded as also 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.[17] The same can be said of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein.[18]

See also


  1. ^ Horace (in Latin). Ars poetica. "nec gemino bellum Troianum orditur ab ovo; / semper ad eventum festinat et in medias res / [...] auditorem rapit" 
  2. ^ a b Murray, Christopher John (2004). Encyclopedia of the Romantic Era, 1760-1850. Taylor & Francis. p. 319. ISBN 1579584225
  3. ^ Pinault, David (1992). Story-Telling Techniques in the Arabian Nights. Brill Publishers. pp. 86–94. ISBN 9004095306. 
  4. ^ Forman, Carol (1984). Dante Alighieri's Divine Comedy: The Inferno. Barron's Educational Series. p. 24. ISBN 0764191071
  5. ^ What is the term, In Medias Res?
  6. ^ Knight, Deborah (2007). Conard, Mark T.; Porfirio, Robert. eds. The Philosophy of Film Noir. University Press of Kentucky. p. 208. ISBN 9780813191812. 
  7. ^ a b Mayer, Geoff; McDonnell, Brian (2007). Encyclopedia of Film Noir. ABC-CLIO. pp. 146, 161. ISBN 9780313333064. 
  8. ^ McFarlane, Brian; Mayer, Geoff (1992). New Australian Cinema. Cambridge University Press. p. 100. ISBN 9780521387682. 
  9. ^ a b Murfin, Ross C.; Ray, Supryia M. (2009). The Bedford Glossary of Critical and Literary Terms. Bedford/St. Martins. p. 245. ISBN 9780230223301. 
  10. ^ Chan, Kenneth (2009). Remade in Hollywood. Hong Kong University Press. p. 147. ISBN 9789622090569. 
  11. ^ Muir, John Kenneth (2007). Horror Films of the 1980s. McFarland. pp. 135, 389. ISBN 9780786428212. 
  12. ^ Donnelly, Kevin J. (2001). Film Music. Edinburgh University Press. p. 36. ISBN 9780748612888. 
  13. ^ Glassmeyer, Danielle (2009). "Ridley Scott's Epics: Gender of Violence". In Detora, Lisa M.. Heroes of Film, Comics and American Culture. McFarland. pp. 297–8. ISBN 9780786438273. 
  14. ^ a b c Miller, William Charles (1980). Screenwriting for Narrative Film and Television. Hastingshouse/Daytrips. p. 66. ISBN 9780803867734. 
  15. ^ In Medias Res: How to Protect Media and Mixed Media
  16. ^ Brooker, Will (2009). Star Wars. British Film Institute/MacMillan. p. 20. ISBN 1844572773, 9781844572779. 
  17. ^ Logan, Peter Melville; Susan Hegeman, Efraín Kristal (2011). The Encyclopedia of the Novel, Volume 1. John Wiley and Sons. p. 812. ISBN 1405161841, 9781405161848. 
  18. ^ Murray, E.B. (2011). Shelley's Contribution to Mary's Frankenstein/ Bulletin of the Keats-Shelley Memorial, Rome, Issues 23-30. Keats-Shelley Memorial Association. p. 50. 

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Look at other dictionaries:

  • medias res — /midiəs ˈreɪs/ (say meedeeuhs rays) See in medias res …  

  • In Medias Res — Студийный альбо …   Википедия

  • in medias res — in me|di|as res (unmittelbar) zur Sache [lat., „mitten in die Dinge hinein“] * * * in me|di|as res [lat. = mitten in die Dinge hinein]: in den Wendungen in medias res gehen, kommen (bildungsspr.; unmittelbar u. ohne Umschweife zur Sache kommen;… …   Universal-Lexikon

  • In medias res — In medias res, auch medias in res, ist eine lateinische Phrase und bedeutet „mitten in die Dinge“. Die Wendung stammt aus Horaz ars poetica, in deren Vers 148 der römische Dichter den Erzählstil des griechischen Dichters Homer in der Ilias lobt:… …   Deutsch Wikipedia

  • in medias res — 1. adverb In the middle of a storyline. This novel begins in medias res. Syn: smack dab in the middle 2. adjective Beginning in the middle of its storyline: said of a …   Wiktionary

  • in medias res — In medias res, auch medias in res, ist eine lateinische Phrase und bedeutet „mitten in die Dinge“. Die Wendung stammt aus Horaz ars poetica, in deren Vers 148 der römische Dichter den Erzählstil des griechischen Dichters Homer in der Ilias lobt:… …   Deutsch Wikipedia

  • In Medias Res — (du latin signifiant littéralement « au milieu des choses  ») est une technique narrative qui fait commencer le récit au cœur de l intrigue. Les personnages, le cadre et le conflit sont alors présentés par une série de retours en… …   Wikipédia en Français

  • in medias res — Loc. lat. que significa ‘en pleno asunto, en medio de la acción’ y se usa especialmente referida al modo de comenzar una narración: «La fábula comienza in medias res, cuando el viajero está ya dentro del cielo, sin referir los episodios que… …   Diccionario panhispánico de dudas

  • in medias res — in mè·dias res loc.agg.inv., loc.avv., lat. CO nel vivo di una questione o di una narrazione, senza preamboli: esordire in medias res {{line}} {{/line}} ETIMO: lat. in medias res propr. a metà del racconto …   Dizionario italiano

  • In medias res — (латинское «в середине дела») термин традиционной поэтики, обозначающий начало действия или повествования с центрального эпизода фабулы (его завязки или даже одной из перипетий) без предварения его экспозицией и Vorgeschichte, излагаемыми от лица …   Литературная энциклопедия

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