Writing Q&A 16: Great beginnings; Exclamation points
Published: February 13, 2007
|What is in medias res?|
In medias res is a Latin phrase that literally translates as "in the middle of things." In fiction, it describes the technique of beginning a story by dropping the reader in the midst of the action. The term comes from Horace, an ancient Roman poet, who advised epic poets to get straight to the heart of the story. Fiction writers and readers everywhere can thank Horace for this lasting advice-it's a great way to immediately engage the reader.
Let's look at this technique in action. Here are the first few lines of a story that begins at the beginning:
I met Iris shortly after my divorce. My ex-wife and kids weren't happy about it, especially when we moved in together. But I couldn't worry about them, even though they gave us a hard time by calling at all hours. Iris is the kind of woman who is easily excitable and that's part of what I find attractive.
Now look at this opening, from Raymond Carver's "Whoever Was Using This Bed," which begins in medias res:
The call comes in the middle of the night, three in the morning, and it nearly scares us to death.
"Answer it, answer it!" my wife cries. "My God who is it? Answer it!"
I can't find the light, but I get to the other room, where the phone is, and pick it up after the fourth ring.
This opening wrenches you into the story, immersing you in the moment with the narrator and his wife, and leaving you as panicked and disoriented by the ringing phone as they are. For the writer, beginning in medias res encourages dramatization from the very first line. You won't have much opportunity to tell about the characters or situation when you're busy showing the moment as it unfolds.
When you use this technique, you may eventually need to fill in some background information. Often this is done with a bit of exposition. Carver explains the couple's situation in a few brief lines after the narrator answers the phone:
After Iris and I started living together, my former wife, or else one of my kids, used to call up when we were asleep and want to harangue us. They kept doing it even after Iris and I were married. So we started unplugging our phone before we went to bed. We unplugged the phone every night of the year, just about. It was a habit. This time I slipped up, that's all.
Notice Carver doesn't go into the details of the haranguing, or the circumstance of why he forgot to unplug the phone that night. Resist the temptation to over-explain. Just give the information absolutely necessary for clarity and then get back to the action.
If you start even later in the action and need to dramatize scenes that came before, you can accomplish that in flashback. This is particularly common in novels. Leila Aboulela's Minaret, for example, follows an aristocratic Sudanese woman, Najwa, who has to make her way as a maid in London after a government coup in Sudan. The novel begins as Najwa takes on a position as a maid and juxtaposes flashbacks of her life in Sudan with scenes from her life in London to show the way she comes to terms with her new situation.
Beginning in medias res is a sure way to ensnare the reader. Indeed, the technique has survived since ancient Roman times. Give Horace's technique a try and see what you think.
|Why does the exclamation mark have such a bad reputation? When is it acceptable to use it? |
F. Scott Fitzgerald may have summed up its drawback most succinctly in his admonishment: "An exclamation mark is like laughing at your own joke." And who wants to be that sort of writer?
The exclamation mark is often the lazy writer's way of conveying emotion. By using it, you're telling the reader how to interpret the line. "Pay attention," you say to the reader, "this is going to be exciting." Instead of relying on this rascal of punctuation, you should choose your words precisely so that they carry the emphasis themselves. Focus on using vivid and striking nouns and verbs that capture the essence of the strong emotion you want to convey.
Instead of this:
The man came right at him, ready to strike!
You might write this:
The man lunged, his right arm cocked, hand fisted.
The urgency of the moment comes through the image of the man about ready to strike, and the energy of the verbs: lunged, cocked, and fisted. And that approach does a more convincing job than the slim exclamation mark.
Of course, exclamation marks aren't-and shouldn't-be obsolete. Writers can use them to create a specific impact. For example, Thom Jones used exclamation marks in his short story "I Want to Live!" to mirror the rush and abrupt shifts that come with direct thought. The story is told from the perspective of a woman dying of cancer. This passage comes after a chemotherapy treatment:
The third treatment-oh, damn! The whole scenario had been underplayed. Those movie stars who got it and wrote books about it were stoics, valiant warriors compared to her. She had no idea anything could be so horrible. Starving in Bangladesh? No problem, I'll trade. Here's my MasterCard and the keys to the Buick-I'll pull a rickshaw, anything! Anything but this. HIV-positive? Why just sign right here on the dotted line and you've got a deal! I'll trade with anybody! Anybody.
While you might not need to limit yourself to the ration of three exclamation marks in a lifetime that editor and writer William Maxwell advised, you should use them sparingly and with good reason.
("Whoever Was Using This Bed" and "I Want to Live!" are included in Gotham's short story anthology Fiction Gallery.)
Brandi Reissenweber teaches fiction writing and reading fiction at Gotham Writers' Workshop and authored the chapter on characterization in Gotham's Writing Fiction: The Practical Guide. Her work has been published in numerous journals, including Phoebe, North Dakota Quarterly and Rattapallax. She was a James C. McCreight Fiction Fellow at the Wisconsin Institute for Creative Writing and has taught fiction at New York University, University of Wisconsin, and University of Chicago. Currently, she is a visiting professor at Illinois Wesleyan University and edits Letterpress, a free e-newsletter for fiction writers.
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