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History Into Fiction: The Writer's Art of Recreating the Past

Into the Middle of Medias Res

“Google MEDIAS RES,” emailed the literary agent in response to my submission. “It’s been used for a thousand years.”

Notice how I started this post in medias res?

Contrary to the agent’s assumption, I was indeed familiar with the literary device of “starting in the middle of things.” I chose for premeditated structural reasons (which become apparent later in the story) to begin my novel when the main character was a boy. Yet the agent insisted that I needed to start it with the character as an adult, and use flashbacks.

The technique of medias res can be applied in two distinct contexts–and they are often confused.

In both novels and screenplays, the writer is usually well-served to start a scene just before the confrontation or climax. Background information can then be threaded into the scene or chapter after the reader is drawn into the moment. I’m a big proponent of using medias res in this manner.

The second context–the one the agent championed–is starting the novel or story in the middle of a character’s life. This usage, in my opinion, is much more problematic and at times dogmatic. It also contains an undercurrent of bias against children or young adults as interesting characters.

Why is starting a novel when the character is thirty years old a more effective application of medias res than starting it when he is ten? Obviously, it isn’t. All depends on the preferences, skill, and goals of the author.

As I pointed out, the Victorian novelist Anthony Trollope suffered from a similar ambivalence about the use of medias res. While acknowledging that it is sometimes the “least objectionable” way to start a story, he also warned:

But there is the drawback on the system,—that it is almost impossible to avoid the necessity of doing, sooner or later, that which would naturally be done at first. It answers, perhaps, for a half-a-dozen chapters;— and to carry the reader pleasantly for half-a-dozen chapters is a great matter!-but after that a certain nebulous darkness gradually seems to envelop the characters and the incidents. ‘Is all this going on in the country, or is it in town,—or perhaps in the Colonies? How old was she? Was she tall? Is she fair? Is she heroine-like in her form and gait? And, after all, how high was the garret window? I have always found that the details would insist on being told at last, and that by rushing ‘in media res’ I was simply presenting the cart before the horse.

The agent offered as an example the structure of the Godfather movies.  Ironically, a reviewer once observed that the director, Francis Ford Coppola, had qualms about how the flashback techniques would work when the movies were combined into a miniseries for television. Coppola apparently felt compelled to retreat to the chronological form of the novel. Here is what the reviewer wrote:

One reason I read the book is the niggling narrative gaps I frequently perceive when I watch the movies.  Some of these are filled in by watching “The Godfather: A Novel for Television,” in which Coppola re-edited the two films to tell the story chronologically, starting with II’s kid-Vito-in-Sicily sequence, and added scenes cut from the originals. . . . From these scenes and from reading the book, I managed to sooth all the little pinpricks of incompletion I experience when watching the theatrical releases.

Thousands of historical novels have successfully used the time-tested technique of telling a character’s story chronologically. One I just finished was A Crown of Aloes, Norah Loft’s 1973 novel about the life of Queen Isabella of Castile.

After a brief two-page prologue that starts on her deathbed–terminus res?–Loft launched into the story with Isabella as a child. She never wavered from leading the reader through the events of Isabella’s life in the order they transpired.

“It’s entertainment,” the agent told me in closing. “Not biography.”

Maybe I’m a hopeless traditionalist, but when did telling a story as it happened become outmoded and boring? Perhaps the traditional structure of the historical novel is doomed to go the way of the  paper-bound book.

Then we can all Kindle flashbacks to our heart’s desire.

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