There’s a great moment in a Rick and Morty episode where Morty is forced to listen to an aspiring screenwriter read his work. The screenplay opens with the protagonist in a terrible situation before flashing back to six months earlier. Immediately Morty sinks a little lower in his chair and we all laugh. Because the device is so very familiar.
I would be very surprised if there was a writer on the planet who hadn’t at least once opened a story in media res – starting with the end or else a particularly exciting/mysterious moment from later in the story. It can seem foolproof, a way to pull the audience in by promising later thrills to get them through a mundane opening. But, as Morty tells the outraged writer, ‘stories should start when they start’.
Of course, one of the home truths in writing is that for every hard and fast rule there is at least one stone cold classic that breaks it. The trick, as I’ve said before, is to be able to offer rock solid justification for your decisions. In media res seems like the easy way to start a story, but in truth it more often than not comes off as kind of cheap and suggests a lack of confidence in on the part of the writer. Nine times out of ten the only reason it’s there is to keep people reading/watching, which suggests you don’t think your early chapters/scenes are strong enough. In those cases, it really is just a temporary bandage over a permanent wound; you might keep people interested, but it won’t paper over the inherent flaws in your writing.
People often point to Breaking Bad as an example of a story that uses in media res to great effect. That show became famous for cold opens that tended to come from later in the episode, but Breaking Bad was very clever about it and to assume that the iconic first scene of the pilot, depicting Walter White in the middle of a life or death situation before flashing back to his dreary home life, was only there to reel people in suggests a misunderstanding of what that show was doing.
I have a theory that in any scene or moment, you should be aiming to do about three things at once. The example I always point to is a moment in Harry Potter and the Philosophers Stone where Hermione thinks that Snape is cursing Harry during a Quidditch match. She runs through the stands to set fire to Snape’s cloak and break his concentration, in the process knocking over Professor Quirrell. This scene is doing several things; it’s providing entertaining action that drives the plot and leads our characters to their next step, it tells us something about Hermione in that she is determined and proactive, and it plants a seed that will later help the reveal of Quirrell as the villain. In the moment, however, we read Hermione knocking Quirrell over as J.K. Rowling telling us just how driven and blinkered she is. It’s a Chekov’s gun disguised as character development wrapped up in plot. That is clever writing.
Breaking Bad’s cold open absolutely exists to grab your attention and make a promise of chaos to come, but it also does a lot more than that. The very first thing you see are a pair of trousers flying through the air, hitting the dusty ground only to be run over by a careening RV. Walter White’s boring life has been blown away and left behind by the choice he has made. When the scene cuts back to him presiding over a chemistry classroom and waxing lyrical about his subject being the study of change, we see the different parts of the script working in tandem to tell us exactly what this show is about. Change. The destruction of an ordinary world by one man’s ambition. The cold open also, in his actions, tells us everything we need to know about Walt. He is a man who, when cornered, will do anything he has to in the professed name of helping his family. Character, theme, hook; all in the space of a few minutes. That is a justified cold open.
The reason I’ve been thinking about this is that I’m currently in the process of reworking Windmills (yes, again, roll eyes and move on). This is a little different though; it’s not an overhaul or rewrite, but rather a restructuring of the existing material to make it a bit more tonally and thematically cohesive. It’s no secret that the big glaring issue of Windmills, in every incarnation, has been the matter of audience. It’s an adult thriller about high school students, and although it moves into their adult lives at the end, it can very easily be mistaken for YA.
As such I’ve added a framing device, the cousin of the in media res opening. Windmills now starts in the present day, with 27 year old author Leo Grey returning to his old school for his ten year reunion. It’s clear from the start that something in the past has made this event a little more fraught than your standard catch up, and before long we learn Leo’s real motive; he’s here to destroy an incriminating piece of evidence that he left behind as a student. In the process, he is approached from the shadows by a journalist who requests an interview, telling Leo “I know who you are, I know what you did, and I know what happened after.” Leo rebuffs the journalist, walks away and the moment he’s out of sight and alone he starts trembling uncontrollably as the memories return and we flash back to ten years earlier.
The bulk of the novel plays out in the past, but at the start of each of the six parts we get one present day chapter, alternating between continuing the story of Leo and showing Leo’s high school girlfriend Lucy, now in hiding with a fake name.
The main reason for the device is to plant Windmills squarely as an adult novel, to tell the audience right from the start that even though we’re predominantly in a high school setting, the material we’re dealing with is a lot more intense than what you might assume. But beyond that, it does wonders for illustrating themes and building tension. It allows the characters, looking back on events, to essentially comment on them, to show clashing perspectives on what happened and to examine the consequences of a mistake unatoned for; the central theme of the book. It also adds texture to the biggest question of the book; who is Leo Grey? In the past we see a scared teenager become calculating and ruthless as he makes mistake after mistake, in the present we see a man by turns regretful, manipulative and threatening. Ten years later, has he actually learned and changed or was the rot too deep? That is the question that the final scene answers, a question set up by the new in media res opening.
The framing device, at its core, exists to offset any confusion about the book’s intended audience. But before I could add it, I had to make sure it was doing more than that. If something is included for purely cynical reasons, then audiences will smell it from a mile away and it will put them off your story. They’ll be like Morty, sinking into the chair with a groan at your transparent attempt to pull them in without working for it.
It all comes down to the one golden rule of writing. Be able to clearly justify every artistic choice you make, and chances are you’ll end up with something pretty good.
Writing words about writing words.