In Medias Res and the Three-Act Structure

In medias res and the three-act structure are two common narrative techniques used in storytelling. This may be in novels, screenplays or poetry. This blog focuses on these two techniques, and how you could incorporate them into your work while avoiding a few common mistakes.

In Medias Res

Firstly, let’s take a look at in medias res, which literally means in Latin ‘in the midst of things’. The phrase dates back to the time of the ancient Roman poet, Horace, and his work Ars Poetica. There, he talks about the foundation of poetry and reflects on the works and methods of other poets, particularly Homer. Homer began his poems with the main event to pull the audience into the story straightaway.

As Horace implies, the purpose of this technique is to thrust the audience into the midst of the story, to immediately get their attention. It leaves the audience wondering, curious about the backstory and what’s to come.

This technique is still widely used in a variety of books, movies, TV shows and so on. Examples can be seen in older works such as Homer’s The Iliad and Odyssey, but also in more modern works, such as the TV series Breaking Bad, Raymond Carver’s short story Whoever Was Using This Bed and William Golding’s novel Lord of the Flies.

Raymond Carver book cover for blog in medias res and the three-act structure
In medias res and the three-act structure: Raymond Carver’s short stories

Breaking Bad utilises in medias res in the ‘Polite’ episode. It shows the protagonist, Walt, driving erratically through a desert with police sirens audible in the background. This immediately hooks the audience, who are left to wonder what exactly Walt’s driving from and why. 

Raymond Carver starts Whoever was Using This Bed by writing ‘The call comes in the middle of the night, three in the morning, and it nearly scares us to death.’

Lord of the Flies also uses the technique, as it starts with the protagonist, Ralph, already on the island.

Each of the three pulls the reader into the story, and introduces the characters and the setting at the same time. If an author skips these elements, it may confuse their audience.

So how do you draw your audience’s attention by incorporating in medias res into your story, while avoiding the mistake of perplexing the audience?

Keep in mind that trying to incorporate the technique isn’t as easy as it may seem. The ‘action’ doesn’t necessarily have to mean that your work has to start with guns blazing; it could start similar to the beginning of Carver’s Whoever was Using This Bed or Golding’s Lord of the Flies.

William Golding Lord of the Flies book cover for blog in medias res and the three-act structure
In medias res and the three-act structure: William Golding Lord of the Flies

When trying to incorporate in medias res in your writing, remember to do the following:

  • Start with the action – does your story start in the midst of or as close to the action as possible? Will the audience’s attention be hooked?
  • Make sure the opening is important and has relevance to the story
  • Introduce the characters – it’s vital that the audience know who the protagonist is at the beginning of the story so they can connect with that character
  • Create the setting – this is important, as it situates the audience
  • Reveal the stakes – this is when characters have something to lose or gain. Not only do stakes help invest the audience more, they’re also important in moving a story along
  • Work out the backstory – as in medias res is often used with nonlinear timelines, it is important to work out how you’re going to introduce the backstory to the audience so they know what’s happening and why. Will it be through flashbacks, dialogue, switching points of view, or some other way?

The main point to remember when incorporating in medias res is not to dump an abundance of information on your audience at the beginning. It can end up being overwhelming. If there’s something that could happen later on or is unnecessary, change it up. 

Now Let’s Focus on the Three-Act Structure

The three-act structure is a narrative technique mainly used in books and movies. It dates back to the days of Aristotle and his work of dramatic theory Poetics, in which he wrote that ‘a whole [story] must contain a beginning, a middle and end’. It does, however, get a little more complicated than the name implies. You’ll see why below as we break the three parts down.

ACT ONE – The Beginning

The first act, also referred to as the ‘set-up’ should do the following:

  • Set up the story
  • Establish the setting
  • Introduce the characters and their motives
  • Include the first plot point.

It’s within this act that the inciting incident also occur. This is used to draw the audience in. As screenwriter Syd Field says, it ‘sets the story in motion’.

ACT TWO – The Middle

The second act, often termed ‘confrontation’, is the longest of the acts. It:

  • Adds twists to the story
  • Builds the climax by having the characters confront the obstacles that get in their way – referred to as the rising action
  • Includes the midpoint of the story
  • Includes the second plot point.  

ACT THREE – The End

The third act, often termed the ‘resolution’, should include:

  • The peak of the climax
  • Descending action
  • The denouement – which should tie the plot together and reach a resolution.

If you would like to see this structure used well, two well-known movies you could watch are Star Wars and Die Hard.

Are the narrative techniques we’ve covered here compatible despite seeming somewhat contradictory? Yes, they are! It just means that the inciting incident happens sooner than usual, and doing this can affect the story setup. So if you are incorporating in medias res into a three-act structure, make sure you do it in a way that the audience is still situated at the beginning of the story.

Acknowledgements

Column, G, 2019, Writers Digest University, Begin from the Middle: How to Start Your Story In Medias Res, viewed 6 August 2020,  https://www.writersdigest.com/write-better-fiction/begin-from-the-middle-how-to-start-your-story-in-medias-res

Grammarist 2020, Grammarist, In medias res, viewed 3 August 2020, https://grammarist.com/phrase/in-medias-res/

MasterClass 2019, MasterClass, Tips and Examples of In Medias Res in Writing, viewed 3 August 2020, https://www.masterclass.com/articles/tips-and-examples-of-in-medias-res-in-writing#4-examples-of-in-medias-res

Miyamoto, K, 2018, Screencraft, 10 Screenplay Structures That Screenwriters Can Use, viewed 2 August 2020, https://screencraft.org/2018/01/16/10-screenplay-structures-that-screenwriters-can-use/

Nordlinger, J, 2018, The New Criterion, In medias res, viewed 5 August 2020, https://newcriterion.com/issues/2018/2/in-medias-res

Online Etmology Dictionary 2020, In medias res, viewed 26 July 2020, https://www.etymonline.com/word/in%20medias%20res

ReedsyBlog 2018, Reedsy Blog, How to Write a Novel Using The Three Act Structure, viewed 2 August 2020, https://blog.reedsy.com/three-act-structure/

Strathy, G C, How to Write a Book Now, Syd Field’s Model of Screenplay Structures, viewed 27 July 2020, https://www.how-to-write-a-book-now.com/Syd-Field.html

Weiland, K M, 2013, Helping Writers Become Authors, In Medias Res: How to Do It and How Not to, viewed 6 August 2020, https://www.helpingwritersbecomeauthors.com/in-medias-res/

WritingClasses, Writing Classes, What is in medias res?, viewed 5 August 2020, https://www.writingclasses.com/toolbox/ask-writer/what-is-in-medias-res#:~:text=In%20medias%20res%20is%20a,the%20heart%20of%20the%20story.


Many thanks to my current intern, Hannah Daylight from the University of the Sunshine Coast School of Creative Industries, for writing this post.

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