WARNING: The following post contains plot spoilers from the movie Iron Man.
You've heard about the different ways to start a story or novel. You can start with a prologue or a frame device, with dialogue or description (of setting or character).
Some of those are pretty self-explanatory. Others, maybe not.
In Media Res
Sometimes you want to drop your protagonist directly into the middle of the action, and then pull back and show how he/she got there in the first place.
That’s called in media res.
Here’s what I mean.
The movie Iron Man, with Robert Downey, Jr., starts out with Tony Stark (Downey) in the back of a Jeep in a military cavalcade, somewhere in a Middle Eastern desert. Tony’s making small talk with the military personnel in the Jeep with him.
Thirty seconds later, there’s a massive explosion, and the cavalcade comes under enemy fire. Most of the soldiers are killed. In a panic, Tony dives out of the Jeep and comes face to face with a rocket, which explodes before he can move. He’s knocked on his back, unconscious.
The screen goes black, and words flash across: “36 hours earlier …”
From there, the movie jumps back in time, thirty-six hours earlier, to recount how Tony came to be in the cavalcade in the first place.
Once viewers reach the opening sequence again, now in the context of the story line, and relive it with Tony, the movie picks up from there and continues to its eventual, chronological conclusion.
The in media res beginning works well to grab your reader’s attention immediately. Who is this character? Where is he? What’s he doing? Why is he under fire? The immediacy of the action sequence pulls the reader in and makes him/her want to know more, and you’re almost guaranteed to get the reader to stay through the entire story to find out what ultimately happens, even after the recurrence of the opening sequence.
The downside to the in media res opening is that it hinders tension during the flashback. Think about it: the reader already knows that the protagonist survives at least until the recurrence of the opening sequence. The savvy author does a lot to build that tension back up again and leave unanswered questions that will make the reader want to read past the recurrence of the opening sequence, once the story picks up again in “real time.”