Friday, August 28, 2009

In Media Res

You know how we, as writers, are supposed to always begin our stories with the main character's moment of change, otherwise known as throwing the reader into the tale en media res? I found a glowing example of this in a movie I watched last weekend, and I thought I would share its brilliance and simplicity. Since I like to have backstory clearly defined in my mind, and usually need to be reminded not to slam it on the reader, but rather to feather it in gradually, I found this helpful.

One of the opening scenes in Careless depicts the main character, Wiley Roth, returning to his apartment alone after working at a drab job in a bookstore. He goes to the kitchen, and a microwave sits on top of the freezer. He opens the freezer, and it is filled with Banquet frozen meals, minus room for five or six boxes. He opens the cardboard expertly, pokes holes in the plastic with a fork kept on top of the microwave just for that purpose, and sets the timer. Next shot, we see him reading a book on his couch, mindlessly forking the heated meal into his mouth.
Now we know that this character lives alone, doesn't cook, can't afford or doesn't choose to buy the more expensive frozen meals, and that his life follows the same pattern and routine every day. Except, of course, for today, the moment of change, when he finds a severed finger on his kitchen floor after his meal. Where does he put it? The freezer. And we are already familiar with the contents of the freezer.

The finger stands out among the frozen meals, and voila, his life is changed forever.

Now if only everything I write could work out that well. What do you do to make sure your backstory doesn't interfere with your beginning, the moment of change?


  1. This is a good question. I had a hard time with this at first, but then I decided it was kind of fun to try and work the backstory in throughout instead of slapping it all in at once. It's sort of like a puzzle to me.

  2. "when he finds a severed finger on his kitchen floor after his meal"

    WAIT...where did the severed finger come from? You really have my curiosity piqued with that one.

  3. LW: Yes, it's like a puzzle to me, too, at times. I remember the Douglas Adams saying about "back to finish" and try to think globally as I go along.

    SF: That is the question that propels the plot for the first half to two-thirds of the movie. It's a good movie, I recommend it!

  4. Mostly I end up deleting it during rewrites, because I almost always do this.

    I'm suddenly getting the urge to stick a severed finger in my WIP...

  5. When I wrote my first chapter in my first novel, it was ripped to shreds in a critique saying I had WAY too much back story and boring stuff. At first I was all snarky. "But you have to know this about my character first so you can feel her pain when she is later accosted."

    8 or so revisions later and about a 3k word snip the first chapter has been rewritten so the action comes at you quick. I see now that it is better to start with the excitement and then weave in the back story. I still got it all in there but in smaller, more manageable doses rather than a 3k word dump.

  6. I struggle with this. I usually write two chapters at the beginning that end up getting chopped for this reason.

  7. Perfect example of this is what I'm already writing for my story "Stay Of Execution." I started with the opening scene which sorta hinted at the back story yet also was kind of a changing moment for the main character. That was then explained even better by going into the backstory. The backstory explaining how the main guy got to the point he was at in the opening scene. Then I plan to go forward from there. I am a little worried right now that the backstory might be too long. I'll see once everything else is done.

    I saw this great article in Creative Screenwriting magazine ( where Billy Wilder said the 10 tips for grest screenplays. I think they fit for stories and novels too.

    Well, here are some of Wilder's screenwriting tips: *

    1. The audience is fickle.
    2. Grab ‘em by the throat and never let ‘em go.
    3. Develop a clean line of action for your leading character.
    4. Know where you’re going.
    5. The more subtle and elegant you are in hiding your plot points, the better you are as a writer.
    6. If you have a problem with the third act, the real problem is in the first act.
    7. A tip from Lubitsch: Let the audience add up two plus two. They’ll love you forever.
    8. In doing voice-overs, be careful not to describe what the audience already sees. Add to what they’re seeing.
    9. The event that occurs at the second act curtain triggers the end of the movie.
    10. The third act must build, build, build in tempo and action until the last event, and then—that’s it. Don’t hang around.

    You probably can find the entire article somewhere. This is just the list.


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