Writing Musts: Start the Clock, then the Story

I wish I could remember which book introduced me to the term in medias res. We’ve all been exposed to stories that use the technique, but having a name for it made it real. It’s been (at least) fifteen-plus years since I read about it, but it’s still one of those pieces of knowledge that infest my writing. I’d even consider it formative.

In case you don’t know of it, it is latin for ‘in the midst of things‘.

What it refers to is the technique of starting the story hot, where events are already happening. This is before any attempt to explain the setting or background are made. The other common technique used is to start from the very beginning, ab ovo, or ‘from the egg’. Whichever technique you prefer, the concept of in medias res has something to offer you.

I feel there’s more to the technique than what’s generally applied to either scene or story.

Consider the world. Go on, do it.

Alright, world considered.

When you were born, the world was already here. Trust me on this. It was here when I was born, too. For all I know, the world has been around forever! (note: it wasn’t). In a story, you might start with the birth of the protagonist, but the world is already there. Even if it’s their entire life that’s followed, and their life that is the integral part of what happens, something that happened before affects the moment.

You are always in the middle of something, though it may not be the something you’re really writing about.

Whether you adopt inciting incidents or moments of no return, the past in the setting has an effect on the present. You should know what they are, even if the readers never do. If something terrible happened in the history of the story (and let’s face it, terrible things happening is most of what history is), you should know what it is, and whether it exists there as a warning to the current generation, or as a lesson that will be ignored and subsequently repeated.

The same applies to characters.

Even if the story follows your protagonist from their first breath (or moment of conception), the lives of those around them have bearing on them. If the Hero’s Journey Mentor Archetype shows up, they have their own past, and it’s a significant part of why they help the protagonist. Let’s be honest, they’ve lived lives, made mistakes, won, lost and otherwise done a lot of things.

There might even be a story in it, and you know what? The same thing will apply.

The clock is always running. Things are always happening, whether they’re shown or not. While we’re following the protagonist, all of the other characters are doing things. They’re not landmarks waiting to be discovered and spoken to (everyone speaks to landmarks, right?). They’re people (of some kind that we can relate to) and they’re doing stuff.

You don’t have to spell it out in your story, of course. It might even hamper your story to do so, but you have to know your world. You need to pinpoint what it is that seemingly makes a character act without logic, because there’s always a reason. You might know what they’re afraid of, but why is it so?

Dig deeper.

We often like to start things neatly. We wait until the first of the week, month or year to start our diets, our writing habits, and otherwise try to turn them into memorable occasions. You don’t get to choose when you are inspired, when you fall in love, when bad things happen, or anything of the sort.

As much as I want to start on a new page if I’ve scribbled through too much of one, there’s no real clean slate. The page might be empty, but I’m not. Neither is your world, and neither are your characters. Don’t try to start the clock at zero. Spin that hand around to where it’s meant to be, and write from there.

Just be sure to look back to see what’s happened beforehand.

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