I wrote my first novel in chronological order and it spanned 25 years. At my first writing conference, we were given a list of the top ten mistakes new writers make. Guess what was number one? Writing in chronological order!
In Medias Res is Latin for “in the middle”. This is where the good stories begin — where there’s movement, an action, an active decision to do something. Then, the background is dribbled in as the story continues. The initial action is the hook that makes us want to read more.
is one of the mistakes
new writers make.
Stories that begin at the very beginning, providing all the background for something that will happen later, are boring. Case in point: Michelle Obama’s 2018 book.
This is not a political post. Michelle Obama impressed me from the moment she hit the national stage. I think she’s articulate, smart, and a good role model. I was excited to pick up “Becoming”. I knew it would be good.
Unfortunately, she started at the very beginning. It’s a memoir, you might be thinking, of course it starts at the beginning. And it got great reviews. Either all those reviewers read a different book or, more likely, they were reviewing Michelle Obama, not the book.
The preface isn’t bad. Obama writes briefly about her childhood aspirations and her adult accomplishments. It’s somewhat compelling. Then you begin Chapter 1. Blah. She describes her childhood in detail, and talks a lot about her great aunt’s piano. She goes on and on and on about the family’s apartment and the neighborhood and the piano, the piano, the piano, with no real action, no excitement, no foreshadowing. I slogged through 30 or 40 pages, then I skipped ahead to where she met Barack. That was interesting.
The chronology continued. I didn’t finish the book. I was disappointed.
A couple weeks later, I picked up James Comey’s book “A Higher Loyalty: Truth, Lies, and Leadership”. I had no expectations of this book, and I wasn’t a fan of his. The book is good.
A Higher Loyalty
The intro begins with Comey riding to a congressional hearing, where he is very direct about what is happening. (Action.) The intro ends with a question – “How on earth did I end up here?” (The hook.) Chapter 1 begins with Comey’s time as an assistant U.S. attorney in New York City and interactions with the American Mafia. (Action.) He describes a mobster testimony, and notes how this reinforced his career choice. He then describes a harrowing incident from when he was 16 years old and the life lessons it taught him, which led him to pursue a career in law enforcement. (Background with action.)
The next chapter begins with him going to work for Rudy Giuliani. As Comey details his progressing career, he puts in lessons he learned growing up that shaped him for the jobs he had and the decisions he needed to make. (Action followed by background.)
I found Comey’s book quite compelling. I couldn’t put it down. That’s because he started and continued applying the practice of “In Medias Res”. He seamlessly transitions from action to background, and back to action and current events, then background… The story is tightly weaved.
I’ve become much better at starting my stories with a hook, with questions to compel the reader to keep reading. However, I struggle with how soon to put in background. I don’t want to bore my readers. The ability to methodically knit in background that led to the incident or action of the hook is a necessary skill for a good book.