In Medias Res

October 1, 2019

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.

Writing in

chronological order

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.

Becoming

 

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.

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Describe, Qualify, Modify, Alter, Delete

May 14, 2019

Some common advice for writing fiction is to use very few adjectives and adverbs. This is additional advice I don’t like, and I didn’t understand it at first. How could I describe settings and scenes and facial expressions? Plus, I was moving from writing press releases, speeches and business reports, to writing fiction, so I was excited to use adjectives.

writing report

Photo by Bram Naus on Unsplash

As I pondered this disappointment and continued writing, I began to understand the directive, although I phrase it differently. Instead, I use adjectives and adverbs judiciously. A friend put it better: “You use them sparingly, and they are very visual”.

Examples abound online, so I’ll just include a short example of an unnecessary adverb.

#1.  “I don’t care,” he said angrily.

#2.  “I don’t care,” he said, pounding his fist on the table.

Which one is more visual?

I also use the words “very” and “really”, and I have to go back and delete them. “Very hot.” “Really big.” How about scalding and gigantic. More descriptive.

I’ve heard the overuse of modifiers called lazy writing. I get that now. There are so many more ways to add description – through dialogue, action, and backstory, to name a few.

As I learned to limit my adjectives and adverbs to make them more effective, I discovered other writing devices. Metaphors and similes and onomatopoeia and analogy. These are fun! So, now, I probably use these too much.

eagle

Avoid clichés. “Soar like an eagle.”

A metaphor is a comparison to add description. A simile is another descriptive comparison but it uses “like” or “as”.

Analogies compare things more directly. — “My house is as important to me as play-doh is to my 5-year-old daughter.”

Personification gives human traits to an inanimate object. — “That pie is calling my name.”

 

Onomatopoeia

{On-uh-ma-tuh-pee-uh}

And my favorite: onomatopoeia. These are words that sound like actions. — “The horse clip-clopped down the path.” “Waves sloshed on the shoreline.” I like the way onomatopoeia is spelled, the way it looks when written out, and the way it sounds. It’s a cool word.

horses

Photo by Jorge Dominguez on Unsplash

Waves sloshed on the shoreline as the horse clip-clopped through the pebbles. The rider felt free, out of the desert at last, like she could spread her wings and do anything. The award meant as much to her as spaghetti and meatballs meant to her Italian mother-in-law. The sun celebrated with her, warming her face, and causing the water to sparkle like diamonds.

A good day.

What literary device is your favorite? And what word do you use way, way, way too often?

Note: My apologies to the English and grammar police if I have misrepresented any terms in this post. I’ve described things as I understand them.

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