Dauntless: 5 Tips for Navigating the “In Media Res” Minefield

Dauntless: 5 Tips for Navigating the "In Media Res" Minefield

5 Tips for Navigating the “In Media Res” Minefield

As a writer, I’m often told the two most important ways to spend my time are writing and reading. I’m supposed to read incessantly and broadly, but even at my best, I can only make it through so many books a month. Consequently, there are hundreds of books on my reading list. That’s could be a full-time job, and actually is a job for some of my friends.

Since you found your way here, I’m going to assume you are either a writer or an avid reader. Either way, you must be all too familiar with the endless struggle of which I speak.

Fortunately, I’m here to help, I swear. Instead of delivering you the more standard book review, I want to focus in on what a certain book taught me about writing. You should be reading anyway, right? At least this way you can learn something useful as you do.

This month’s Book Learning comes from The Lost Fleet: Dauntless by Jack Campbell and five vital lessons on beginning a story in media res. If a book review is what you’re after, you can find a great one here. Traditionally, I don’t read much Sci-Fi (though I’m trying to change that), but this book blew me away.

I know I just linked to another book review, but indulge me, because the combat was unlike anything I’ve ever seen or read. Most of the space combat I have experienced has involved spaceships acting like planes, all flying, twisting and dodging around each other while maintaining visual contact. Jack Campbell takes a more realistic approach with ships full light-minutes apart traveling at fractions of the speed of light. In order to actually engage one another, the pilots must take into account relativistic effects and temporal delays on their information.

In short: Fucking Sweet!

Anyway, on with the learning.

 Dauntless: 5 Tips for Navigating the "In Media Res" Minefield

In Media Res: What is it, and why we want it.

“In media res” is a Latin phrase literally meaning “into the middle of things.”

In the context of writing, it is used to describe the starting point of a scene, chapter, or book. Anytime the narrative starts with things already in motion, that is in media res. If you want more information, you can find some great articles/podcasts here and here. If all else fails, consult Dr. Google.

In media res can be a very powerful tool in your literary toolbelt if you know how to use it. Like any tool, in media res can destroy your story just as easily as it can improve it. Unfortunately, knowing where to start your story is hard, no doubt. Starting your story too soon is one of the most painful experiences you can inflict on your reader.

We’ve all read that kind of story. It starts with the character learning to walk and we must sit back and watch as they live through all of life’s little trials. And then a hundred pages have passed and we don’t have a clue what the actual conflict is about. It’s boring, it’s stuffed with filler, and it’s just bad storytelling.

This is exactly the problem that in media res is supposed to combat but take heed least you fall into another trap.

Let’s say you start with a fight scene. It’s violent, it’s riveting, and it’s awesome. But jump from there to a poor farm boy on the other side of the galaxy and start telling us all about his childhood and the hazards of mycological parasites, then it’s useless. A gripping intro does nothing if you immediately jump back into “Filler Mode.”

Which brings us straight to the lesson number one.


#1: Make the Introduction Relevant

Dauntless pulls this off beautifully by starting with incredibly high stakes. We quickly learn of Black-Jack Geary, an ancient hero recently woken from hibernation, the hopeless situation facing the tattered remnants of the Alliance fleet. When the Syndic leaders kill the fleet’s highest ranking leaders, Geary is left in command. Now he must do everything in his power to save the fleet and see them safely back to alliance space.

Awesome hook, right? I know it’s one of the best I’ve ever read. Well, the awesomeness just continues.

But if Campbell had taken this moment to jump to our poor but optimistic farm boy, then the power of the intro would have faded like radioactive space dust. Instead, the beginning scenes are vital to the setup for the rest of the novel and serve to pull us straight into the action.

This is where things started getting interesting on the story structure side of things. In any other book, this intro would have made a phenomenal inciting incident for the larger story, but not this time.

While this does force the protagonist into a position of action, the story isn’t yet in motion. Remember, it’s more than just Geary in danger here, it’s the entire fleet. So it’s not until every Alliance Ship follows Geary’s plan through the first jump point. Now everyone is in it. There is no turning back without the certainty of death. Geary must push forward, struggling to maintain fleet morale, discipline, and safety on the long journey home, bringing us to lesson two.


#2: Make it’s an Intro and not a Climax

Another temptation when first wielding in media res, is to jump to the biggest, baddest bit of conflict in your story. Unfortunately, that is usually the climax. If you’ve done that, then you’re starting your novel waaay too late.

That’s not the worst of it. You may have avoided filler in the beginning, but now your entire novel is filler as you stretch and stretch, desperate to reach that fabled word count before your readers slip into catatonia.

That’s it. You just blew your metaphorical load early and now we have nothing to look forward to, only sadness. Which brings me to the next lesson. Don’t worry; I’ll try to keep further sex jokes to a minimum.


#3: Fast Action, not Flaccid Characters

Well, that didn’t last long. *Sigh*

Innuendo aside, starting in the middle of the action is a great way to end up with under-developed characters. Depending on the type of scene used, it can be enormously difficult to provide the reader any information on the character’s motivations and intentions, let alone personality and backstory.

Plot is the all important backbone of your story, but the characters are the tantalizing flesh that makes readers want to dig in there. With quality characters, your readers will come back time and time again to get their grubby little fingers in all the best bits of your story.

Dauntless: 5 Tips for Navigating the "In Media Res" Minefield
A Dauntless Hero

In addition to solid hook, Dauntless delivers strong characters that I quickly came to love. Even in the first chapter, John Geary was provided a wonderfully tired and jaded perspective on an already
bleak scenario. Despite his declarations to the contrary, it was soon clear that he was exactly the type of hero I would follow to the end.

But a good prelude does not a symphony make. Granted, if the plot keeps on rolling, it can be brutal trying to keep developing your characters, but that’s what you have to do. Campbell did it, showing more and Geary’s personality with every page. As the story unfolded, more characters gradually came out of the woodwork until a full cast of people, not caricatures, people, were moving all about in front of me.

Easy right? Well, get ready for more demands, because everything you did with your characters, you need to do with your world building.

So what if you just strapped laser-knives to your space-lobsters for the most epic oceanic battle ever. You can’t forget to introduce us to the world. That’s what lesson four is all about.


#4: Orient your Readers quickly and deliberately

When your readers first stuff their faces into your disturbing bit of brain sludge, they will be lost and confused. That’s going to happen no matter what you do, but you just made it worse by slapping them across both cheeks with your laser-wielding crustaceans. You need to get them oriented and do it fast.

The best advice I have is to examine people that do this right. Jack Campbell in his book Dauntless, for instance. In just a few pages, Campbell gives us all the background we need to understand the doom looming over the Alliance fleet.

Without this critical bit of world building, we wouldn’t be prepared for the impact coming events.

Campbell was especially brilliant on this front, finding ways to deliver bits of the world through his characters. Geary is revived to find himself in a galaxy ravaged by a hundred years of war. The Alliance he once knew has changed, warped by conflict and the strain of battle.

It was fascinating to watch Geary face the in-congruence between the past and the present. The Alliance doctrine has become filled with propaganda, pride, and moral justifications. War crimes have become standard operating procedure and tactics have devolved to brutal ineffectual levels.


#5: Show What’s “Normal”

Like I said, the juxtaposition of Geary’s world and new Alliance was a constant point of conflict and interest. Not only that, it provided a foundation for me as the reader. Without understanding Geary’s “normal” there was no hope of following his internal struggles.

We so dearly love upsetting the apple-cart, that we often forget to show things as they should be. Contrast is necessary to develop plots or events of any significance. Whatever you do, don’t forget to show the readers your “normal world.”

I’m not going to pretend this is easy, but if you can manage it with your characters, you can do it with your world. Just keep building as you go, dishing out mortals bit by bit. Before long you’ll have a galaxy every bit as tempting as your characters.


Dauntless: 5 Tips for Navigating the "In Media Res" MinefieldFor your own Sanity, here are the five lessons.

#1: Make the Introduction Relevant

#2: Make it’s an Intro and not a Climax

#3: Fast Action, not Flaccid Characters

#4: Orient your Readers quickly and deliberately

#5: Show What’s “Normal”

I hope that was as helpful. If you really want to see what I’m talking about, then you should probably go read the book.


Question: What are your “in media res” difficulties?

Let me know your answer in the comments below. If you really enjoyed this bit of Book Learning, sign up for my newsletter and never miss a post again.

Until next time, keep reading and keep learning.

Rowenson out.

2 Responses

  1. Ernest Shell

    Hey, thanks for the great article! And the great review! (adds yet another book to the growling list…)

    • C. R. Rowenson

      Glad you liked it! I’m hoping these sessions of Book Learning will alleviate some of the endless-book-list-pains. If you have something specific you are working on or struggling with, let me know and I can try and find you a book that exemplifies that.

      Good to hear from you, Ernie. 🙂

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