In medias res

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A narrative work beginning in medias res (Classical Latin: [ɪn mɛdiaːs reːs], lit. "into the middle things") opens in the midst of action (cf. ab ovo, ab initio).[1] Often, exposition is bypassed and filled in gradually, either through dialogue, flashbacks or description of past events. For example, Hamlet begins after the death of Hamlet's father. Characters make reference to King Hamlet's death without the plot's first establishment of said fact. Since the play focuses on Hamlet and the revenge itself more so than the motivation, Shakespeare utilizes in medias res to bypass superfluous exposition.

Works that employ in medias res often, though not always, will subsequently use flashback and nonlinear narrative for exposition of earlier events in order to fill in the backstory. For example, in Homer's Odyssey, we first learn about Odysseus's journey when he is held captive on Calypso's island. We then find out, in Books IX through XII, that the greater part of Odysseus's journey precedes that moment in the narrative. On the other hand, Homer's Iliad has relatively few flashbacks, although it opens in the thick of the Trojan War.

First use of the phrase

The Roman lyric poet and satirist Horace (65–8 BC) first used the terms ab ōvō ("from the egg") and in mediās rēs ("into the middle of things") in his Ars poetica ("Poetic Arts", c. 13 BC), wherein lines 147–149 describe the ideal epic poet:[2]

Nor does he begin the Trojan War from the egg,

but always he hurries to the action, and snatches the listener into the middle of things. . . .

The "egg" reference is to the mythological origin of the Trojan War in the birth of Helen and Clytemnestra from the double egg laid by Leda following her seduction by Zeus in the guise of a swan.

Literary history

Probably originated in oral tradition, the narrative technique of beginning a story in medias res is a stylistic convention of epic poetry, the exemplars in Western literature being the Iliad and the Odyssey (both 7th century BC), by Homer.[3] Likewise, the technique features in the Indian Mahābhārata (c. 8th century BC – c. 4th century AD).

The classical-era poet Virgil (Publius Vergilius Maro, 70–19 BC) continued this literary narrative technique in the Aeneid, which is part of the Greek literary tradition of imitating Homer.[3] Later works featuring in medias res include the stories "Sinbad the Sailor" and "The Three Apples" from the One Thousand and One Nights (c. 9th century),[4] the German Nibelungenlied (12th century), the Spanish Cantar de Mio Cid (c. 14th century), the Italian Divine Comedy (1320) by Dante Alighieri,[5] the Portuguese The Lusiads (1572) by Luís Vaz de Camões, Jerusalem Delivered (1581) by Torquato Tasso, Paradise Lost (1667) by John Milton, and generally in Modernist literature.[6]

Modern novelists known to extensively employ in medias res in conjunction with flashbacks include William Faulkner and Toni Morrison.

Cinematic history

It is typical for film noir to begin in medias res; for example, a private detective will enter the plot already in progress.[7] Crossfire (1947) opens with the murder of Joseph Samuels. As the police investigate the crime, the story behind the murder is told via flashbacks.[8] Dead Reckoning (1947) opens with Humphrey Bogart as Rip Murdock on the run and attempting to hide in a Catholic church. Inside, the backstory is told in flashback as Murdock explains his situation to a priest.[8]

The technique has been used across genres, including dramas such as Through a Glass Darkly (1961),[9] (1963),[9] Raging Bull (1980), and City of God (2002);[10] crime thrillers such as Grievous Bodily Harm (1988),[11] The Usual Suspects (1995),[12] and Kill Bill Volume 2 (2004);[13] horror films such as Firestarter (1984);[14] action films such as many in the James Bond franchise;[12][15] and comedies such as Dr. Strangelove (1964).[9]

Many war films, such as The Thin Red Line (1998), also begin in medias res, with the protagonists already actively in combat and no prior domestic scenes leading up to the film's events.[16]

Occasionally adaptations of source material may employ in medias res while the original version did not. For example, the film adaptation of the stage musical Camelot employed in medias res while the original Broadway version did not (although revivals of the musical have).[citation needed] Stanley Kubrick's 1962 film adaptation of Lolita begins in medias res although the novel does not.[citation needed] Herman Wouk's stage adaptation of his own novel The Caine Mutiny begins in medias res as it opens with the court-martial that occupies the final section of the novel, telling the earlier part of the story through flashbacks in court-room testimony.[citation needed]

In video games

Some story-based video games may begin in medias res by starting near the end of the plot. Examples are Final Fantasy X and God of War, which opens with a bloody battle at the very end of the story, then returns to the preceding events using a series of flashbacks.[5]

See also

References

  1. ^ "In medias res". Encyclopædia Britannica. Retrieved July 31, 2013. 
  2. ^ Horace. Ars poetica (in Latin). nec gemino bellum Troianum orditur ab ovo; / semper ad eventum festinat et in medias res / [...] auditorem rapit 
  3. ^ a b Murray, Christopher John (2004). Encyclopedia of the Romantic Era, 1760-1850. Taylor & Francis. p. 319. ISBN 1-57958-422-5
  4. ^ Pinault, David (1992). Story-Telling Techniques in the Arabian Nights. Brill Publishers. pp. 86–94. ISBN 90-04-09530-6. 
  5. ^ a b Israel, David K. "Great Examples of in medias res". Mental Floss (January 15, 2009). Retrieved 2 July 2017. 
  6. ^ Forman, Carol (1984). Dante Alighieri's Divine Comedy: The Inferno. Barron's Educational Series. p. 24. ISBN 0-7641-9107-1
  7. ^ Knight, Deborah (2007). Conard, Mark T.; Porfirio, Robert, eds. The Philosophy of Film Noir. University Press of Kentucky. p. 208. ISBN 978-0-8131-9181-2. 
  8. ^ a b Mayer, Geoff; McDonnell, Brian (2007). Encyclopedia of Film Noir. ABC-CLIO. pp. 146, 161. ISBN 978-0-313-33306-4. 
  9. ^ a b c Miller, William Charles (1980). Screenwriting for Narrative Film and Television. Hastingshouse/Daytrips. p. 66. ISBN 978-0-8038-6773-4. 
  10. ^ What is the term, In Medias Res?
  11. ^ McFarlane, Brian; Mayer, Geoff (1992). New Australian Cinema. Cambridge University Press. p. 100. ISBN 978-0-521-38768-2. 
  12. ^ a b Murfin, Ross C.; Ray, Supryia M. (2009). The Bedford Glossary of Critical and Literary Terms. Bedford/St. Martins. p. 245. ISBN 978-0-230-22330-1. 
  13. ^ Chan, Kenneth (2009). Remade in Hollywood. Hong Kong University Press. p. 147. ISBN 978-962-209-056-9. 
  14. ^ Muir, John Kenneth (2007). Horror Films of the 1980s. McFarland. pp. 135, 389. ISBN 978-0-7864-2821-2. 
  15. ^ Donnelly, Kevin J. (2001). Film Music. Edinburgh University Press. p. 36. ISBN 978-0-7486-1288-8. 
  16. ^ Glassmeyer, Danielle (2009). "Ridley Scott's Epics: Gender of Violence". In Detora, Lisa M. wHeroes of Film, Comics and American Culture. McFarland. pp. 297–8. ISBN 978-0-7864-3827-3. 

External links

  • The dictionary definition of in medias res at Wiktionary
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