In Media Res is a valuable tool for any author. Starting your story in the middle of an action scene sets it up as fast paced, instantly has a bit of mystery to hook the reader, and saves you the pain of figuring out how much back story to throw out with the first over-thought line. Done right it's interesting. Done wrong it's a migraine.

I don't like to pick on many other authors because much of our opinions on their work are merely just that: opinions. I have no wish to start a war, but sometimes someone just does something so monumentally wrong you can't pull the punches. And the author setting me off here has no excuse for it. Let's back up and explain.

The author I am complaining about is Dianna Love. I stumbled upon her short story Midnight Kiss Goodbye in the compilation book Dead after Dark. I bought it because I am a fan of Sherrilyn Kenyon's Dark-Hunter series and Fury, a lovely werewolf character, has a short story in this volume. I skipped the Susan Squires story because personally I hate everything she's ever written with a passion (just my opinion), and J.R. Ward wrote a wonderful short story. Like Angela Knight I find Ward's short stories to be amazing, but her novels don't thrill me. Again, mere opinion.

But back to Dianna Love. Her short story is one giant mess. First, the problems not related to in media res:

  1. Character names seem to indicate one race/heritage and physical descriptions are so scant you can't figure out what race they are until you're halfway through, and it's not what the names made you think
  2. Things like nipple piercings seem to come and go on characters
  3. The lore mentioned is hard to pronounce 
  4. Determining who the antagonist is requires Sherlock Holmes' deduction skills
  5. The descriptions of surroundings, time of day, etc are so fucking sparse you have no idea what's going on  

Okay, those are pretty bad, and I admit, I couldn't get more than one-third of the way through before abandoning this piece of shit story. And I'm disappointed because it's from a series she apparently co-writes with Sherrilyn Kenyon. I have a love-hate relationship with Kenyon's writings, but this falls on the hate side.

One redeeming quality is it gives me the ability to remind my fellow writers how not to do in media res. First up, when is good to use IMR? There are 3 instances where it's appropriate: 1) Your story is very action-oriented and fast paced and you want that established from the outset. 2) It's a mystery and starting it off IMR helps establish that. 3) You've been agonizing over the perfect opening line/paragraph for weeks and got nada, so you just start writing.

Basically you use IMR to establish a fast-paced action story or a mystery, or you use it to get started without over thinking things, and will likely change it. Unfortunately, this story is not much of a mystery (the love interests don't know one another is a magical being, but they both know the bad guys and plot) nor is it fast paced (it's slow enough you half expect characters to break out a game of chess in the middle of "flirtatious" dialogue).

Now where do you start IMR? First, what's your plot? Identify the single most important arc: is the a plot arc or character arc? What is the catalyst of that arc? Whatever that is, that's where you start IMR. For example, if you wrote a coming-of-age story, the personal growth of your protagonist is the most important arc. Of course growing up means losing childhood illusions, so the first point of disillusionment is a good place to start. If it's a murder mystery, the plot arc is the most important, so start at the murder. The when is actually pretty easy.

Sadly Love begins it with the male protagonist looking for possible villain #1 and spying on his high school sweetheart. We don't come in when he first reconnected with her (he bugged her phone weeks earlier), nor when he discovered villain #1 was loose (this also happened before story start). This IMR comes at a fairly random point, not even when the protagonists meet face to face for the first time in years (it starts before that). It's completely random in relation to any plot points or arcs.

So now you know the why and the when of IMR, but how do we do it? This is where most people fuck it up. There are two ways: A) start with an action scene that is short as in 2-3 pages max, then immediately after go into back story for no more than 1 page. More in this in a moment. B) start with a discussion between to individuals discussing back story for 1 page followed immediately by a short action scene lasting 2-3 pages, then go into back story.

Now A is the more modern way. In short, begin with the murder, or a chase scene, or a fight, or breaking into a safe. Just describe the action for 2-3 pages. Hear me? Don't mention any back story other than a character's name, brief physical description, and you may only mention their job if it directly relates to the action. Once it's done, anyone going through major action needs a chance to catch their breath. It's best if this means two characters talking, and so the back story comes out in their conversation, for example, say one master thief explaining to their new partner why they needed to steal the statue. Even if the back story is the major plot arc of an entire series, keep it brief. The closer to under 1 page you get the better you're doing, so hit on important points.

B is the old fashioned way, and it's not what you think. The characters speaking are not discussing back story, they're narrating important events. Say the catalyst event is your protagonist winning the Democratic presidential nomination. The conversation would tell us his name, age, family, place of origin, and that he's won, and by how much. It could even be a news reader announcing these things on TV rather than a conversation. Then the short action would be the true catalyst event, say he discovers an assassination plot. After 2-3 pages of that, then you have your breather where you go into back story, such as explaining how our protagonist is a former Navy SEAL son of a famous police detective.

B has been cast aside because the natural tendency of modern authors is to use the conversation for back story. Yeah, that grips readers (sarcasm). So most authors go for A, and when done properly, it grips you and draws you in.

The problem with Ms. Love's story is that her random point of IMR is buried in the male protagonist going over back story in his mind. it's slow, plodding, and it's not IMR. Indeed we know she's trying to go for IMR because she claims the male protagonist is tracking villain #1 but loses him as he picks up the female protagonist. Another problem is pages later it's revealed antagonist #1 is in India 800 years ago, not in...wherever the fuck they were.

Another problem with the story is she fails to give proper back story. You have just 1 page to do it, so do it right. Is your hero the member of a secret order? What is it called, what does it do, and how was it founded. Do it in two paragraphs, buck-o, no more than 3 sentences each. Is the antagonist a member of a contrasting order? Repeat. THAT'S IT. Other members of the order, other similar orders, those should be mentioned in the story whenever a character or item pops up that requires that explanation. Don't over explain, don't under explain. We don't need all 5 W's, we just need what and why right now.

If you want to read a great example of what not to do, try Midnight Kiss Goodbye by Dianna Love. But now that you know some of the basics, I hope you'll do it correctly. Happy writing and reading!