If you look at the stories that have rooted themselves into cultural consciousness, starting a story in medias res – the middle of things – is understood in a very particular way. But is it how you understand it?
There’s a huge difference in the way great writers begin stories and the way it’s done by the rest of us.
Let’s have a look at how we poor amateurs approach the middle of things.
A writer has a story idea in mind and wants to find a really good place to begin. The sweet spot. The heat, as it were.
Say the story is about an aging spy who is called on to undertake one final mission. Today’s writer might start the story with the protagonist (a Daniel Craig type, of course, buff, gruffly suave, in control) waking up beside some hot dumb-as-bricks supermodel, contemplating in detail his predicament so the reader knows exactly what’s going on. There might be some flash-backing to signal the danger yet to come.
Some might have him already in the middle of the caper, with all the stakes pressing in on him. Or right in the middle of/after a shoot-out.
What’s the problem, you might ask? Isn’t that in the middle of the action? Isn’t that what any creative writer would do?
Not John Le Carre. Le Carre knows the difference between plot and development. In The Spy Who Came In From The Cold he starts his story developmentally at a point where Alec Leamas is on the verge of his biggest screw-up yet but doesn’t know it. He’s no Daniel Craig. Mid 50-ish, he’s not fit or buff. He’s unkempt. And he’s a problem drinker (that’s a nice way of suggesting “drunkard”).
There are no heroics. He’s just washed-up, waiting at a heavily guarded East-West German checkpoint for his contact to come across, trying to salvage this one Cold War assignment (of many that have gone sideways on him). In this moment he has nowhere left to go personally or professionally. He’s in the middle of a major disaster in the making. It’s already happening but Leamas refuses to see it or the entire scope of what’s happened to his career. Everything rides on his man coming down that road. Where they are physically and geographically is symbolically significant. The chapter is called “Checkpoint”.
He’s at the checkpoint of his career and life. See what Le Carre did there? Checkpoint? Get it?
Le Carre starts the story, not in the middle of the plotting action or the most exciting or dynamic part of the story. That would be closer to the end when he’s being held by the East Germans and attempts to escape.
Rather, he starts in the middle of things. The lens is pulled back from the action of the story – the spy action and the plot action – to make the opening circumstances reflect the developmental context of Leamas’ life situation, the very conditions that have brought him to this point, and which will drive him straight into the mess he will find himself in later.
But none of it can happen without this opening snafu. None.
What happens on that bridge t-bones what’s left of Alec’s life, sending it on its collision-course.
The place where he begins is more than just the middle of an action or the story. It’s the crossroads of every facet of his life. Note:
He’s a screw up but it’s not all his fault. He’s surrounded by screw-ups and betrayal. The weight of this impregnates the opening scene, but becomes more apparent and consequential as the story unfolds, driving Leamas to the final scene. This is especially obvious when his true lack of control over the situation is revealed. He’s not only hamstrung by the fools and liars who surround him, but what they’ve done to him has put him in the exact position to be used, manipulated, and inevitably betrayed.
Middle-aged. His youth and strength are gone. All he has left is gut-level instinct. And even that is questionable. This is the precise vulnerability that makes him easy prey for his handlers as well as his targets. Had Leamus been younger he might not have invested so much in Liz Gold, which would have changed the outcome in which Gold becomes pivotal; any older and he would have been unable to handle what his controllers knew would be facing him in East Germany, making his placement in that mission unlikely and unsurviveable.
A loner. His life in duplicity has made it impossible to live as a normal human being, but built into that is a deep sense of his lifelong lack of connection to anything – that whoever he was before becoming a spy was exactly what made a life of espionage possible. He never had anything (or anyone) to lose, and this is what inevitably makes Liz Gold so important to the story. Le Carre accomplishes this sense of Leamas’ past with master strokes – Leamas’ transience, his comfort with squalor and rough living, drink, bad neighbourhoods, no mention of family or friends. He was an expendable cog from one system that became an expendable cog in another system, only with higher stakes. A life of too much dissimulation, too much absence (in more ways than one) is the life a loner who comes from dissimulation and absence gets. Yet his loner status and how he musters everything he has left in him as a human being just to embrace love is exactly what leads to the tragic outcome. It’s used against him, but it also becomes the final heartbeat of his humanity. It saves him on the only level left that matters to him.
A drunk. Le Carre evokes a strong sense that this was written into Leamas’ very DNA, but given his age and what’s become of his life and career it’s the only way left to cope. It’s also what makes him right for the ruse necessary for his final mission. The line between Leamas and the role he is required to play as a disaffected agent ripe for Eastern-bloc harvesting is barely visible, thus making the ruse credible.
He thinks he knows what’s going on. Leamas prides himself on his ability to get the lay of the land, but somehow the landscape has changed under him without his having been aware of it. This peril in knowing is what turns everything inside-out.
Everything rides on his work. Until it doesn’t, and then, in the end, he realises that what matters rides on the choice he makes on that wall. He can choose the agency, himself, or Liz, but whatever choice he makes presents a dire double-bind that will cost him dearly.
To choose Liz is to lose his life. To choose anything else is to lose his humanity.
That the story begins on a bridge and ends on a wall is incredibly astute use of metaphor.
Everything about this story mirrors what we already intuitively and instinctively understand about the human experience. We might understand nothing at all about being a middle-aged alcoholic agent but when Le Carre makes a move everything in our gut tells us it’s exactly as it is in the part of the human story where we are all participants. All the internal cogs fit together, meaningfully, and because they do, the machinery powers up and runs on its own momentum.
All because of what goes into that opening scene.
This is what opens the door through which we and Leamas must enter the story. In this opening Le Carre pulls off the other definition of true:
- 1.bring (an object, wheel, or other construction) into the exact shape, alignment, or position required.
As writers we should all aim for that kind of true in fiction. It’s not an inert noun, but a verb. It’s dynamic. It requires something of us, writer and reader alike. Readers care because we recognise in this story and other masterpieces the exact shape, alignment, and position required to communicate human beingness back to us.
Leamas’ moral victory, the most important of his life, must come at the cost of his world (and life), the very conditions set up right at the beginning of the novel. Smiley and The Circus get what they want. Mundt gets what he wants. All this comes at the cost of Leamas and Gold, but even they, too, get what they want: to know love in one another.
What’s so beautiful about it all is that while it’s inevitable, it’s neither predictable nor prescriptive.
Writers – especially those who have come up in the age of narcissism – haven’t figured out how to get much past themselves to offer readers something about themselves. Writer and reader connect when the writer expresses something that also communicates meaning for the reader.
Because that moment – that perfect, beautiful set-up at the beginning of the story, the in medias res – ?
That’s the writer preparing us, not just the story. It’s saying: this is what true looks like. Buckle up.
The next time you’re done reading a novel, go back to the opening scene and check out how contextually relevant it is to what went on in the story. If it’s a particular genre, compare it to a masterpiece of that genre, and how those stories open. Guaranteed the masterpiece is the set-up of a world at a collision point, out of which the character has evolved and the destruction of which proves the test of everything the character had understood about Life and her/his own life.
It’s that in medias res set-up that determines how the character will face it, and what the outcome must be. It’s all interdependent. If it isn’t, nobody will want to read your story because it simply won’t be true.
So how will you create in your in medias res the exact shape, alignment, and position to tell a true story?