All Stories Begin in Medias Res
The place where the process starts in creating a novel and the place where a novel starts, meaning you going to pick it up and read at page one are two completely different things. All novels begin, really all stories, but we're talking about novels here. All novels begin in medias res. In medias res is Latin for "in the middle" of the thing. The thing being the story. So, and I'm going to be doing this all the way through, so if in medias res is this, my arm is now in medias res. Page one of your novel begins the second half of your story, because there's a ton of stuff you need to know before you actually have the story. If a story's about how someone solves a problem, how can they solve a problem that hasn't yet been created? If a story is about how somebody comes in it wanting something they've wanted for a very long time, how can you start on page one because you don't know what that is? If the plot is going to force them to go after a misbelief that has guided their life from tha...
t moment forward, how can you start on page one if you haven't created that? And if by going through that your protagonist is probably, and let's face it most of us do, created part of the problem that they're not going to have to solve here, how can you start on page one if you don't have any of that? And the answer is you can't, you can't. One of the reasons I think that we believe that we want to start on page one really again has to do with our experience. Because as writers we're rebels, right? Writers are rebels. We want to change the world. We've got something to say. We want to get in people's heads so they'll see things differently. But there's one way in which we writers are very, very obedient and very reverent even. And that is when we read a book. And you know what it's like when you read a book. You pick up the book, you open it up, you start very obediently on page one and then you read from forward in sequential order until you get to the end. I know that there are times when there's something that's either really exciting or really like terrifying that's going to happen and you think, "Oh my God, I just have to have some clue as to what's" "going to happen or my heart's" "going to pound out of my chest." So you kind of skim forward, okay got it and then you go back and you do very obediently read forward. The problem is that while we read a novel in linear order, that is not how we write a novel. Novel is not written. It's not a linear process by any stretch. And so what we're going to talk about right now are the steps we are going to go through but also about that first half. Because it's something that writers, again it's really hard as we'll talk about, it's really hard to unlearn something that you have learned early in life. And what we've tend to have learned is that we start on page one and we go forward. If you're a pantser, meaning somebody who writes by the seat of your pants. You get an idea and you start on page one, you write forward. If you're a plotter, okay you know you need to know something, you're going to get a story structure book. You're still going to start on page one and now you've got a plot. And the process doesn't begin there. It begins much before and the other problem besides the fact that we've all heard that that's the way to write, what we really need to dig into is something that's often referred to as backstory. And backstory often can have a negative connotation out there in the writing world. Don't give us a lot of backstory. Use it sparingly. It just means don't do it poorly, because as we're going to discuss now, backstory is the most fundamental layer of the novel that you're writing and it is laced into every single page you write. So first let's talk about the steps that we are going to go through. Here's what we are going to do. We're going to start with the What If. And again, if this is in medias res, the What If straddles that. It begins with that first blush of an idea that you've got. You want to go forward, but we're going to ask, "Okay, but why is that going to matter?" What is the story going to be? Once we do that our next step and it pays not to think of these necessarily as steps, but as layers that you are going to be digging into. Each step gives you just enough information that you can start then digging into the next layer and the next layer and the next layer. So we're going to start with the What If and then we're going to ask the Who. Who's your protagonist? Who's story is it? And as you can see, this is in medias res like right here. We're going backwards so over here we're going to ask who's your protagonist before your novel starts. Once we know that we're going to go to Why. And that goes to why is what you're thinking might happen, it doesn't have a plot yet, but you've got a basic idea. Why is what's going to happen in the plot. Why is that going to matter to your protagonist? What are they going to enter wanting? What is that misbelief going to be? Once we know that we need to dig even deeper, because the goal is to go from the general, from the abstract from the conceptual down to the very very very specific and that's going to take us down into the worldview. And that is to be very clear, your protagonist's story specific world view. And when we do that we're going to go all the way back to what I call their origin scene. And that is that moment we were talking about a minute ago in the prior lesson about when that misbelief actually came into being. I'm going to write that scene. That's as far back as we have to go now. Now we're going to start going forward and then we're going to talk about the turning point scenes in other words events in your protagonist's life in which that misbelief was challenged, when they might have doubled down on it. When they might've picked up supporting misbeliefs that then bring a story specifically up until this in medias res and what tends to happen is by that time your plot has already begun to auto populate as we'll see in a minute. Once we've done that we're going to come up and we're going to be right here we're right here now we're right here and this is at in medias res but as opposed to going to page one we're then going to talk about your plot problem. What is that story question? Plot problem is going to go forward, because a story is to be very clear a story is about one problem that grows, escalates and complicates from beginning to end. It's actually started way before but we're talking about from page one. It's going to grow, escalate and complicate from beginning to end and you've got to be sure you have a problem that's capable of doing that. Once we've done that then we're going to, we're right here and now we're going to talk about where does your novel open? What is that opening scene? Where is it going to begin? And then what you need to get into that opening scene. What the opening scene actually does. We're going to bust quite a few myths when we get to this point. Once we've done that, now we're going to, I gotta come over here so I can leap. If I leap over there I'll leap out of frame. Okay now I can leap. Then we're going to leap to the ultimate aha moment which is what you've been building toward all the way through. Because scene by scene by scene by scene your protagonist's misbelief is going to be challenged. The ultimate aha moment is the moment where suddenly your protagonist is going to see their misbelief for what it is. Wrong. And so we're going to talk about, or not wrong, I admit there are novels where the whole point is that no matter how bad it is they never see it. But this is still this moment we're expected to happen and it doesn't. So we're going to talk about the ultimate aha moment. At that point now you're going to have the basis of everything that you're going to be able to write going forward along with a method to, when you hit places where you're not really sure, still be pinging into the past. Because you will be going into backstory and creating backstory all the way through in draft after draft after draft. And that's what we're going to talk about in the Where to go from here. So I won't just leave you, you'll have a method by which you can go forward. But let's talk a little bit, because as you can see a lot of these deal with backstory, deal with creating the story that you're going to be creating. Backstory is the most fundamental layer of the story that you are going to be creating, because backstory is the source of all story logic. It is what not only creates the lenses through which your protagonist sees everything once they step onto the page, the meaning that they read into it, but it also creates the balls in play and the things that your protagonist is going to be dealing with once they get to page one. As Faulkner so brilliantly said, "The past isn't dead, it isn't even past." and I hit on this hard because it's easy to want to just start writing and thinking, "Well this is just research." "I want to just really get to page one." How is this actually even going to be in my novel? Maybe it will be maybe it won't. That is not true. It will be in. Recently I had a client who said to me, "You know you say this all the time" "and I thought I would test it." "I wanted to test it." She said, "So I started to read Jillian Flynn's first novel." Jillian Flynn of course is who wrote Gone Girl. And her first novel is called Sharp Objects. And she said, "I took a highlighter" "and I decided I was going to highlight everything" "that is backstory internality" "everything that you talk about." She says, "I'm halfway through the book right now" "and I have highlit 60 that's six zero percent of the book." This will be laced in to every single page that you write. In fact when we talked about how does a writer create that sense of reality you feel like you're walking around in? This is how they do it. That's exactly how they do it. Because your story is not about what your protagonist does. We don't come for the what, we come for the why. And the answer to why anybody does anything ever always lies in the past. So what I'd like to do right now, just to kind of make this point and this will go forward is I'd like to do a exercise. You don't need to write anything down right now. You're just going to be thinking this. What I'd like you to do now is to imagine the next year of your life starting tomorrow. You guys at home do this as well. Imagine the next year of your life, starting tomorrow morning so if you've got that in medias res thing like tonight is that line in between and tomorrow morning is the first page of the next year of your life. And then you're going to go for a year. Now think about that year. Think about all of the things that you are working on that might come to fruition in that year. All of the projects you're working on, the things that matter to you. There are probably things that you really are hoping will happen. That you are really working toward that matter to you. Now think about the things you don't want to have happen. What is that scary thing that you're afraid might happen instead? And you're probably working toward that as well. Now think about your family. Your husband or wife or significant other or children or dog or siblings or boss or school or landlord and how all of that then fits in. Now all of that sprang from over here. Meaning on the other side of the line. And it's not just those things that are going to be happening, it's also how you feel about it. The meaning that you're reading into that that really matters. It's like you might have a daughter who's dating some guy and you think, "Oh my God please don't let her marry him." "Please please please let's, I love her," "but please let it go wrong," "because he is just the wrong guy." But there might be somebody else in that exact same situation with those exact two same kids that's going, "Oh God he's so perfect just don't" "let her screw this one up please." Because the meaning we read in comes from our past and none of us are going to wake up tomorrow morning with balls in play that we didn't know about. No one is going to wake up tomorrow morning and go, "Wow I'm graduating from medical school in June." "Who knew?" "I didn't even know I was in medical school." All of that came from over here. The reason why you're in medical school, what you've done, what it's cost you came from over here. The balls you have in play in this next year all started over here. The same thing is true of your protagonist. When you shove them on the page all of that has happened and if you develop this as I say, the plot begins to auto populate. Because this is how we work as humans in terms of how we process information. The lenses through which we evaluate everything. It's funny I had a client about a year ago who wrote me an email she said, "Oh my gosh I was just reading a review" "of a nonfiction book in the New York Times" "it's called Why Time Flies." She said, "And they pulled out a quote that's exactly what" "you're always talking about." And the quote was this, "neuroscientists interpret the brain as a time machine" "whose core mechanism is to collect past memories" "in order to predict the future." That is what we do. If you shove a protagonist onto the page without this lenses what do they have to predict the future based on? Nothing. What future? I don't know. What do they want? I don't know. This is the most fundamental element of life and it is the most fundamental element of story. And the reason I'm hitting on this hard is because I really want to say, "This is not pre-writing." "It will be laced into every page" "beginning on the first page." And I've said that probably three times and I want to say it again 10 more times. Because here's what's going to happen to you when you get out there. You've probably told a lot of people that you're a writer and you're writing something and they're civilians so they have no clue about how this process works. So in about a month they're going to go, "Did you finish that book yet?" "I heard of it like NaNoWriMo," "you're done right?" And you are not going to want to go, "I'm not even at page one yet." So instead what you want to say is, "I've written about 50 pages." "I've written a hundred pages." "Yeah I've got." They don't know what the page number is. They don't know that officially you're not on page one yet. So that's what you want to do. You've got to get that into your bones more than anything. A writer's struggle with that almost more than anything on that level so take a deep breath and let's dive into the process.