In Medias Res & Iceberg Theory — A-to-Z Blog Challenge, Literary Terms

IComing close to the end of the second week and we are now on I. You would think this letter would have been a challenge, but surprisingly, there are many literary terms beginning with “i”.

Today we’ll be looking at In Medias Res and Iceberg Theory. Don’t fret if you haven’t heard these term, I didn’t until I looked these up. They are important terms to know and how they relate to each other is equally important.

As always, please post below, let me know how I am doing and what you are getting out of this.


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In Medias Res

In medias res actually takes us back to our first article on Ab ovo. Ab ovo was from the beginning of a narrative, before the conflict happened that grips the protagonist and the antagonist locked into the story. So In medias res is almost the opposite of Ab ovo.

In medias res is Latin for “in the midst of things”. It basically means that we start the story from the middle of the narrative, generally with an dramatic action. Now it doesn’t have to be with a dramatic action right away, but it is generally good to start a story off like that to hook your readers in. All that is important is where we are in the overall conflict of the story.

In medias res often enables for the use of flashbacks and nonlinear narrative. You don’t always have to do that, but it is a nice option to help tell your story. As mentioned before, it is a good technique to throw the reader right into the action, getting people right in the middle of something, often skipping over introductions. This can be highly effective, but also dangerous to do. The concern, if done poorly, not knowing who is who or who or why this action sequence is happening. It leaves the reader with the feeling of, “why should I care?”

Farscape had an introduction like this. After traveling through a wormhole and killing someone on the other side, he boards a ship where everyone is speaking a different language. Like John Crichton, we don’t know what this battle is about or who we should be rooting for.


This can be done well, but you need to be mindful that Characterization suffers when you do this and you need to find a way to sneak it in there so we know who is who, who we are rooting for, and what is at stake here. Failure to do at least one of those will lead to a reader not wanting to read as they have to draw out a map to figure out who is doing what.

There are 3 basic approaches to In media res. In traditional narrative, there is a clear beginning, middle and end.

The first method of In medias res is starting the narrative in the middle for a chapter or two, then go to the beginning of the narrative for the first half of of the book, then continuation of the middle, followed by the end.

You see this method a lot in TV shows, where they try to build suspense of the show by showing us something from middle of the story that looks a bit suspicious, then we go back 96 hours to the beginning. This is a method overused. Often times used to add a shock value that can be easily seen through. If you do it, make sure that it is not so easily seen through and that when we get there, there will be a shock. This is also called, “How We Got Here”.

A good example of this was the first Iron Man film, where we see him riding in a Humvee right before he is attacked, then we flash back to 36 hours earlier until we catch up to that point.


The second method is when we start in the middle, then jump back to the beginning of the narrative, and continue to jump between the two over and over again until the end of the story. This method makes use of flash forward.

An example of this would be the film Forest Gump. But it is weak because the middle of the story really wasn’t moving forward unlike the beginning of the story. A better example would be Best Defense. I can’t believe I recall this movie, but it was about two different time, apart by 6 years, about an engineer designing a tank and a person driving the same tank. The story goes back and forth between the two storylines to add tension and comedy.


The last method is perhaps the best known, which is where a story starts in the middle of a narrative and continues on until the end. The best example of this is Star Wars Episode IV. We open up to a battle scene of a small ship racing across the screen.


In medias res is generally a good technique to do, unlike Ab ovo that we start at the beginning of everything, introducing the characters and world before the conflict starts. Good In medias res jumps us in the action while explaining the characters to us and immersing us in the world.

Be aware that In medias res only applies to the story contained in a single book or movie. So a prequel movie doesn’t make the first movie In medias res. While Star Wars Episode IV is considered In medias res because we start in the middle of the narrative, it not because of it being Chapter 4 of a sage with prequel films.


Also, just because the story has an external analepsis, don’t mean it is In medias res either.

Iceberg Theory

It appears that Hemingway has found himself back into my A-to-Z Challenge. I’m not even a big fan of his, but here we are.

Next we have Iceberg Theory, developed by Hemingway when he transformed from Journalist to short-story writer. It is also known as Theory of Omission.

The basic concept to this is only showing what is above the water in a story. While you might understand the whole iceberg, the readers would only ever see the top. Having an understanding of the whole iceberg helps the writer in many ways, in that how you write scenes and character will show from this. Also, it is important to know the whole iceberg when you need to shorten your story, knowing what to leave in and knowing what to take out.

How do we accomplish that? By being simple and direct. However, leaving clues about something more going on. If done well, the reader understands it as if the writer stated it.

A good example of this was the ending of the film Serenity, in which Mal and Zoe speak to each other:

Capt. Malcolm Reynolds: You think she’ll hold together?
Zoë: She’s torn up plenty, but she’ll fly true.
Capt. Malcolm Reynolds: Could be bumpy.
Zoë: Always is.

zoe and mal

A quick pass by, they are talking about the ship, but on careful inspection, they are talking about her and how Zoe is holding up. Here we don’t need a long drawn out conversation about what is going on, we sum it up in a few lines of dialogue.

This theory (really should be a principal) takes out as much as it can and will often let the reader interpret what is going on.

In Medias Res & Iceberg Theory

The common element here is fluff. Why start a story from the middle of the narrative? Why omit anything from a story? Again, fluff.

Sometimes fluff is nice to have, but often times it slows a story down. We start the story in the middle of the narrative because we want to avoid all the fluff of introducing the world and the characters and the background. Not to say that we don’t still have to do that, but starting with it is like moving through thick mud. Whereas, doing an action sequence and dropping in snippets of information about the world and the characters, can help us avoid all the fluff to keep the story moving.

With Iceberg Theory, this is all about removing as much fluff as we can and focus on just the key elements of a story. While many may not adopt this style (me being included), there is much that we can learn on this principle. Knowing what to omit and what not to can build a stronger story for us as writers.

Removing fluff is more important for short stories than novels, but it is also important there that if someone derails us, we should consider taking it away.

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  1. In Media Res is new to me, but I’m glad to have learned of it because now I can put a name to it whenever a TV show starts off with an action scene and then: “36 hours earlier…” You’re right, it is overused.

    I chuckled with the common element of the two being fluff. Sounds cute and snuggly. I suppose I’m a proponent of the iceberg theory. I try to keep only the elements in the story that need to be there. This can either be a good thing or a bad thing, depending on one’s preferences.

    • mad_cat says:

      In Medias Res is new to me as well, but once I read it, i instantly knew that I’ve seen a bajillion times.

      For me, Iceberg Theory has it’s place where narrative pace is concerned.

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