In Medias Res: Malcolm Gladwell’s Cure for Writer’s Block
When you don’t just start at the beginning, your life gets so much simpler
Here’s something I never knew: There’s a Latin term for beginning something in the middle or towards the end. “Something,” in this case, is defined as a story, chapter, novel, video game, etc.
If you’re thinking this is a pretty poor start to an article, hear me out…
This is how Shakespeare told the narrative of Hamlet and how Homer described the story of The Odyssey. It dates back to 13 BC, right before Rome started doing crazy things like filling the colosseum with water for mock sea battles.
It’s been around for an unfathomable length of time, yet we don’t have a contemporary term for it.
It is “in medias res” and it translates as “into the middle of things.”
It’s a strategy for telling a compelling story but it can also be used to write that story.
Malcolm Gladwell’s Writer’s Block Strategy
Once you don’t just start at the beginning, your life gets so much simpler.
What is it about starting a story at the beginning that creates more pressure, doubt, and procrastination?
Well, you’re not just telling the reader the story — you’re telling it to yourself. Trying to connect an entire story from start, middle, and end in one shot is a bigger challenge than it needs to be.
Stephen King’s writing advice is to write the first time for yourself and write the second time for your readers.
The first time you’re writing a story, chapter, article, email, etc, you’re connecting the dots for yourself. You’re figuring out how your intro ties into the body of your piece, and why your CTA is the most obvious next action for the reader.
It’s a story that you’re putting on the page, as it tells itself to you.
This is why starting at the beginning is so hard.
When we start our stories at the beginning, we try to hit the bullseye with one shot taken 20 feet from the target.
But if you start your story from the middle it’s like trying to hit the bullseye with that same shot 10 feet away from the target. You’re where the action is happening. Everything the reader came for is unfolding right there.
After you’ve told that part of the story, you can reverse engineer yourself to the beginning. You’ve already hit the bullseye, now you’re just making yourself look better while you’re doing it. You’re adding the necessary foundation, the Easter eggs, and the hook that entices the reader to know more.
And there’s much less pressure.
Tim Ferriss used the in media res strategy to write all of his books (The 4-Hour Workweek, The Four-Body, The 4-Hour Chef, Tribe of Mentors, and Tools of Titans). The 4-Hour Workweek was on the New York Times Best Seller list for more than four years.
This writing strategy has been around for millennia — who am I to question it?
Using In Media Res In Real Life
The key to succeeding in your in media res writing strategy is to ensure you’re following the next three steps. If you don’t—you’ll mess this up big time.
- Sit down
- Open laptop or notebook
- Start writing
This is the beauty of in media res. As a full-time writer, I constantly get Instagram DMs from people asking me how I come up with my writing topics. The number of new writers that get stuck and never end up writing anything is a little painful to think about.
It’s even more painful when you realize that they don’t always have writer’s block—sometimes they’re just starting their story in the wrong place.
If you find yourself struggling through writer’s block, stop trying to start your story from the beginning. Start from the middle or closer to the end. Write the body of your article and then go back and fill in the introduction.
Try in media res and see if the story was waiting to be told — you just weren’t starting from the right place.