in media res :: in the middle of things
May 29, 2015
It’s a literary technique. If you’re a reader, you don’t need to think about it. Just scroll down to the excerpt, and enjoy! If you’re a writer, you need to know this stuff. The amazing author and teacher Rita Gallagher (yep, the namesake of the RITA Award) advised writers to start in the middle, retrieve the past and drive toward the future. Why does it work? Think of it as going to a party full of strangers. You spot someone who intrigues you…maybe you feel a spark of attraction. You get to know him right here, right now, in the middle of things. If the attraction deepens, then you ask him about himself–what brought him here? Where’s he from? What is important to him? What does he dream about, fear, hope for…? You get the idea. Something hooks you in, and you want to go forward.
Now apply those principles to the opening of a novel. Begin in media res. That’s a fancy phrase for starting in the middle of things. The example below, from Summer by the Sea, illustrates the technique. We meet Rosa, seeing the scene from her point of view. This is all we know of her at this point.
Some writing teachers also call this a misdirection hook. The reader assumes the next beat of the story is heading one way, but in fact it goes in a less-expected direction. Maybe. You be the judge. Happy writing!
Rosa Capoletti knew that tonight was the night. Jason As-poll was going to pop the question. The setting was perfect—a starlit summer evening, an elegant seaside restaurant, the sounds of crystal and silver gently clinking over quiet murmurs of conversation. At Jason’s request, the Friday night trio was playing "Lovetown," and a few dreamy couples swayed to the nostalgic melody.
Candlelight flickered over their half-empty champagne flutes, illuminating Jason’s endearingly nervous face. He was sweating a little, and his eyes darted with barely suppressed trepidation. Rosa could tell he wanted to get this right.
She knew he was wondering, Should I reach across the table? Go down on one knee, or is that too hokey?
Go for it, Jason, she wanted to urge him. Nothing’s too hokey when it’s true love.
She also knew the ring lay nestled in a black velvet box, concealed in the inner pocket of his dinner jacket, right next to his racing heart.
Come on, Jason, she thought. Don’t be afraid.
And then, just as she was starting to worry that he’d chickened out, he did it. He went down on one knee.
A few nearby diners shifted in their chairs to look on fondly. Rosa held her breath while his hand stole inside his jacket.
The music swelled. He took the box from his pocket and she saw his mouth form the words: Will you marry me?
He held out the ring box, opening the hinged lid to reveal the precious offering. His hand shook a little. He still didn’t know for sure if she would have him.
Silly man, thought Rosa. Didn’t he know the answer would be—
"Table seven sent back the risotto," said Leo, the headwaiter, holding a thick china bowl in front of Rosa.
"Leo, for crying out loud," she said, craning her neck to see past him. "Can’t you tell I’m busy here?" She pushed him aside in time to watch her best friend, Linda Lipschitz, stand up from the table and fling her arms around Jason.
"Yes," Linda said, although from across the dining room Rosa had to read her lips. "Yes, absolutely."
Atta girl, thought Rosa, her eyes misting.
Leo followed her gaze to the embracing couple. "Sweet," he said. "Now what about my risotto?"
"Take it back to the kitchen," Rosa said. "I knew the mango chutney was a bad idea, anyway, and you can tell Butch I said so." She let Leo deal with it as she walked across the dining room. Linda was wreathed in smiles and tears. Jason looked positively blissful and, perhaps, weak with relief.
"Rosa, you won’t believe what just happened," Linda said.
Rosa dabbed at her eyes. "I think I can guess."
Linda held out her hand, showing off a glittering marquise-cut diamond in a gold cathedral setting.
"Oh, honey." Rosa hugged Linda and gave Jason a kiss on the cheek. "Congratulations, you two," she said. "I’m so happy for you."
She’d helped Jason pick out the ring, told him Linda’s size, selected the music and menu, ordered Linda’s favorite flowers for the table. They’d set the scene in every possible way. Rosa was good at things like this—creating events around the most special moments in people’s lives.
Other people’s lives.
Linda was babbling, already making plans. "We’ll drive over to see Jason’s folks on Sunday, and then get everyone together to set a date—"
"Slow down, my friend," Rosa said with a laugh. "How about you dance with your fiancé?"
Linda turned to Jason, her eyes shining. "My fiancé. God, I love the sound of that."
Rosa gave the couple a gentle shove toward the dance floor. As he pulled Linda into his arms, Jason looked over her shoulder and mouthed a thank-you to Rosa. She waved, dabbed at her eyes again and headed for the kitchen. Back to work.
She was smiling as she crossed the nonskid mat and entered the kitchen through the swinging doors. Quiet elegance gave way to controlled chaos. Glaring lights and flaming grills illuminated the crush of prep workers, line cooks and the sous-chef hurrying back and forth between stainless steel counters. Waiters tapped their feet, checking orders before stepping through the soundproofed doors that protected the serenity of the dining room from male shouts and clattering dishes.
The revved-up energy of the kitchen was fueled by testosterone, but Rosa knew how to hold her own here. She walked through a gauntlet of aproned men with huge knives or vats of boiling water, pivoting around each other in their nightly ballet. A stream from a hose roared against the dishwashing sink, and hot drafts from the Imperial grill licked like dragon’s breath at precisely 1010°F.
"Wait," she said as a prep worker passed by with a plated steak that had been liberally sprinkled with tripepper confetti.
"What?" The worker, a recent hire from Newport, paused at the counter.
"We don’t garnish the steaks here."
"This is premium meat, our signature cut. Serve it without the garnish."
"I’ll remember that," he said, and set the plate on the counter for a server to pick up.
She planted herself in front of him. "Go back and replate the steak, please. No garnish."
Rosa glared at him with fire in her eyes. Don’t back down, she cautioned herself. Don’t blink.
"You got it," he said, scowling as he returned to the prep area.
"Well?" asked Lorenzo "Butch" Buchello, whose fresh Italian cuisine was drawing in patrons from as far away as New York and Boston.
"Yep." Rosa grinned and selected a serrated knife from the array affixed to a steel grid on the wall. "Went down on one knee and everything."
Neither of them stopped working as they chatted. He was coordinating dessert while she arranged fluffy white peasant bread in a basket.
"Good for them," said Butch.
"They’re really in love," Rosa said. "I got all choked up watching them."
"Ever the incurable romantic," Butch said, piping chocolate ganache around the profiteroles.
"Ha, there’s a cure for it," Shelly Warren cut in, whisking behind them to pick up her order. "It’s called marriage," Rosa said.
Shelly gave her a high-five. She had been married for ten years and claimed that her night job waiting tables was an escape from endless hours of watching the Golf Channel until her eyes glazed over.
"Hey, don’t knock it till you’ve tried it, Rosa," said Butch. "In fact, what about that guy you were dating—Dean what’s his name?"
"Oh, actually, he did want to get married," she explained. Butch’s eyes lit up. "Hey! Well, there you go—"
"Just not to me."
His face fell. "I’m sorry. I didn’t know."
"It’s all right. He joins a long and venerable line of suitors who didn’t suit."
"I’m starting to see a pattern here," Butch said. He took a wire whisk to a bowl of custard and Marsala, creating an order of his famous zabaglione. "You run them off and then say they didn’t suit."
She finished up with the bread baskets. "Not tonight, Butch. This is Linda’s moment. Send them a tiramisu and your congratulations, okay?"
She headed back to the dining room and went over to the podium, which faced the main entrance. It was a perfect Friday night at Celesta’s-by-the-Sea. All the tables in the multilevel dining room were oriented toward the view of the endless sea, and were set with fresh flowers, crisp linens, good china and flatware.
This was the sort of scene she used to dream about back when the place was a run-down pizza joint. Couples danced to the smooth beat of a soft blues number, the drummer’s muted cymbals shimmering with a sensual resonance. Out on the deck, people stood listening to the waves and looking at the stars. For the past three years running, Celesta’s had been voted "Best Place to Propose" by Coast magazine, and tonight was a perfect example of the reason for its charm—sea breezes, sand and surf, a natural backdrop for the award-winning dining room.
"Did you cry?" asked Vince, the host, stepping up beside her. They’d known each other since childhood—she, Vince and Linda. They’d gone through school together, inseparable. Now he was the best-looking maitre d’ in South County. He was tall and slender, flawlessly groomed in an Armani suit and Gucci shoes. Rimless glasses highlighted his darkly lashed eyes.
"Of course I cried," Rosa said. "Didn’t you?"
"Maybe," he admitted with a fond smile in Linda’s direction. "A little. I love seeing her so happy."
"Yeah. Me, too."
"So that’s two of us down, one to go," he said. She rolled her eyes. "Not you, too."
"Butch has already been at you?"
"What do you two do, lie awake at night discussing my love life?"
"No, sweetie. Your lack of one."
"Give me a break, okay?" She spoke through a smile as a party of four left the restaurant. She and Vince had perfected the art of bickering while appearing utterly congenial.
"Please come again," Vince said, his expression so warm that the two women did a double-take. Glancing down at the computer screen discreetly set beneath the surface of the podium, he checked the status of their tab. "Three bottles of Antinori."
Rosa gave a blissful sigh. "Sometimes I love this job."
"You always love this job. Too much, if you ask me."
"You’re not my analyst, Vince."
"Ringrazi il cielo," he muttered. "You couldn’t pay me enough."
"Kidding," he assured her. "Good night, folks," he said to a departing threesome. "Thanks so much for coming."
Rosa surveyed her domain with a powerful but weary pride. Celesta’s-by-the-Sea was the place people came to fall in love. It was also Rosa’s own emotional landscape; it structured her days and weeks and years. She had poured all her energy into the restaurant, creating a place where people marked the most important events of their lives—engagements, graduations, bar mitzvahs, anniversaries, promotions. They came to escape the rush and rigors of everyday life, never knowing that each subtle detail of the place, from the custom alabaster lampshades to the imported chenille chair covers, had been contrived to create an air of luxury and comfort, just for them.
Rosa knew such attention to detail, along with Butch’s incomparable cuisine, had elevated her restaurant to one of the best in the county, perhaps in the entire state. The focal point of the place was a hammered steel bar, its edges fluted like waves. The bar, which she’d commissioned from a local artisan, was backed by a sheet of blue glass lit from below. At its center was a nautilus seashell, the light flickering over and through the whorls and chambers. People seemed drawn to its mysterious iridescence, and often asked where it came from, and if it was real. Rosa knew the answer, but she never told.
She checked the time on the screen without being obvious. None of the servers wore watches and there was no clock in sight. People relaxing here shouldn’t notice the passing of time. But the small computer screen indicated 10:00 p.m. She didn’t expect too much more business, except perhaps in the bar.
She could tell, with a sweep of her gaze, that tonight’s till would be sky-high. "I’m so glad summer’s here," she said to Vince.
"You know, for normal people, summer means vacation time. For us, it means our lives belong to Celesta’s."
"This is normal." Hard work had never bothered Rosa. Outside the restaurant there was not much to her life, and she had convinced herself that she liked it that way. She had Pop, of course, who at sixty-five was as independent as ever, accusing her of fussing over him. Her brother Robert was in the navy, currently stationed with his family overseas. Her other brother, Sal, was also in the navy, a Catholic priest serving as chaplain. Her father and brothers, nieces and nephews, were her family.
But Celesta’s was her life.
She stole a glance at Jason and Linda, and fancied she could actually see stars in their eyes. Sometimes, when Rosa looked at the happy couples holding hands across the tables in her restaurant, she felt a bittersweet ache. And then she always pretended, even to herself, that it didn’t matter.
"I give you two months off every year," she pointed out to Vince.
"Yeah, January and February."
"Best time of year in Miami," she reminded him. "Or are you and Butch ready to give up your condo there?"
"All right, all right. I get your point. I wouldn’t have it any other—"
The sound of car doors slamming interrupted them. Rosa sent another discreet look at the slanted computer screen under the podium. Ten-fifteen.
She stepped back while Vince put on his trademark smile. "So much for making an early night of it." The comment slipped between his teeth, while his expression indicated he’d been waiting all his life for the next group of patrons.
Rosa recognized them instantly. Not by name, of course. The summer crowds at the shore were too huge for that.
No, she recognized them because they were a "type." Summer people. The women exuded patrician poise and beauty. The tallest one wore her perfectly straight golden-blond hair caught, seemingly without artifice, in a thin band. Her couture clothes—a slim black skirt, silk blouse and narrow kid leather flats—had a subtle elegance. Her two friends were stylish clones of her, with uniformly sleek hair, pale makeup, sleeves artfully rolled back just so. They pulled off the look as only those to the manor born could.
Rosa and Vince had grown up sharing their summers with people like this. To the seasonal visitors, the locals existed for the sole purpose of serving those who belonged to the venerable old houses along the pristine, unspoiled shore just as their forebears had done a century before. They were the ones whose charity galas were covered by Town & Country magazine, whose weddings were announced in the New York Times. They were the ones who never thought about what life was like for the maid who changed their sheets, the fisherman who brought in the day’s catch, the cleaners who ironed their Sea Isle cotton shirts.
Vince nudged her behind the podium. "Yachty. They practically scream Bailey’s Beach."
Rosa had to admit, the women would not look out of place at the exclusive private beach at the end of Newport’s cliff walk. "Be nice," she cautioned him.
"I was born nice."
The door opened and three men joined the women. Rosa offered the usual smile of greeting. Then her heart skipped a beat as her gaze fell upon a tall, sandy-haired man. No, it couldn’t be, she told herself. She hoped—prayed—it was a trick of the light. But it wasn’t, and her expression froze as recognition chilled her to the bone.
Big deal, she thought, trying not to hyperventilate. She was bound to run into him sooner or later.
"Uh-oh," Vince muttered, assuming a stance that was now more protective than welcoming. "Here come the Montagues."
Rosa struggled against panic, but she was losing the battle. You’re a grown woman, she reminded herself. You’re totally in control.
That was a lie. In the blink of an eye, she was eighteen again, aching and desperate over the boy who’d broken her heart.
"I’ll tell them we’re closed," Vince said.
"You’ll do nothing of the sort," Rosa hissed at him.
"I’ll beat the crap out of him."
"You’ll offer them a table, and make it a good one." Straightening her shoulders, Rosa looked across the room and locked eyes with a man she hadn’t seen in ten years, a man she hoped she would never see again.