Cutting the first chapter – Trollope’s comments

The kidlit world seems abuzz with this idea of cutting out exposition and lunging straight into the action on page one. The Latin term for this is “In Media Res.”

I know that only because last night, I stumbled across Trollope’s take on it.* It’s good reading and I asked him if he’d let me reprint it here. He said, “Sure, Sam, have at it! And don’t forget to send me that Stonewall Hinkleman ARC. I can’t wait to read it.”

“In Medias Res”
    Perhaps the method of rushing at once “in
medias res” is, of all the ways of beginning a
story, or a separate branch of a story, the least
objectionable. The reader is made to think that the
gold lies so near the surface that he will be
required to take very little trouble in digging for
it. And the writer is enabled,–at any rate for a
time, and till his neck has become, as it were,
warm to the collar,–to throw off from him the
difficulties and dangers, the tedium and prolixity,
of description. This rushing “in medias res” has
doubtless the charm of ease. “Certainly, when I
threw her from the garret window to the stony
pavement below, I did not anticipate that she would
fall so far without injury to life or limb.” When a
story has been begun after this fashion, without
any prelude, without description of the garret or
of the pavement, or of the lady thrown, or of the
speaker, a great amount of trouble seems to have
been saved. The mind of the reader fills up the
blanks,–if erroneously, still satisfactorily. He
knows, at least, that the heroine has encountered a
terrible danger, and has escaped from it with
almost incredible good fortune; that the demon of
the piece is a bold demon, not ashamed to speak of
his own iniquity, and that the heroine and the
demon are so far united that they have been in a
garret together. But there is the drawback on the
system,–that it is almost impossible to avoid the
necessity of doing, sooner or later, that which
would naturally be done at first. It answers,
perhaps, for half-a-dozen chapters;–and to carry
the reader pleasantly for half-a-dozen chapters is
a great matter!–but after that a certain nebulous
darkness gradually seems to envelope the characters
and the incidents. “Is all this going on in the
country, or is it in town,–or perhaps in the
Colonies? How old was she? Was she tall? Is she
fair? Is she heroine-like in her form and gait?
And, after all, how high was the garret window?” I
have always found that the details would insist on
being told at last, and that by rushing “in medias
res” I was simply presenting the cart before the
horse. But as readers like the cart the best, I
will do it once again,–trying it only for a branch
of my story,–and will endeavour to let as little
as possible of the horse be seen afterwards. 

Trollope then starts his side-story, with several apologies about showing too much horse. It’s good stuff, but don’t grab this book, “The Duke’s Children,” which is the last of a long epic. Start at the beginning with “The Warden” or “Barchester Towers.”

* Stephen King has taken a potshot at Trollope before, but the two men have several things in common. They write very long books and they like to write about writing. King put his thoughts on writing into a book called On Writing and made another billion dollars. But Trollope just slaps his musings right into the middle of a novel. He’s deconstructing even as he constructs! What a guy!


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