About two thousand years ago the Roman poet Horace was writing a long critical paper in verse that he titled the Ars Poetica. One of the questions he asked in the Ars Poetica was: What’s the best place to start a story? The obvious place, of course, is the beginning and this is what Horace called the ab ovo (out of the egg) approach. But is it the best place to start? Horace thought not. Better, he said, if you jump right into the middle of things, literally in medias res, the way the Greek poet Homer did seven hundred years before in his epic poem the Iliad. Instead of explaining how the Trojan War began with Paris stealing Helen and the Greeks retaliating by sending their forces to storm the city of Troy and take Helen back, Homer puts us right in the tent of Achilles, the Greek general, outside the city towards the end of the ten-year battle. Homer flashes back, he flashes forward, and the story unfolds from that point.
Homer, as we will see, started his tale from the second act turning point, and this proved to be a very durable tactic, because storytellers have been using it ever since. That doesn’t necessarily mean it’s wrong to start at the beginning. Lots of works do. One of the differences between autobiographies and memoirs is that autobiographies start ab ovo at the beginning of a life—I can think of many fine ones that do, from Thomas Merton’s The Seven Storey Mountain to Vladimir Nabokov’s Speak, Memory. Memoirs, on the other hand, focus on just a portion; they take up the life up in medias res.
Now for us writers, the middle of a story or the middle of a life can be a very big place when you decide that’s where you’re going to start. And here I think the rules of dramatic writing, which place such an exaggerated premium on structure, can be very helpful not just to screenwriters and playwrights but to fiction writers, memoirists and personal essayists as well. Dramatic writing as we’ve inherited it in Western culture rests on the principal of the three-act or five-act division of action. (This we also got from the ancient Greeks, their great playwrights Sophocles and Aeschylus via Aristotle, and it remains the model for all the movies and plays you’ve ever seen.)
Let’s stick with the three-act structure for now. Using that model, the middle of things is the second act. Now the second act is famous for being a morass in which even the best dramatic writers get stuck. Things happen in the first act that get resolved in the third act but, oy! what happens in between? Well, the hook that pulls the story out of the swamp is commonly known as the second act turning point: it’s the moment right after things have gotten so absolutely rock bottom hopeless for the main character that she/he/they must either change or go down the tubes—and then this incredible thing happens, this transformation that leads to the character’s rebirth at the start of the third act that enables her/him/them to take the action needed to resolve the situation (or, if it’s a tragedy, to well and truly sink the ship).
Still, even with that big turn looming ahead, the second act remains a no man’s land where it’s very easy to lose your way. To solve this problem, various screenwriters invoked the spirit of Homer and came up with a a truly inspired idea: What if you moved the second act turning point and the dire moments directly before it to the very beginning? In other words, start the whole damn story in the middle and work it out from there?
The screenwriter and critic Linda Aranson had shown very cleverly how a number of movies put the second act turning point at the beginning of the film to very good effect. Her big example is the movie Shine, screenplay by Jan Sardi—who’s seen that?—which opens with the main character, played by Geoffrey Rush, at his very lowest ebb: a tormented former child piano prodigy dominated by a ruthless father who’s suffered a debilitating mental breakdown, can’t play anymore and is now homeless. He’s loitering outside a bar in the pouring rain—how low can you go? Finally something makes him come into the bar, where he’s befriended, plays a note or two on the house piano, and meets the woman who becomes his wife and supports his triumphant return to the concert stage.
I’m currently adapting for the screen the classic 1938 thriller Rogue Male, by the English author Geoffrey Household, about an aristocratic Brit who decides to hunt an unnamed dictator (clearly Hitler) “for sport.” He’s caught, cruelly tortured, escapes back to England and goes to earth in the Dorset countryside, where he’s ruthlessly stalked in turn by a Nazi hunter.
Rogue Male is related in a dirt-smeared journal the protagonist’s lawyer receives in the mail. It’s clear, from the first sentence, that it’s written not day by day but in two parts: from the perspective of the moment right before the second act turning point, then everything after that. I found myself sorely tempted to open my screenplay at that exact moment, when the hero is trapped in his airless underground burrow cradling the corpse of his only friend, a feral cat the Nazi killed and shoved down the air hole.
I chose instead to begin ab ovo with the story’s hidden inciting incident: the hero reads a short article in the newspaper, the paper down, packs his bags and rifle, and heads for Germany. Of course he is not hunting Hitler for sport, but that’s the excuse this emotionally repressed Englishman prefers to give others—and more crucially to himself. Not until he’s dying in his burrow like an animal does his Nazi pursuer prod him into realizing he did it in a fury of rage and grief at the murder of his lover by the SS. Once he has that moment of illumination–the second act turning point–the hero is ready for his rebirth: to rise triumphantly from the filth of his hole to defeat his enemy and go back to Germany to finish what he started. This is also exactly where the other shoe drops for the audience. When we learn for the first time what that article actually said (it’s the lover’s death notice), we say, Oh! That’s where it all started. If I had tinkered with the chronological time sequence, that moment of joint revelation—ours and the hero’s– would have been lost.
Which brings me, finally, from art to life. We’re all in medias res in our lives as well as in specific situations in our lives, aren’t we? Forget Fitzgerald’s dictum about there being no second acts in American lives. I put to you that we’re all in our second acts right now–and I wish you all that magic moment, event, person that sends you hurtling from stasis and stagnation to your rebirth.