In literature classes, you’ve probably heard the Latin phrase, in media res, which means, in the middle of things. Novels, stories, and dramas, we’re taught, began in the middle of things, meaning that crucial things happened before the story’s start and the reader is entering in an in-process, unresolved state. Often, these things are alluded to during the course of the story, and they can be essential in advancing story plot and developing character and creating the illusion that the reader has entered upon a fully realized world.
In writing, it’s easy to fall into the trap of starting a story before it should start. I’ve written longer stories where I’ve realized the story doesn’t truly start until page five, and the first four pages can be, painfully, cut out. Maybe your antihero’s tale needs to start when the cops are chasing him after the bank robbery, not the day before when he’s planning it. Perhaps your protagonist’s story starts at his mother’s funeral, not when she was diagnosed with cancer six months before.
Switching to pop culture, Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace is, to me, a good example of something where the beginning of the story needs cutting. While Qui-Gon Jinn and Darth Maul were cool characters, I could care less about Anakin Skywalker at 9 years old. It doesn’t help that the Jedi as characters are boring. Qui-Gon is interesting because he’s a rebel Jedi and all hideous looking evil guys holding glowing swords are inherently interesting, but Yoda, Mace Windu, and Obi-Wan Kenobi (at this point) are sleep inducers.
Anyway, Anakin when he’s older is interesting because he’s the chosen one and he’s struggling with the conflict of good and evil. But since Anakin is, in essence, what all six movies are about, he needs to be interesting from the get go in Episode I. Forget all this 9 year old child’s play and fast forward him to his late teen years.
Lucas has some unconventional built-in back story going into these prequel movies—the future. We know what becomes of Anakin, Obi-Wan, and the Jedis and galaxy itself. But the linear storyline needs something more. Sure, there are plenty of things that have already happened, but are any of them critical? The first film in 1977 was so successful and mesmerizing largely because of it starting firmly in media res. The opening words show “Episode IV,” which instantly puts you there, right where you need to be.