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Lost in Medias Res

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"This story opens with Norse gods fighting hillbillies in a space R.V. and fuck you if you can't keep up. If they made a movie version of Thor in The Ding-A-Ling Family, it would take 70 or 80 minutes to get to where we already are in one panel and critics would still complain about the density of the script."

Sometimes, writers can be a bit too eager.

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We begin In Medias Res. We're in the middle of a fight scene, or some other action-packed sequence, and we have no idea whose side we're supposed to be on or even what they're so worked up about in the first place. No pausing to explain who's who and what's what... but that's fine. You've dealt with In Media Res stories before, so you know the writer will give you the means to figure out just what is going on any second now. Yep, we'll get some hints, a flashback, or some exposition that'll tell us How We Got Here. Any second now...

Okay, we may have a problem here.

Possibly stemming from the writer attempting to avoid including too much exposition in the opening, but unfortunately forgetting that there's a lot of room between 'too much exposition' and 'no exposition at all', Lost in Medias Res is when the reader is left with the sense that the beginning of the work is just plain missing. Characterisation usually suffers from this most. Perhaps the story has Loads and Loads of Characters, and they've all been named within the first five minutes with no time taken to "flesh out" or even caricature their personalities and roles. This can be lethal to a work if many of the characters look similar to each other and Color-Coded Characters isn't employed. If you've introduced Character With Long Dark Hair #1, Character With Long Dark Hair #2, and Character With Long Dark Hair #3 in a fight sequence without telling us anything about their background, personality, or allegiance, then you will find that we can't tell the three of them apart when they reappear twenty pages or one episode later. People are often disinclined to continue when they have to spend ten minutes working out just who is speaking and why they should care.

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Of course, that isn't the only way this trope can show up. Sometimes the work does have a relatively small cast of characters, but it feels as though the creator is skipping past important moments of character and plot development in order to get to the big set pieces they're interesting in telling. This can lead to characters making statements about the new level of danger that a situation has brought and how they now need to get stronger and be more serious than ever... while the audience is left scratching their heads due to having no frame of reference for what actually counts as a bad or unusual situation in this world, how the abilities of the main characters measured up compared to others to begin with, or even what motivates them to care so much about this particular problem. Heck, in a worse case scenario, the creator may deliver what they consider to be The Reveal or some other big, story altering event, but the audience doesn't notice (or care) because not enough information or time was given to establish or get used to what the work's Status Quo even was, much less that it was just changed.

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Falling afoul of this can turn a perfectly lovely Plan or game of Xanatos Speed Chess into a Mind Screw: what good is your ability to see through Bob's complicated plan if you cannot remember which character is Bob or know why Bob is even doing what they're doing?

Slow-Paced Beginning is the other extreme, where there is too much exposition.


Examples:

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    Anime and Manga 
  • This criticism has been levelled at Doki Doki School Hours, especially in comparison to the more widely recognised Azumanga Daioh. While Azumanga began by giving the viewer short segments to establish a small, core set of personalities, Doki Doki begins with a group of students finding their diminutive teacher lost in a crowd of first-year students. The characters already know each other, so no exposition is given. Instead, eyecatches of each student are used as "personality profiles" (breaking the rule of "show, don't tell" to which most writers adhere). This, in combination with a much larger cast, means that it takes time to memorise which personality belongs to which student, even if the characters are arguably more visually distinct than those of Azumanga Daioh.
  • Azumanga Daioh itself suffers from this a little, at first (and only in the manga). Not because it fails to introduce characters properly, but because the art style is very simple and a large number of characters are visually non-distinct. There are at least four characters with straight, loose, short-to-medium length black hair in identical school uniforms (Tomo, Chihiro, Kaorin and Osaka) and little obvious other than hairstyle to distinguish the characters. Colour-coded hair is not employed.
  • Boy Princess is a story of gender bending and cross dressing set in a world of complex political intrigue...so it's a pity the writer doesn't take the time to fully "set up" this political intrigue before starting the story, instead seeming to make it up as the plot moves along. In addition, the characters are visually similar to each other (even people on opposing sides look alike) and personalities aren't clearly defined at the start, making it nearly impossible to keep track of the hero, let alone anyone else...as if the disguises didn't make it difficult to keep track of who's who anyway.
  • This is the main problem with the Saikano anime. It would have been far better had they not sped through the plot at mach 12, and stretched it to 26 episodes or so instead. It's still an effective Tear Jerker, but not nearly as good as the manga.
  • The Fate/stay night: Unlimited Blade Works movie adaptation cuts out the exposition so much that only those who have played the route in the game has a hope of understanding it.
  • Ikki Tousen starts out without this problem, but as soon as Volume Two starts, the plot takes off and doesn't let you come with. Thankfully, every volume opens with a character guide.
  • The anime adaptation of Wandering Son suffers from this trope, since the part adapted starts from the middle of the story. By this point, everyone knows everyone else and have built complicated relationships, which aren't easy to define even for people who have read the manga from the beginning.
  • The movie version of Berserk, being a Compressed Adaptation, falls victim to this. The main character's painfully tragic backstory is portrayed only as a short series of disjointed flashbacks, making his attitude problem in the early episodes a bit of a mystery to new viewers. Much of the political subplot is cut, downplaying themes of classism and social injustice that make up a large part of the antagonist's motivation, and the members of the Hawks other than the main three are not developed, making the Downer Ending of the third movie less poignant.
  • BlazBlue: Alter Memory tends to leave important things out, such as what Ars Magus and the Nox Nictores are, as well as Terumi establishing a lifelink with Noel, which is why Ragna didn't kill him near the end. It also has a habit of forgetting characters beside a few main characters, despite the game giving each character their own story to explain their background and actions during the time the game takes place.
  • Right off the bat, Fairy Gone drops Loads and Loads of Characters belonging to several competing factions with only the bare minimum of context to make any sense of their motivations. Let's just say that the immersion suffers a little bit.
  • Fire Force moves really quickly, giving the sense that major plot moments are simply happening without the proper build-up or establishing of a current Status Quo. For example, Infernals were introduced as people who are mindless shells of their former selves in the first episode... only for the idea of Infernals capable of conscious thought to be quickly introduced in the second episode. Before the audience can begin to even digest that knowledge, they're hit by the appearance of a fully cognizant one in episode four.

    Comic Books 
  • All-Star Batman & Robin, the Boy Wonder suffers from this, to the point where figuring out the series's timeline is nigh-impossible.
    • A highlight is the portion where one of two things happened: either the police gave up on finding Dick Grayson, put his picture on a milk carton, printed and distributed that milk carton to stores, and Superman went on a shopping trip all in under 12 hours, or it took 6 weeks or more for Batman to drive back to his hideout.
  • A complaint about the first issue of All-New Wolverine is that it begins with Wolverinenote  in Paris in the midst of trying to stop an assassination, with no context for who she was protecting, why they were a target, or who the assassin was. It's not until the second issue that these details start getting filled in.

    Fanfiction 
  • A common complaint in the FF.net reviews is that Knowledge Is Power is hard to pick up, with the actual fact of what's happened not becoming clear until the end of Chapter 3.

    Film 
  • About the film Elizabeth (starring Cate Blanchett), a critic wrote that we can't tell "which conspirators are on which side, or even who is a conspirator."
  • This is one of the reasons that Primer is so confusing. What's unique in this case is that you don't even learn the movie started In Medias Res until a ways into the movie (assuming you realize that at all the first time you watch it), and you're probably already lost by then.
  • A Man Called Hero suffers from this in the movie version. The story actually starts more or less in the beginning, but because it's a Generational Saga, it has flashbacks from Hero's son Sword asking various people about his father. Even given all the facts, it seems like the story is missing details.
  • Hornets' Nest suffers from this. It's chock full of characters with different motivations, including factions within factions, but the viewer is just dropped into the middle of their lives. Some of the plot (Turner wanting to blow up the dam, the kids wanting revenge for their town) is self-explanatory and discussed up front. Other elements, such as von Hecht's hatred of the SS and the hunter's code he lives by, Aldo's attitude towards his friends and his antagonistic with Scarpi, what Gunther is doing hanging around von Hecht's headquarters, etc. are there, but presented without explanation or discussion and so the audience is left to deduce a lot of the "hows," "whos" and "whys" for themselves. Michael Avallone's Novelization clears a lot of it up, though.
  • The Phantom Menace rushes through its setup so quickly that it doesn't take time to properly establish fundamental story points so the viewer can understand whats at stake, such as why the Trade Federation are blockading and invading Naboo other than the opening crawl implying its solely out of greed (not helping is that we don't or barely even see the effects both are having on the planets population) and why they would recklessly risk their entire organization by going along with Darth Sidious's oblique plans without any guarantee of a concrete reward. Making matters worse is that the tie-in material used to elaborate on these more oblique story elements (such as the novelization) are now considered non-canon by Disney.
  • A couple of plot points in The Force Awakens are quickly glossed over, like the Republic fighting the First Order through the Resistance, without explaining why the Republic itself can’t fight the First Order in a direct war. Another example is how the First Order, which the opening crawl states was formed from the ashes of the Galactic Empire, got the resources to convert an entire planet into a massive battle station. Why the Resistance calls itself the Resistance when they are not battling the government of their home country is never explained. Nothing important is learned about the man who gave Poe the map to Luke Skywalker. The lack of explanations for these story elements can make some audience members feel like a whole movie was skipped over.

    Literature 
  • If you can make it past the first hundred pages of Game of Kings in the Lymond Chronicles without giving up in confusion, you might possibly survive until the end. It's possible to make it through to the third book of six without understanding the first thing about what's going on - it's an excellent read anyway.
  • Robert Adams Horseclans series suffers horribly from this in combination with Loads and Loads of Characters, further complicated by the fact that a lot of those characters have names that are fairly similar (the Ehlenee names are particularly bad), and by the fact that the series stretches over a timespan of decades, so genealogies sometimes come into play as well. You need an excellent head for names — or a scorecard — to keep track.
  • Steven Erikson claims to have done this deliberately in the foreword for recent editions of Gardens of the Moon (the first book in the Malazan Book of the Fallen series), in order to weed out readers without enough patience to enjoy the series.
  • Jacek Dukaj's style includes 1) very elaborate and exotic Worldbuilding and 2) as little and as late Exposition as possible, instead leaving it up to the reader to figure things out from context. This means that some of his more involved stories can be very confusing until about halfway through, and even then you might still not fully grasp everything.

    Live-Action TV 
  • Power Rangers Samurai suffers from this, due to Nickelodeon skipping the origin episodes. Additionally, it is the first Power Rangers season to do so, as previous seasons start properly with the origin.
  • While the first season of the Game of Thrones TV series eventually gets around to explaining who everyone is and what they're doing, the first episode includes scenes like three young, shirtless, dark-haired men getting shaves and haircuts (i.e., removing their only remaining distinguishing features). Little details like their names and the fact that one of them is a prisoner of war from another family aren't mentioned. If you can manage to tell the three apart, you'll notice that only one of them actually does anything for several episodes.
  • Invoked in Farscape. Our hero John Crichton is a regular guy from Earth who gets sucked through a wormhole and ends up in the middle of a huge battle involving numerous alien species, and spends the next several minutes just as confused as we are.
  • Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency revels in throwing a hodgepodge of nonsense at you from minute one and gradually explaining it through the season.
  • Secret Army has an insanely large cast of characters in its first episode, with over thirty roles, making it hard to tell who fulfills what role. Stranded airmen are introduced then immediately captured and never seen again. Characters who will reappear in later episodes are given one establishing scene then disappear, while others drift in and out. It's only very near the end, a group of Lifeline members seen separately earlier in the episode appear together, that we get an idea who the protagonist are: Until that point, it almost seemed like the series was going to be about Anti-Villain German Major Brandt, who was the most consistently seen character. There's also a subplot about an RAF officer being sent to help Lifeline, with an odd punchline of him apparently being a traitor that gets immediately dropped in the next episode.

    Video Games 
  • X-Men 2: Clone Wars for the Sega Genesis is notorious for dropping the player into the game's first level (with a random character) as soon at the game is turned on. You don't even see the Title Screen until you finish it. This was probably a failed attempt at translating a cold opening to gaming.
  • Final Fantasy XIII somehow manages to combine this trope with an exceptionally Slow-Paced Beginning. A lot of the story takes place in the two week time-frame before the game itself actually begins, and is told intermittently through flashbacks from multiple points of view and in an Anachronic Order. The characters repeatedly use words like "l'Cie", "fal'Cie", "cocoon", "sanctum", and "focus" without any exposition to explain exactly what they're referring to, much less what their backstories and motivations are in the first place. The only way to quickly catch up with what's going on is to read the datalogs in the menu, which are several dozen pages long. Most notably, the main instigating event in the story, the part that puts the entire rest of the plot into motion - Serah becoming branded as a l’Cie - is never actually shown. While many players are able to enjoy the story regardless, others find the experience so alienating that they give up on trying to follow the story and characters altogether.
  • Ride to Hell: Retribution starts with the protagonist driving his bike, interspersed with scenes of him engaging in a turret sequence in the woods, having a fistfight in front of a waterfall, and jumping over a helicopter on said bike. The first two scenes are never explained or reappear again, and the third has little relevance in the storyline.
  • Surprisingly enough, killer7 manages to be a purposeful and effective example of this. The first target, Angel, drops the player into a mission labeled "Assignment 33". There's basically no introduction to any of the numerous playable characters and allies (and there never will be), but this ends up working its favor because the chapter itself is much lighter on plot than the rest of the game, forcing the player to get acclimated to both the characterization and gameplay functions of all of the game's recurring characters. By the time you get to its ending, both how to play and the core concept of the story has been stealthily introduced to you while leaving you in the same state of confusion that the rest of the game will.

    Webcomics 
  • Nine out of every ten readers have no idea what's going on in Xawu. Of the remaining ten percent, most are people the creator knows and has described the story in great detail to.
  • In Homestuck the author loves to start new sections in medias res and it may not be clear how (or even if) they relate to the larger story for some time.

    Web Original 
  • One of Mr. Plinkett's criticisms of The Phantom Menace is that the film rushes through its setup so quickly that it doesn't even take time to properly establish fundamental story points to give an audience a clear understanding of whats at stake, such as why the Trade Federation are invading Naboo and are risking their entire organization by going along with Darth Sidious's oblique plans. He also scoffs at how the film lazily over-relied on tie-in materials to explain these story gaps.
    "The point is I’m still not sure what the doughnut ships were there to do. And don’t any of you f***s tell me that it was explained more in the novelization of some Star Wars book. What matters is the movie. I ain’t never read one of them Star Wars books, or any books in general for that matter, and I ain’t about to start."

    Western Animation 
  • Adventure Time starts us off in a world full of candy people and magic with a human boy hero and his shapeshifting dog friend (who is also his brother) and we are supposed to just go with it. It is not until long after the series starts are we given context for any of it, revealing that it is set After the End when humanity nearly destroyed itself in nuclear war.
  • The first few episodes of Code Lyoko explain virtually nothing about the premise. What is Lyoko? Who are the characters? How do they know each other, or how long have they? Who or what is Aelita? Who or what is XANA and why is he evil? Why can the characters go onto Lyoko? How do they know how to do the things they know how to do? How did they find out about the computer and Lyoko? Why is the computer stashed under an abandoned factory? How long has it been there and who put it there? It isn't until later that any of these questions are addressed.
  • Gormiti: The Lords of Nature Return never explains how everything began. You watch the first episode, and everything is already set in stone: Two brothers and their friends are informed by a talking lizard that evil lava men are doing stuff on Gorm Island that is changing the climate on Earth, so they all go inside the secret temple/library hidden inside their basement, where the dimensional portal sorts one of them to stay at home and control the operations while the other 3 go to Gorm, transform into elemental warriors and fight the lava men. Pamphlets found inside the toys explain that Razzle (the lizard) is a dinosaur who got the ability to speak and his knowledge of Gorm by a wizard who once lived on Gorm in order to find the new Lords of Nature after the old ones where all sucked in a dimensional rift, and comics give you a further explanation, but the latter were released only in Italy, Greece and a few other European countries.
  • Steven Universe is about a boy who is supposed to be a Crystal Gem because his mom gave up her physical form to have him. There are monsters roaming about, strange impossible technology and architecture left in ruins, Garnet, Amethyst and Pearl are the only three of these "gems" we see and none of the humans besides Steven seem to find any of it weird. It isn't until much later in Season One (which clocks in at forty-nine episodes) is any of this explained, and even then we are only given tidbits in-between filler episodes in all five seasons of the series.
  • In the first episode of The Wild Thornberrys, Eliza Speaks Fluent Animal for unknown reasons, and she has an adopted Wild Child brother. These are briefly explained in the Opening Narration, but they're not discussed in detail for several seasons, when we get a Whole Episode Flashback about the former and a TV movie about the latter.

Alternative Title(s): Hold Your Horses

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