Episode 2.3 - Plop
Updated: Jun 17
This week, we “plop” you right into the episode without giving you any backstory. This is a concept that writers refer to as “in media res”.
Ted starts this episode by referencing a picture in which the whole gang, plus Ted’s parents, all look happy. “Wrong.” The picture unfreezes and you get rapid-fire insults from Lily and Marshall who say they hate each other (!) Ted and Barney are threatening to kill someone, and Robin is arguing with Ted’s mother and Ted’s mother ends up hitting a waitress on accident, sending plates crashing to the ground.
This is a really simple example of “in media res”. In media res is a concept in storytelling in which you start your story in the middle of the action. Think of any James Bond movie: it starts in either a high-action or a high-stakes scene. Bond is stopping terrorists! He’s fighting with a thief on top of a high-speed train! There’s a dude in the trunk! If you didn’t know who or what Bond is, these scenes wouldn’t make any sense, but because you know what to expect from a Bond story, you’re okay, and you enjoy the high-stakes/high-action opening, even though you don’t really know what’s happening. Then the credits run, the blood drips down the screen, blocking out Bond’s silhouette, and the story starts again. They either slow down and explain what happened, or they rewind and bring you up to speed.
That’s what this episode does: It starts in a really exciting place, with death threats and crashing dishes and the world’s cutest couple hissing their hatred for each other.
Ted backs up and tells the audience he flew his parents out for their anniversary and his parents refuse to discuss difficult things. Lily is there, picking up some of her stuff. Ted’s mom invites Lily to dinner with them all and Lily hesitates because she doesn’t want it to be awkward but Marshall insists that they’re more like brother and sister and he’s fine.
Lily shows up at the restaurant wearing a very sexy, slinky dress and she’s deliberately messing with Marshall. It works and Marshall decides to mess with her, too, by showing off his calves. Marshall shows up at brunch and seduces Lily with his calves and it WORKS. They go have sex in the bathroom and then fight about it.
The waitress takes their picture, letting the audience know that we’re now all caught up, back where we started.
If the show had opened on the scene of Lily coming to get her stuff… fine. It’s not a bad opening, especially since we know that she and Marshall are going through a breakup. But it’s not as hooky as the anger-filled brunch catastrophe. This is the first reason we do this in media res thing: the real start to the story is boring and won’t capture your audience’s attention.
But let’s pause there, because now we’re gonna back up again and tell the audience why Barney and Ted are pissed.
(Ted’s “list” of what talks with his dad about it one of my favorite jokes)
Barney and Robin are both meeting Ted’s parents for the first time, and Barney thinks this is about him, and not about Robin. Barney is being a real suck up but is also being shockingly charming at dinner, the same dinner where Lily is messing with Marshall. Barney and Ted’s dad end up going out for a “few cervezas” (said in a very white-guy accent).
Barney goes over to Ted’s the next morning and tells Ted the story of Barney and Ted’s dad at the bar, hitting on Wendy the waitress, where Ted’s dad is being Barney’s wingman. Barney leaves the bar and comes back, and Ted’s dad is making out with Wendy the waitress. Barney is mad that he got rack-jacked and Ted is, understandably, upset that his dad is cheating.
Dad shows up, Ted asks to talk to him, they step outside, Ted asks “did you have fun with Barney?” and then they talk about baseball. At brunch, Ted admits to Barney that he couldn’t confront his dad. The waitress takes the picture, and we’re caught back up again.
Again, starting with Robin and Barney being nervous about meeting Ted’s parents is a perfectly okay spot to start a story. It would reframe the story as being about Robin, though, which this episode isn’t. This is the second reason we do this in media res thing: the real start to your story would be misleading about the tone, theme, or other major aspects of the story.
Let’s pause there, because now we’re gonna back up and tell the audience why Robin is pissed.
This time, we got back an extra couple minutes and see Ted warning Robin that his mother will pressure them to have babies. At dinner, she brings up Ted’s cousin who has a bunch of kids, but then she asks Robin about her career instead.
The next morning, Robin is hurt by it. “Good to know I’m the one girlfriend who your mom doesn’t think would give you good babies.” Robin gets up to go breathe in the bathroom, Ted’s mom follows her and Robin confronts her, “Why don’t you want me to have your grandkids?” She rants a bit, and then Virginia admits that getting married young and having kids early was a mistake, but the camera cuts away before Virginia can finish explaining why it’s a mistake.
Back at the table, the waitress takes the picture, and we’re all caught up once again.
Ted confronts his dad and forces him to admit to hooking up with Wendy the waitress last night and Virginia isn’t upset at all, but then she pretends to be mad. Robin knows what’s up and she pushes them to admit … they’re divorced. Ted’s parents got divorced nine months earlier and had been separated for two years before then, and this all ties back into their habit of not talking about anything serious.
Ted leaves, Robin and his parents follow. Barney gets up to get an omelet, leaving Marshall and Lily alone to have their heart-to-heart and they decide to keep some distance because it’s too hard.
Outside, Ted, Robin, and Ted’s parents start having a “real” conversation. “I never told you how I met your mother? Great story! At a bar!” Ted says he’ll tell his kids the whole damn story. They admit that dad is a romantic, and Virginia is pragmatic. He wanted kids, she didn’t. She didn’t want to date him at first, but he pursued her relentlessly. Ted realizes what this means, but Robin misses the point.
In media res comes with some pitfalls.
The Twilight novels start with an action prologue, a way to grab the audience’s attention. The prologues are pulled from the climax of the novel, then Bella backs up and tells the whole story. The pitfall here is that it can be confusing, and the audience might not be sure where it belongs.
The Game of Thrones novels do the same thing, but do it a little better. Yes, the snow-ghosts don’t really come back until book three, but the setup for the story is too boring. Martin knew better and knew that he needed to hook the audience before diving into the politics of a dreary world.
Probably the most notable example of this is the Star Wars franchise. The first movie released is the fourth chapter in a six-part story. Harry Potter sort of does it: If the story is about Voldemort’s downfall, then we started at the blackest moment. Books 2, 3, and 6 all are about Voldemort’s backstory, not Harry’s. The entire MCU does it, too. We start with Iron Man, a full 60+ years after the Avengers Initiative got started; Tony Stark was a more compelling character for non-comic book fans, thus hooking a new, much more lucrative audience. Quentin Tarantino and Christopher Nolan both love this trick. Like. Maybe too much.
National Treasure is another good example - they start with Nicholas Cage being betrayed, giving you a clear villain. If you had started with Nicholas Cage trying to steal the Declaration of Independence, you would think he was a villainous sort. If it had started with his family history, you’d think it was a multigenerational drama. Instead, you know that this is part revenge, part heist, and part patriotic duty.
So to sum up there are a few reasons why you should start in media res:
To avoid a boring start
To avoid a confusing start
To avoid a misleading start, either in tone or in plot
There are a few pitfalls to watch out for:
Without any context, your in media res start can be very confusing
Your audience needs to know exactly when this moment is occurring (this episode does it really well, the first Twilight book does not bring that prologue moment back around properly)
Starting in media res might be a sign that your story is broken; if you have to skip “to the good part” for anyone to enjoy it, maybe you should just … start at the good part?
And a few things to keep in mind in order to be successful:
Give your audience enough context to understand what they’re jumping into. Season 2, episode 3 is a safe place to start skipping the setup, because your audience has seen at least a handful of episodes to understand these characters. James Bond can jump right in because everyone knows what James Bond is all about.
Make sure your start point matches your story tonally. Twilight did do this part well, as the action prologue was dark, mysterious, romantic, and a little violent. The opening to Bella’s story is none of those things, but the entire series relies on those themes and tones. The prologue is all about Bella’s self-sacrificing nature, and the actual start of the story is her sacrificing her comfort for her mother’s happiness, so tonally it transitions well.
Be very clear about the insertion point. This episode used the click of the camera and the picture being taken as the point where we constantly paused and regrouped. There was no confusion about when a flashback ended and another story began.
Don’t use this unnecessarily. Maverick is a good example of this; Maverick is being hanged in the desert and immediately says, “well, I bet you’re wondering how I got here” and … no? Not really? Because we know nothing about you, dude. And then the story backs up and has a perfectly plotted story in which you did not need to know that a hanging was in the future to be interested in it. A gambler is gonna get into trouble in the Wild West. We didn’t need to see the trouble to understand that.
The irony here, of course, is that Ted is doing basically the exact opposite of in media res. He’s starting this story eight years before he actually meets the mother.
Writing Prompt: These both came from https://writing-prompt-s.tumblr.com/ . Pick one, and write the story that leads up to this moment.
You made it to the semi-finals of a nationwide elite wizardry competition. The crowd loves you, and the esteemed judges regarded you as the dark horse of the competition, with your unorthodox approach. There’s just one problem; You don’t know how to use magic. You never did. Link.
You and your significant other are running for your lives from a slasher killer. Suddenly your partner ducks into a door and locks it behind them leaving you behind. You slump against the door preparing for the worst. The killer walks up and says “Wow what a jerk. You ok?” Link.