What Killed it For Me #6: Action Too Early

thumbs downIt’s likely that we’ve all encountered these stories—the ones that open with an explosion, plague, car chase, alien abduction, fist fight, or other volatile scene involving a main character that we know virtually nothing about. I get why authors do this. It makes sense that starting the story with a bang would engage readers and suck them right in. But most of the time, the opposite happens for me: I end up confused and uninterested. And here’s why: To care about what’s happening to the character, I have to first care about the character.

To care about a hero, readers need to know what he wants and what’s at stake if he doesn’t get it. They’ve also got to respond to him emotionally on a certain level if they’re going to empathize with him and his circumstances. Readers need to have a feel for this stuff before the main character gets thrown into the arena or accused of espionage. If the cart comes before the horse here, it’s highly likely that readers won’t engage and may not continue reading.

So how do we avoid this problem in our own writing?

1. Don’t start with the main action. We need to see the character in her real world before the main conflict arises. This provides contrast, pitting the old safe-but-somehow-unsatisfactory world against the crazy new one. It also gives us a chance to get to know the hero before her world is turned upside down. So if your story is about people surviving an ebola outbreak, don’t open with the hero’s mother bleeding from the eyes. If it’s about a woman living in the aftermath of divorce, don’t open with her husband leaving her. Give readers a chance to care about the hero before the main conflict arises, and readers will be more inclined to stick around to see what happens to her.

2. Avoid gimmicky opening action sequences. I made this mistake in one of my first novels. My book opened with the main character running through a field, breathing heavily and casting frantic looks over her shoulder. Readers assumed she was being chased, and she was. But when it turned out she was just playing hide-and-seek, they were not amused. The opening came across as contrived, which is fitting, since that’s exactly what it was. Readers are smart. They know when they’re being deceived or manhandled, and like anyone with any sense, they don’t like it at all. (This is one of the reasons why opening dream sequences rarely work.)

The thing is, enthralling stories that suck readers in don’t have to start with action. Look at The Hunger Games. Talk about action-packed—yet, it opens with the main character waking up. Collins could have opened her book at half-a-dozen later points in the story, and there would have been a lot more going on. But those openings wouldn’t have worked, imo, because they weren’t the right place to start her story. And that brings us to something super important that you have to do…

3. Start your story in the right place. Somebody famous (I forgot to write down the attribution and now I can’t remember who. Sorry, anonymous writer mentor person!)  said that you should start your story just before the protagonist’s life intersects with the antagonist’s agenda. The Hunger Games is a great example. President Snow’s agenda is to strengthen his control over the people of Panem via the hunger games. Katniss has been to the reaping a number of times, but because her name hasn’t been called, her life hasn’t yet intersected with Snow’s agenda. That doesn’t happen until Prim’s name is picked. Had Collins started the story after that, the opening would have been jarring and probably confusing for readers. Had she started much earlier than she did, the opening would have dragged.

All of that being said, books in certain genres—thrillers and detective stories, for example—are more likely to start things off with a bang, and readers tend to respond favorably. But whatever the genre, finding the right starting point is critically important in engaging readers early. (See Kristen Lamb’s post on this topic). Locate that magical point where the antagonist’s agenda intersects with the hero’s life. Open your story just before that collision, and you’ll likely be starting in a spot that will resonate with readers.

Thumbs Down Image: Geralt @ Pixabay

 

About BECCA PUGLISI

Becca Puglisi is an international speaker, writing coach, and bestselling author of The Emotion Thesaurus and its sequels. Her books are available in five languages, are sourced by US universities, and are used by novelists, screenwriters, editors, and psychologists around the world. She is passionate about learning and sharing her knowledge with others through her Writers Helping Writers blog and via One Stop For Writers—a powerhouse online library created to help writers elevate their storytelling. You can find Becca online at both of these spots, as well as on Facebook and Twitter.

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30 Responses to What Killed it For Me #6: Action Too Early

  1. Pingback: Books I Didn’t Finish, AKA, What Killed it For Me – WRITERS HELPING WRITERS™ | !nk+Engineer

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  4. Leslie Watts says:

    I will carry this line with me forever: “start your story just before the protagonist’s life intersects with the antagonist’s agenda.” Thank you!

  5. The problem here is that the advice everyone is quoting is actually being interpreted incorrectly. “Open with a bang” does not mean open with an explosion, or a kidnapping, or a death-defying leap from a cliff. It means, “open with something that immediately arrests and engages your reader.”

    What shape this will take depends, to some degree, on the genre. As others have said, some genres seem fine with the “imminent danger happening to people I don’t care about” opening. While others expect a bit more empathy to be developed before all the life and limb threatening comes into it.

    But if you put your mind to it, you should be able to come up with something that’s just damned curious, regardless of what genre you’re working in. Consider this opening line: “There was something unusual about the man lying face down in the puddle.” See, an opening like that immediately engages a reader’s internal question-asker.

    And that’s all the hook you need to pull them into the rest of the paragraph.

    • Erik Samdahl says:

      Well said. Opening with a bang simply means hooking the reader with something interesting; it doesn’t have to be physical action.

      That being said I like to have someone die in my first chapters… 😉

  6. I think we, or at least I, try to “open with a bang” because everything I’ve read has been exactly this advice. But, I do understand what this post is explaining. I’ll have to go back and check my opening now! Thanks for the post!

  7. Heyya Becca! *waves* I have been soul searching my inner self to decide where to start my adventure novel and this post plops into my inbox. I guess you know I made my decision to stick with my beginning as written and not begin with the storm and the horse throwing a character and racing away because of the storm. THANKS SO MUCH! This could NOT have been timelier. YaY YOU!

    • Yay! I’m so glad the post helped. Beginnings suck, lol. I may be able to verbalize this stuff, but applying it is something else. Best of luck with your opening :).

  8. Angela Watt says:

    Enjoyed reading this post and definitely food for thought. Must come back and read some of your earlier posts to pick up some other tips.

  9. LD Masterson says:

    As a reader, I think of this as “Why should I care?” If I haven’t had a chance to connect with a character before all the bad stuff starts happening, it won’t matter to me, and I’ll stop reading. Something I try to be very aware of when I’m writing.

  10. :Donna Marie says:

    Great stuff, as usual, Becca 🙂 Funny you should mention your “hide and seek” scene. I actually did a very similar thing when I wrote a novel a while back. That one’s never going to see the light of day, but when I had several people read it, I got similar reactions to the “you tricked me!” kind of thing. I’ve since realized it’s not good to start out with that much tension, then “pop the balloon.”

    And I really love “start your story just before the protagonist’s life intersects with the antagonist’s agenda.” Great way to explain, concisely, the way to think! 😀 Thanks!

  11. Kessie Carroll says:

    In media res is okay for thrillers, as other people have mentioned. But it annoys me in fantasy or YA. Battle scenes annoy me in particular. I need a page or two to figure out what world this is–don’t hit me with the heavy stuff!

    I think Diana Wynne Jones is the master of this. Howl’s Moving Castle begins with, “In the land of Ingary, where such things as seven-league boots and cloaks of invisibility exist, it is quite a misfortune to be born the eldest of three. Everyone knows you are the one who will fail first, and worst, if the three of you set out to seek your fortunes. Sophie Hatter was the eldest of three sisters …”

    Bam, three sentences, world, conflict, and main character. I hope one day I write as well as Jones. 🙂

  12. Julie Musil says:

    Excellent advice. I’m reading Divergent now (finally!) and Veronica Roth also did a great job with this. With my current ms, I’ve cut out the first chapter and re-written the opening three times. Getting the opening just right is tough but so worth it.

  13. Marcia says:

    Great post. This is such a hard balance, because we’re told we must hook readers, yet if we throw too much at them at once they’re confused. Finding the right beginning can take lots of revision. I think a good question to ask to guide your beginning is “How can I get the reader to start rooting for my MC?”

  14. Rosi says:

    Great tips as usual. I think a lot of new writers (like ME!) keep hearing that writers only have a sentence or two to hook an agent or editor. When we go to conferences, they can submit the first 250 words for critique. It’s hard to think you don’t have to open with that big bang. This is a very useful post. Thanks.

  15. Kate says:

    Thank you for this. I have tried to explain this to authors across the board. I don’t care how well written your action sequence is, if I’m not familiar with your main character than I don’t care about potential danger that they MIGHT be in.
    And frankly, we all know that they aren’t in any real danger because it’s the first page of the first chapter.
    Batman can open with a fight. We all know and care about Batman, but he’s about the only one who can.

  16. C. Lee McKenzie says:

    I liked how you set out when to start your story. That makes more sense than most of the How To Help I’ve read.

    Great post, Angela.

  17. AshRonin says:

    It’s really hard to choose that starting point. People always say to not do this or not do that. It needs to be engaging enough to keep interest and the writing in the rest of the book needs to be engaging enough to keep readers coming back.

    Dream sequences and action sequences are often two that people are told to stay away from, however, a very successful paranormal series, Vampire Academy, starts out that way.

    it starts with a dream sequence about a car crash, there is a brief moment of lull, then the two teens are being chased down by vampires trying to capture them in the first chapter!

    Some things work and others don’t. Keep re-writing until you find something that does and take every piece of advice with a grain of salt!

  18. I appreciate this helpful post. I read early on from one of my favorite ‘how to’ books’ on writing that the reader has to care about the character before the car wreck has any meaning. Where to start the story a perplexing decision? We have all learned that rewriting the first chapter is often necessary after finishing the novel. I have the bad habit of having to get things RIGHT along the way or I can’t proceed. I have at least four beginnings written for a second novel I’m working on all in an attempt to start in the right place. I join all of you with the determination to get it right!

  19. Paula Cappa says:

    Your points are well taken, but your point number one, “don’t start with the main action” isn’t really fair. In medias res begins a story in the middle of the conflict/action and can be very effective if done well. Of course character thrust is critical to that opening action. I see it more as a three-pronged opening, threat/character/movement. Sometimes stories evolve this way, that is, through the character fully experiencing the conflict/action. Can be very exciting to write and read.

    • Well, I would argue that ‘in medias res’ is defined as “into the middle of things”, and while this can definitely be in the middle of the story conflict, I’m not sure it’s supposed to be in the middle of an action sequence. This phrase is kind of ambiguous, though, and the beauty of writing is that there’s some leeway as to how we writers can interpret these things. As I mentioned in an earlier comment, there are definitely certain genres where audiences are more open to this kind of beginning; I’ll add a note to the post to reflect this, since it’s an important point. Thanks for chiming in!

  20. I did this with the wip I’m rewriting but then realized I needed to go back, earlier in the day, and show his world before he gets slammed into the nightmare his life will become. I’ve had some people disagree that I should start with the action/horror, but I feel this is the right start for the book because we get to know him before the horror takes place. I know a lot of horror books open with a flight scene but that’s usually with a character that gets dispatched right away. I wanted to begin with my protagonist and so I feel this is the best opening for him.

  21. Great blog. I agree with showing the character’s normal first. Thanks.

  22. S. J. Dunn says:

    Becca, I think you’re right that readers of certain genres almost expect some of the common tropes, including starting with action or even throwaway characters, etc., but I’m not sure that using such tropes is going to help the author to become a better writer, even though they may be accepted by readers.

    I won’t read those books unless the prose or voice of the writer really appeals to me. Or, as in one novel that started with an action scene, the author made me care about the outcome, not because I cared about the character, but because I cared about the character’s goal…and that’s about all I knew about that character, but it was enough for me.

    Now, if some readers don’t give a damn about the character’s goal because it’s not interesting/important/controversial/unusual/whatever, those readers are less likely to read more.

    Winning a battle or escaping danger aren’t enough for me, even though they’re definitely goals…and many newbies don’t even make the character’s goal clear. They’re just not interesting enough for me when I’m not vested in the character.

    I guess I’m saying that a character’s goal can grab a reader, i.e., another way to “save” an action opening from making me yawn.

  23. Mark Henwick says:

    Interesting article, thank you.
    Your ‘right starting point’ is certainly how I produced my first draft for my first book, Sleight of Hand. I had my MC, Amber, sitting in her office and meeting the client whose case provides the structure for the whole novel. This is the absolutely classic PI opening, and I guessed it would work for a paranormal PI as well. However, my editor and beta-readers persuaded me to move the clock back to the night before, taking a drug-smuggling bust out of backstory and creating an action opening scene. It is harder to make the reader care about the dangers faced by someone they’re just meeting, but it can work, and seemed to work fine for my readers.
    The last point I’d make is that, for sequels, the reader is already invested in the MC. So, yup, I started book 2 with a car chase and 3 with a military style snatch operation. 🙂
    I did get my wrist slapped by a couple of readers for the gimmicky snatch operation – I made it deliberately obscure what was happening, and I guess I overcooked it.

    • You know, you make a great point that I’d forgotten. Some genres—-like thrillers and detective stories——ARE more accepting of seemingly random opening action scenes. Look at the movie Speed: a bunch of characters we’ve never met who don’t figure into the overall story step into a sabotaged elevator. I don’t know if opening action sequences work well for books like they do for movies, but it’s true that they’re more accepted in certain genres. I think it’s worthwhile pointing out, though, that these opening scenes aren’t the MAIN action or conflict in the story; it’s usually related or tangential.

      • R. E. Hunter says:

        Yes, it seems to be very common (almost to the point of being expected) that thrillers start with action. But not with the main character, usually with at least one throw-away character, who often is killed. This is often in a prologue, and sets up a mystery that is resolved later in the book. Da Vinci Code is a famous example.

  24. dorne whale says:

    Food for thought here. I agree that to care about a character you have to know something about them. Readers need time to engage with them and see the world through their eyes. That way when the first challenge appears, they will be along for the ride.
    Thanks for this.

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