by Savannah J. Foley
Recently I read a blog post at WritersDigest.com that discussed the #1 myth of story beginnings: You MUST open with action.
The point of the article is clear: Action without context is just as worthless as background story without action.
The key to beginnings is to introduce two things: 1. Characterization. 2. Plot/Theme.
Notice that nowhere in those first two requirements is ‘action.’ I think that the myth of ‘you must have action’ stems from a misunderstanding between action and plot. If you go with the general advice of ‘you must start with action,’ then shouldn’t every story begin with gunshots, murderous chases, and exploding spaceports? Because most don’t.
So, let’s discuss what you DO need to start your story with, beginning with Characterization:
From the beginning, you must immediately answer the voiced or subconscious question in your reader’s mind: Why should I care about this character (or these characters, as it may be)? If I have to follow someone for 100,000 words, I damn well better like them, even if they’re designed to be ‘unlikeable’ (Marvin the Robot, anyone?).
If your characterization comes through clear and strong on paper then I’ll be naturally drawn to your character and want to stick around to enjoy them and/or see what happens to them.
Example: Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card:
“I’ve watched through his eyes. I’ve listened through his ears, and I tell you he’s the one. Or at least as close as we’re going to get.”
“That’s what you said about the brother.”
“The brother tested out impossible. For other reasons. Nothing to do with his ability.”
“Same with the sister. And there are doubts about him. He’s too malleable. Too willing to submerge himself in someone else’s will.”
“Not if the other person is his enemy.”
So much characterization was conveyed in this short paragraph. Immediately I want to know who it is they’re talking about. I want to meet this character and learn more about him.
There’s not much action in this beginning; actually, the first chapter is dialogue from unnamed sources (how much more anti-action can you get?), but this beginning is ripe with characterization, and thus it is a good beginning.
The other way to start a story is through clearly and creatively introducing the plot or theme. I say plot/theme because sometimes you get a plot without a strong theme, or you get a theme without a strong plot, and both are okay.
As a writer who tends to slide more into the ‘literary fiction’ side of things, I’m particularly fond of the ‘introduce the theme’ beginning. Common examples of these are the dramatic prologue (love love love!) or the artistic description of a single, symbolic object, etc.
Example: The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison:
(All 3 chapters are excellent examples of Theme introduction, but I’m going to skip the first chapter and head to the second. If you want to know why I skipped the first chapter, you can read the intro to this book here at Amazon)
Quiet as it’s kept, there were no marigolds in the fall of 1941. We thought, at the time, that it was because Pecola was having her father’s baby that the marigolds did not grow. A little examination and much less melancholy would have proved to us that our seeds were not the only ones that did not sprout; nobody’s did. Not even the gardens fronting the lake showed marigolds that year. But so deeply concerned were we with the health and safe delivery of Pecola’s baby we could think of nothing but our own magic: if we planted the seeds, and said the right words over them, they would blossom, and everything would be all right.
(This is also the book that contains my favorite phrase of all time: Nuns go by, quiet as lust.)
By reading the paragraph above you can clearly tell that this is going to be a rich and dark literary novel, full of the human condition and childlike innocence thwarted. All from one paragraph.
If you’re a theme-lover like myself, this book is pure gold, and it’s obvious right from the first paragraph.
So, now that we’ve explored two good examples of beginning with characterization and plot/theme, let’s explore the benefits of alternative to action by looking at bad action.
The worst thing you can do is open by confusing your readers. If they don’t ‘get it’ within a few paragraphs (yes, paragraphs, not pages!) they’ll put it down and that will be that. Action must have context!
Now, I was hoping to provide an example of a book that opened with totally confusing action, but books that open like that are not good books, and thus I probably put them down after a few pages and have forgotten them. So, let’s make something up:
Aidan rolled to his feet and fired off a shot at the advancing Duke, activating his MicroShield just in time to fend off the blastwave from the Duke’s proton-launcher.
“Balthazar, get me out of here!” He yelled over his shoulder to the Moore fiddling with the rusty engine of the blimp.
“Aidan, behind you!” screamed Sasha Eskanova, and Aidan ducked as the claws from a leaping panther grazed his ears.
Aidan karate-chopped the oversized housecat as it morphed into a pack of ninja assassins.
“Time to go!”
Cannons roaring in the distance, Aidan, Sasha, and Balthazar leapt aboard the USS Titan’s wake, lifting into the air as the cavalry advanced over the hill, muskets blazing.
Umm… just what exactly is going on here? There’s too much action and not enough back story, especially with the clashing mix of historical clue-ins.
Read this next bit very carefully: Action without context is pointless.
Remember that, and you’ll do fine. 🙂
So, readers, what do you think? Do you know of any books where the author pulled off beginning with action successfully?
Savannah J. Foley is the author of the Antebellum (originally known as Woman’s World) series on Fictionpress. She has written five novels, owns her own freelance writing company, and is signed with the Bradford Literary Agency. Antebellum is currently out on submissions. Her website is www.savannahjfoley.com, but she updates more frequently on her livejournal.