Beginnings: The Myth of ‘Begin with Action’

18 Mar

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:

 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.

 Plot/Theme

 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.

 Action

 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.

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11 Responses to “Beginnings: The Myth of ‘Begin with Action’”

  1. Sarah J. Maas March 18, 2010 at 3:03 PM #

    I agree and also disagree with you on this stuff. Books that take their damn time getting started often find their way to the bottom of my To Be Read pile–and eventually just onto the Shelf Of I’m Never Going To Read This. Sometimes, long beginnings seem overly-indulgent, and ultimately don’t do much for the book.

    I’m going to be a bit more specific, and say that in YA fiction, part of the reason for opening with action is that our target audience has 10 million things competing for their attention (TV, facebook, texts, etc.), and by starting with action, and increasing the level of action throughout the book (meaning, always leaving off on a cliffy), you stand a better chance of grabbing and keeping their interest.

    That being said, I agree that action without context is awful–especially when names are being tossed left and right, and it’s just a blur of motion and shouting. But I think THE HUNGER GAMES did a great job of starting with the right amount of action. The heroine awakens in her bed, but its with a sense of urgency–because the Day She’s Been Dreading is on the horizon. From there, Collins doesn’t waste much time getting us to the Day of Doom, and fills in the in-between stuff with scenes where crap is actually happening (hunting, walking, etc.).

    I’m just opposed to those beginnings where it’s just someone lying in bed, thinking for 15 pages, and dumping tons of info on us. THE HUNGER GAMES has a great action-y opening because Collins uses the action to convey all of the info we need to set up the book.

    I mean, that’s essentially what an opening is–the establishment of the status quo, which should be quickly shattered by the real plot of the novel. Think of STAR WARS. Aside from the scrolling prologue (which borders on quick-and-dirty info-dumping), the movie actually begins with that battle in space, and Princess Leia being captured by Vader. We have no idea wtf is really happening, only that Darth Vader is a bad ass, and can do whatever the hell he wants. The somewhat chaotic action in the beginning establishes the status quo of a galaxy run by an evil empire–and that the status quo must be disrupted by our soon-to-be-introduced hero, Luke.

    …This is a really, really long reply. But, basically, I think that if action is done well, and isn’t totally random (meaning, if it’s used to convey information about various aspects of the book), then it’s perfectly okay to start with action. In fact, I’d prefer a novel to start off quickly, rather than ramble on about the sky and the colors of the earth and whatever other stuff. But maybe that’s because I write YA, and it’s definitely a genre where there isn’t much room to ramble, or indulge ourselves in pages of pretty words.

    P.S. Sorry for any typos/terrible errors. This comment is way too long for me to bother editing it, lol.

    • svonnah March 18, 2010 at 6:26 PM #

      Yeah, I think I only really got to my major point halfway through the article (what’s that quote about not knowing what you have to say until you write it, lol?). I intended this article to focus on context around action, not just mindless action. I completely agree with you that the action has to be done WELL, and not throw you into a confusing whirlwind of events.

  2. Praya March 18, 2010 at 4:12 PM #

    Fantastic post Savannah! I’ve never really consciously thought about establishing themes from the very first chapter. In fact I’m not even clear about how you know what a theme in your book is. Is this something you can only find out by the end, and work it back in through your edits, or should you consciously try and cultivate it throughout the novel? I think things I’ve written do have themes, but they’ve always developed unconsciously, by accident even. Haha

    Sarah, you make me laugh. You’re absolutely right about Star Wars- really you have no idea wtf is going on till Obi Wan Kenobi pops up on the scene and even then he’s all cryptic like for ages. But it works.

    Lastly- recently read “The Satan Bug” by Alistair maclean.

    First para-
    “there was no mail for me that morning, but that was no surprise.. There had been no mail for me in the three weeks I’d been renting that tiny second floor suite of offices near Oxford Street. I closed the door of the outer eight by ten office, skirted the table and chair that mgiht one day house a receptionist if the time ever came tht Cavell Investigations could run to such glamorous extras and pushed open the door marked “Private.”
    Behind that door lay the office of the head of Cavell investigations. Pierre Cavell. Me.”

    And so on. I guess from the first para you can tell the MC is a lonely, me against the world type. It feels like it’s going to be your typical detective genre, with the almost cheesy private investigator stumbling upon almost cheesy clues, like Marlow out of a Raymond Chandler novel (not really a Chandler fan haha). And Cavell is like that, to a certain extent, but there is so much action and movement in the rest of the novel that his character subverts your expectations from the first para.

    I don’t have much time- I am dangerously late- but what I’m trying to say is that it can be fun in the beginning to lull your readers into a certain expectation for the rest of the novel and BAM screw them over. With reason of course.

    Loved your post!

    • svonnah March 18, 2010 at 6:32 PM #

      That reminds me of a book I bought in a used book store recently about an incredibly stereotypical private eye. The entire book was hilarious (intentionally so).

      Anyway, as for theme… I think that there’s certain books where theme is the focus and other books where you want to focus on plot, not theme so much. I mean, obviously every book has a ‘theme’, but some are more theme-driven than others. Books by Toni Morrison are the perfect examples: they’re heavy and rich and sad and deal with terrible things. Her focus is a theme of realistic emotion. But a lot of YA action books wont’ have that emotional intensity to them; they’ll have action intensity instead.

      I think if you want an emotional-theme heavy book then you have to go into it like that from the beginning, but I could be wrong. 🙂

  3. Corona March 18, 2010 at 5:02 PM #

    I agree! I sometimes do have a hard time putting action into any context in certain books. I haven’t yet bonded with the characters, I don’t even know if these action scenes pertain to any main/regular characters.

    But it depends on the book, if it’s a zombie-post-apocalyptic thriller book, beginning with the action sequence of a zombie going for your brain it just might work!

    • svonnah March 18, 2010 at 6:33 PM #

      I so understand what you’re talking about in reference to not knowing the characters! I always feel like my beginnings need a huge rewrite by the time I’ve reached the end!

  4. Angela March 18, 2010 at 8:31 PM #

    I’ve read books where the first part begins in the middle of the story and then moves on to what happened in the beginning to make the middle look like that.

    Okay, that didn’t make a lot of sense. Just think of the Disney movie, The Emperor’s New Groove.

    I guess there are different types of beginnings that you can use, depending on what kind of story it is and whatnot.

  5. Samantha W March 19, 2010 at 12:22 AM #

    The kind of beginnings that really put me off are the ones that last forever. I’m talking about the beginning where it keeps going and going and you’re thinking “When is something going to happen?” and by the time something DOES happen, it’s rushed and the books is over. x.x

  6. Aurora Blackguard March 19, 2010 at 12:05 PM #

    Some beginnings, I’m beginning to see, begin on a high note but as the beginning slows down to the middle the action sort of.. falls. Is this like a normal thing?

    Like, okay, you start with action, and you build and you build and suddenly… we’re in a peaceful town where we meet so-and-so. It’s like…after certain areas, the action doesn’t rise anymore and it stays flat and your story is in a big mess/puddle/pit-of-despair.

    I always write my beginnings insanely passionately. But as I get to the middle stuff.. everything crumbles.

    (how many times did I say beginning??)

  7. Chris March 19, 2010 at 12:17 PM #

    Nice post, Savannah. I agree that action without context is anemic at best. It can be thrilling in the moment but does nothing for story in the long run.

    Good scenes should be a ideas in conflict or emotions at war, ala Donald Maass. This is what I’m reminded of reading your Card and Morrison examples. Real tension is present in these openings, and tension IS action despite not constituting physical movement. Not only the best way to begin a story, but the best way to craft scenes, imo.

  8. Caitlin March 21, 2010 at 10:34 PM #

    Okay I’m going to betray my non-writer status/lack of writing chops here. I recently read Garrett Freymann-Weyr’s After the Moment and it opens with the narrator seeing a girl he hasn’t seen in 5 or 6 years at a party. The scene is interesting and baits you with a lot of hints for what’s to come (wait, a restraining order, what?!? etc.) but aside from the narrator seeing the girl, musing on these things, and her noticing him as well the scene isn’t really action-y or if it is it’s a different type of action than I feel like you’re talking about here.

    Anyway the point being that I though it was a great opening, and I’m pretty sure Freymann-Weyr considers her work YA, but I could be wrong. Thus consider the type of book you’re writing when you decide how to open maybe?

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