Not Starting with the Action

20 Oct

by Kat Zhang

How many times have you heard someone tell you to “start the story with action”? I know it’s something I’ve heard a lot. In fact, I’ve read that the average new writer really ought to be starting their story with their current chapter three in order to get rid of all the unnecessary waffling and backstory.

Sometimes, this is absolutely true. One of the most important things a good beginning must accomplish is hooking the reader, and what easier way to do this than with some intense action? But sometimes, the “big moment” isn’t the place to start the story.

Think about it. Does Harry Potter start with Hagrid arriving to tell Harry he’s going to Hogwarts? Does The Hunger Games start at the Reaping? Yes, some stories can get away with plonking the reader right down in the midst of things, but others, especially those set in a world very different from our own, need a few pages to orientate the reader, first.

Also, the trouble with a high stakes beginning is that we don’t know the characters well enough to care. The Reaping would have been sad even if we didn’t know Prim and Katniss, but think about how much more it hurt after having read the scenes of Katniss hunting and striving so hard to care for her family. Collins had already given us enough backstory for us to really understand the depth of the bond between the sisters and the true impact of Katniss’s offer to take her sister’s place.

Likewise, if Harry’s suffering at the hands of the Dursleys had been summed up in a sentence or two instead of shown us, then the relief and magic of Hagrid showing up wouldn’t have hit us as strongly. Starting with the most exciting part of the story is all good and well, but sometimes, you need just the right amount of backstory to put that excitement in context and ramp it up even more. A little while ago, Julie talked about the Hero’s Journey. One of the important parts of this journey is the beginning, when the hero is still at home. We can also call this the World Before, since not every hero actually physically moves. The World Before is…well, the world before. Before the Reaping that changed everything. Before Hagrid. How can the reader fully appreciate the effects of the Inciting Event unless he gets a glimpse of how things were before?

Of course, I’m not saying you should have a chapter of info dump before getting to the “good part.” There should still be action. But it should be a smaller blip in the radar, something exciting, but not so exciting that there isn’t time or space to slip in some backstory. The most exciting parts of a story are all about moving forward. You don’t want to slow down a gunfight with background information. Collins didn’t waste time during the Reaping scenes explaining how close Katniss and Prim were, or how horrible the Hunger Games were—all that had already been accomplished.

Weaving in backstory and keeping the story moving forward can be a tough balance to keep. But lately, I’ve been hearing so much about “starting the story right in the midst of things,” that I just wanted to put a little reminder out there: sometimes less isn’t more. Sometimes a little breath before the storm can be a good thing.


Kat Zhang is a Spoken Word poet and a Creative Writing major. She has recently signed with literary agent Emmanuelle Morgen and spends most of her free time whipping HYBRID–a book about a girl with two souls–into shape for submission to publishers. You can read more about her writing process and books at her blog.



31 Responses to “Not Starting with the Action”

  1. Marina October 20, 2010 at 12:27 AM #

    This makes a lot of sense and I’ve also heard about the whole starting with action. Truth be told sometimes you feel a little lost when you’re just thrown into the middle of something. The problem I have is that sometimes it’s still better because the back story can make for a slow start –kind of like Harry Potter, cause you’re just going “what?” at first, and it’s not until several chapters later that you’re like “oh, wow, this is kind of cool”

    • Kat Zhang October 20, 2010 at 11:31 AM #

      That’s true, Marina. It’s hard to hit that note just right, and sometimes, maybe it’s better to err on the side of too little backstory than too much.

  2. Meagan Spooner October 20, 2010 at 3:08 AM #

    100% agree with this. Good for you being brave enough to go against the common wisdom!

    I think the reason that advice is so prevalent is because a lot of the time, writers DO start with more useless backstory than they should. I think the challenge is making that first scene interesting. If we didn’t care about Katniss or Harry we wouldn’t keep reading–but Collins and Rowling succeed in making us want to know what’s going to happen to them even before we know what the Big Idea is, whether it be reality show gladiators or wizarding schools.

    Maybe the advice is still “cut those first three chapters” to address the problem of writers spinning their wheels at first, but amended to say “and then revisit the way you introduce your character.”

    • Kat Zhang October 20, 2010 at 11:32 AM #

      Thanks, Meagan! Maybe instead of cutting the first three chapters, we should just condense and streamline them 🙂

  3. Laura October 20, 2010 at 5:28 AM #

    Great post Kat! This is something I’ve been struggling with as I revise my WIP. I think there is a fine balance between trusting your gut on where to start the story and giving too much info right off the bat. I love what Meagan said with, “revisit the way you introduce your character.” I’ve yet to approach it that way, and am totally going to try it tonight when I sit down to revise again!

    • Kat Zhang October 20, 2010 at 11:33 AM #

      That’s great, Laura! Best of luck with the revisions 😀

  4. authorguy October 20, 2010 at 6:13 AM #

    I am a big believer in the idea of starting in media res, preferably at the start of every chapter, but that doesn’t mean starting with intense action. Roger Zelazny was in the habit of starting the reader off in the middle of a chapter and then going back to the beginning to show how the character got there. I try to start in the middle of some action, but I try to make it an action that the reader can latch on to without the need for backstory. “Tarkas was running for his life. Again.” This doesn’t need much explanation. In book 1 Tarkas is pausing in the middle of a forest trail. Plunk the reader down in between one step and another, yes, but the guy doesn’t have to be hurrying off to battle. The real no-no is static prose, or a passive construction, unless it’s unusual in some other respect. I love coming up with bizarre first lines, especially for my CHOT stories, which usually begin with with the first line the main character is writing. Some day I may use one of them.

    Marc Vun Kannon

    • Kat Zhang October 20, 2010 at 11:34 AM #

      That’s definitely a good hook of a first line! And I agree that character ought to be doing something as the story starts…not just staring off into space, reminiscing (unless they have some pretty amazing memories!)

  5. amiekaufman October 20, 2010 at 6:29 AM #

    Great post, thank you! I think you’ve picked some great examples–without the beginnings they had, HP and THG would have had far less impresive stakes. That said, I’m not sure I can do it as well as Collins or Rowling! I think a lot of writers (and I’ve been guilty of this) begin their first draft while they’re working out the story, so they start by ramping up slowly, poking around, settling in, spinning their wheels, pick your turn of phrase. Those chapters still need to go–but you’re so right in saying that a revision question to ask yourself is whether there needs to be something before the action starts to set the context, even if it isn’t what you tried the first time.

    • Kat Zhang October 20, 2010 at 11:35 AM #

      Oh, yes, I definitely have the habit of starting my first draft with little idea as to where I’m going. Often, I hint at storylines that don’t exist, or leave out important stuff because at that point, I didn’t know it was important yet!

  6. Lydia Sharp October 20, 2010 at 7:45 AM #

    I think most new writers are confused by the “start with action” suggestion because they are never told exactly what that means.

    You start with an inciting incident, then there is a bit of set-up (which is also something that new writers are confused by, because we’re trained to automatically think that anything labeled “set-up” is bad/boring), then you have the catalyst. The catalyst is what really pushes the plot into the point of no return. Once the MC hits that catalyst, there’s no going back to the “before” of his/her world, which is made clear in the set-up.

    The inciting incident is relevant to the outworking of the plot, but isn’t necessarily the “big bang” of the catalyst. “Start with action” simply means “start as close to the point of change as possible.” This doesn’t mean the “point of change” has to be in the very first paragraph, or even the first page, but it should definitely be clear by the end of the first chapter.

    An inciting incident is a small change or hint toward a coming big change, but isn’t always “the point of no return”. You actually *can* start with backstory, as long as there is tension there to tug the reader along.

    The problem with most “new writer” beginnings isn’t really whether or not they start with action or start with backstory or whatnot, but rather, it’s that *whatever* they start with, it’s boring because it lacks tension and conflict.

    And it also usually lacks an interesting voice, but that’s another topic for another day. 🙂

    • Kat Zhang October 20, 2010 at 11:37 AM #

      Thanks, Lydia–that was a great explanation! I agree; you can start with pretty much anything as long as there is tension and conflict.

  7. Rowenna October 20, 2010 at 9:02 AM #

    Great point! I’ve seen a lot of openings in online critique groups and on blogs (posted for comment, so I’ll generalize about them 🙂 ) that take this advice really literally. They throw the reader into the action instead of leading them–and I as a reader get whiplash when thrown. I think it’s good general advice–don’t spend your vital first chapters on boring stuff, and get into the swing of the story ASAP–but bad literal advice–starting with an actual bang 😉

    I do blame part of this on all the emphasis on the first page–an emphasis I’ve actually seen dying down a bit in blogworld. Writers felt so much pressure to “hook” with the first paragraphs that I think we overcompensated. Instead of hooking, a sledgehammer opening alienates the reader.

    • Kat Zhang October 20, 2010 at 11:38 AM #

      Yes, exactly, Rowenna. I’ve seen a lot of pieces lately where we start out with a bout of action and gunfire and running-for-my-life, and while this works great sometimes, it’s not always necessary.

    • October 20, 2010 at 8:48 PM #

      I agree. Sometimes, it’s useful write out the boring few chapters, even just to set up the story for oneself. Next, when the first draft is ready, a critique partner can cheerfully chop off the first 10-20 pages and then everyone’s happy 🙂

  8. tymcon October 20, 2010 at 10:45 AM #

    Yeah I always thought you shoudl start with intrigue instead of action. I’m going to use Garth Nix as an example. Sabrial starts with pretty much a father goign after his daugther in death. After that chapter I was like “Wow I gotta read on to see more of this”. Lireal starts with Hedge. And the third one starts with action. Although you can get away in series by starting with action since all the characters and peices ar in play already.
    In harry potter there is no big fight in the first book. You get some good worlbuilding, foreshadowing and an awesome amount of character deelopment.
    In Eye Of the World the story starts with a prologue. In this proglouge it’s the aftermath of madness and mass murder. Some brilliant imagery, some brilliant action and some brilliant questions are raised.

    Every start of a story should be like every scene with somethign extra. It should fit at least two of the following. Foreshadowing, plot, character, world biulding. And you have to add the extra part of the gigantic hook that will enslave the reader. Us writers can be maniacal:D

    • Kat Zhang October 20, 2010 at 11:39 AM #

      Haha, that’s true, Tymcon! That’s a great list of things to include in the first chapter.

  9. Catherine October 20, 2010 at 12:28 PM #

    Great advice! I never truly thought about “Starting with action” in that respect. Mostly, I start the book however I feel like it (I’m a little rebel, apparently!), but it always goes through changes in editing.

    It is kind of painful to see people way overcompensating with the “start with action” misnomer. SOMETIMES it can be pulled off, but mostly it’s just more “huh? what’s going on!” for me.

    • Kat Zhang October 20, 2010 at 3:55 PM #

      Thanks, Catherine! And yay for writing rebels 😛

  10. Cassie October 20, 2010 at 6:12 PM #

    Preach it, sister! lol

    This article just cemented a huge edit I’ve been deliberating lately. I remember another article from a while ago saying that if you’re bored while writing, chances are you’re writing something your readers will find boring, as well. I kept that in mind as I went back and re-read the beginning of my WIP. …And it’s pretty boring hahaha

    So, with this article in mind I’ve decided to start off in the middle of the action, using flashbacks to show what led our heroine to this point in time. That’s almost like the best of both worlds, right? …Or maybe that’s cliche? Eh, I’m a (secret) sucker for cliches, anyway!

    Short and sweet (but very helpful) post. Thanks!!

    • Kat Zhang October 20, 2010 at 8:23 PM #

      😀 Glad the article was helpful!

  11. Ellen October 20, 2010 at 8:30 PM #

    Thanks for posting this! I feel that, most of the time, it’s better for me to start with at least some back story before I get to that first blip on the action radar.

    The last time I tried writing straight into the action, everyone wanted to know more about the back story. By draft four or five, the one I’m currently on, I ended up putting way more background in, for both the characters and the world, and I’m liking it so much better.

    Basically, I think you captured spot on that there’s a way to compromise when you start a story.

    • Kat Zhang October 20, 2010 at 9:01 PM #

      I tend to start out on the bare side for background info, too. Then the second draft tends to have a little too much, and I try to strike that balance by the third go around, lol.

      Thanks for reading 😀

  12. October 20, 2010 at 8:42 PM #

    I think that depends on your definition of “action.” Is it physical action, or well-drawn character development, dialogue, etc. Is it Harry waking up in his miserable life with that [delightfully] horrid family of his? I’d call that action. Not quite as dramatic as Hagrid banging down his door, but action nonetheless.

    I start in action – but that simply means that the plot moves forward at a steady pace. (Hopefully!) Likewise, if you’re at the point where you can fiddle with this “rule” you probably have the talent to make it work.

    Because backstory is important, avoiding it completely due to a sense of MUST START WITH BOOMING ACTION! will sometimes end in a writer resorting to using flashbacks, character conversation and character thoughts to convey necessary history. More often than not, it disrupts flow and/or turns into an obvious infodump.

    Nonetheless, the advice should still be taken, regardless of how large the accompanying grain of salt is. The *fun* thing is when an agent or editor presented with an entire chapter of lackluster morning routine with absolutely no direction, plot, or characters worth remembering. That’s the thing that will have the first few paragraphs read, maybe a random page thereafter, and then a swift rejection.

    But that, of course, is an entirely different story 🙂

    • Kat Zhang October 20, 2010 at 9:03 PM #

      That’s very true. There should be “action” insofar as there should be “conflict.” 🙂

  13. Jess October 21, 2010 at 9:53 AM #

    Fab post, Kat. This is so true.

    I think the problem is most writers know not to be boring and don’t know how to handle opening slowly because they think it’s boring – or they infodump and it IS boring. 😉

    I know I even do this to a degree because the first page is so important in catching attention, you don’t think you can afford a slow build. There’s truly such a fine line to openings.

    • Kat Zhang October 21, 2010 at 6:07 PM #

      Thanks, Jess 🙂

  14. Armith-Greenleaf October 25, 2010 at 10:26 PM #

    Amen sister.

    The Harry Potter example is perfect: the start is not magic packed, but it still hooks the reader by making him/her think “poor boy.” And then BAM! Hagrid appears. The reader can’t help but sit up straighter and squirm in excitement, his/her mind already thinking about the endless possibilities for the rest of the story.

    And that’s what happens as you read the rest of the book(s), there’s more and more. Don’t we all wish we could write like JK Rowling? D:

    The key, I think, is to start with something that is already interesting that leads to the big bang.

    And I agree, when a beginning is too action packed the reader doesn’t really understand what’s going on. “Okay, it’s a big fight but… what for? What’s the importance of it?” (Example: the beginning of all Twilight series books. :P)

    • Kat Zhang October 25, 2010 at 10:39 PM #

      To have JK Rowling’s world-building and plot-building skillz? Yes, please! 🙂

    • Wendy Qualls November 7, 2010 at 6:51 PM #

      This! The “action” in Harry Potter isn’t physical, but it starts with protagonists being in a bad situation, knowing they’re in a bad situation, and squirming about it. (In this case, the teachers dropping Harry off at the doorstep.) Too many writers would have started with Dumbledore flying there, thinking back to when Voldemort disappeared and wondering how the boy will turn out – arguably more exciting (the part about Voldemort being a big plot point!), but less interesting for the reader.


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