Action, anyone?

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Jaime
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Action, anyone?

Post by Jaime » March 4th, 2010, 6:19 am

I have recently had my first 10 pages critiqued by a very generous literary intern, and the gist of the advice was that I need more tension/action straight off the bat. This got me to thinking, how many of you have some tension/action so early on? Is this an effective means of roping in a reader, or do you feel that it could come off as cliche? Of course, it's a subjective issue, but I'm curious.

Do you like to ease your readers into the story and allow them to get to know your characters a little more intimately, and give them some early hints as to where it might be going (so that you can then pull the rug out from under their feet)? Or do you chain them to a basin and give them a ticking bomb and a . . . *clears throat* . . . saw?

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Re: Action, anyone?

Post by Bron » March 4th, 2010, 6:59 am

After reading lots of first pages, I've found most are better when they have action. It draws you in straight away and makes you want to keep reading to find out what happens next. There are exceptions of course. I've read first pages that don't have much going on but are still engaging, but as a general rule it's better to start with action, at least in my opinion. Action doesn't need to be a bomb going off, but it does need to be something important happening in the life of one of the main characters.

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Re: Action, anyone?

Post by jkmcdonnell » March 4th, 2010, 8:32 am

I think it doesn't necessarily have to be 'action' like an action scene (gun fight or car chase, etc.) per se, but those ten pages definitely need at least some forward movement and tension. For most readers, ten pages will take them around five minutes to read, and it's those first five minutes in which they decide whether or not to keep reading, based precisely off the tension (and promise of, if not explicitly shown, action) within the exposition. After all, an MC whose life is boring and free from conflict/intrigue is an uninteresting one - not to mention unrealistic.

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Re: Action, anyone?

Post by r louis scott » March 4th, 2010, 9:38 am

Maybe "action" is the wrong word. How about "crisis" instead?

jkmcdonnell and bron echo my sentiments in this regard. I think it's critical to draw the reader in on those first few pages. How many times have you seen someone at the bookstore read the first page and put the book back on the shelf?

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Seamus
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Re: Action, anyone?

Post by Seamus » March 4th, 2010, 11:48 am

For many agents, that's as much as they are interested in seeing at first. For the commercial realities of our art, the word "grab" is not an exaggeration for the goal of the first few pages. I wonder how this phenomenon has affected story-telling, or has it always been so?
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Re: Action, anyone?

Post by Nick » March 4th, 2010, 4:38 pm

r louis scott wrote:How many times have you seen someone at the bookstore read the first page and put the book back on the shelf?
People actually do that? Oh dear, we Pennsylvanians must be such uncivilized folk. We just scan the back covers if we aren't out for anything particular.

In regards to the topic at hand, and to cull examples from my own genre, I wouldn't say you have to kick off like Silver Blaze, with Holmes promptly announcing he must leave on a case, or like Knots and Crosses, whose prologue begins with a murder. To fall on Knots and Crosses again, when the prologue switches to following Rebus, what's he doing? Back in Fife, visiting the grave of his father and then he nips off to his brother's house for a quick visit. Not exactly conflict, prime or secondary, but it does provide some characterization, and it isn't a whole schlob of nothing. I think the "action" thing doesn't mean you have to start with the gunnery. But have something happening. Don't kick off with Bob waking up and make breakfast unless it is in some way important.

My own WIP doesn't begin with a bang, but it's not nothing, either. It opens with Beckett standing out in the freezing cold wondering why the crap he agreed to come along in such conditions. A paragraph of grumbles, really, which could pave the way to anything. Is he just out waiting for someone? Is he tailing a criminal? Is he a bent cop doing some shady business by night? And of course it's resolved in the second paragraph, but soon after that we're introduced to one of the minor conflicts: Beckett's old partner transferred to another city, and his new partner is a freshly hired twenty-something. (Yes, I realize my WIP is essentially a buddy cop novel). But through the whole of the opening, there is something happening of some value, something pushing things forward, even if only a little, tiny bit (the steady forward motion doesn't really begin until chapter 3). That, I think, is how they mean by "action". Even if it's just a couple of inches, your story is moving somewhere from the start.

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Re: Action, anyone?

Post by JBarracudaL » March 4th, 2010, 4:45 pm

I would say initial action and suspense depend largely on the genre. Obviously if you're writing a lighthearted romance story, better judgment urges against an overblown intro sequence incorporating an average Joe on a walkie-talkie with the bomb squad trying to determine whether the blue or red wire should be snipped.
I feel making the beginning of your story interesting is what matters. Interesting does not necessarily equate to gripping action.

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Re: Action, anyone?

Post by Nathan Bransford » March 10th, 2010, 6:42 pm

I'm not sure which genre you're writing in, but I'd be very careful with this advice. I think there's a sense sometimes that you have to jump out and grab your reader by the throat, and this isn't always easy to do because the reader doesn't necessarily know the world and the stakes. I do think it should be somewhat apparent what is going on in a character's life and you can't just describe the scenery for the first 10 pages, but I also think it's a tad overstated that you have to have a really flashy opening.

Speaking personally as an agent, I'm much more wowed by good writing in the opening than by anything that happens right off the bat.

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Re: Action, anyone?

Post by shadow » March 10th, 2010, 7:06 pm

Nathan Bransford wrote:I'm not sure which genre you're writing in, but I'd be very careful with this advice. I think there's a sense sometimes that you have to jump out and grab your reader by the throat, and this isn't always easy to do because the reader doesn't necessarily know the world and the stakes. I do think it should be somewhat apparent what is going on in a character's life and you can't just describe the scenery for the first 10 pages, but I also think it's a tad overstated that you have to have a really flashy opening.

Speaking personally as an agent, I'm much more wowed by good writing in the opening than by anything that happens right off the bat.
What about Fantasy? I had description first and then action but my betas said that they don't care for the character first so I have to make them care. So instead I started with my MC in a sword battle. If he wins he becomes a real warrior. This is his 16th year so the next chapter starts three years later. I think the battle connects the reader further to him with description that follows and describes his father's cruelty but I really am unsure. Would any body willing to give me some advice?
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polymath
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Re: Action, anyone?

Post by polymath » March 10th, 2010, 7:48 pm

I consciously look for active engagement from a story's rich secondary world experience in an opening. I'm out of there when I'm not there in the first hundred or so words. I can have a boring alpha world experience on my own. Give me a rich experience and I'm engaged. I used to nonconsciously sense the point in a story where I'm actively engaged. Now that I consciously note when and what engages me, I have found two universal features that do the job.

One is resonance; self-identification with a topical subject, ie, a character, an idea, a milieu, and/or an event, a quest, a battle or a love story, whatever.

The other is tension. Tension has two counterparts, empathy and suspense. Resonance and tension are accomplished by presenting me with an emerging larger-than-life character in a dramatic situation with an insuperable dilemma to resolve.

Resonance comes from feeling an affinity or a self-similarity or a curiosity for a character, etc., posed in an emotional disequilibrium: a dilemma. A dystopia is an example of a milieu that poses an emotional disequilibrium.

Empathy comes from having an emotional connection through resonance with and compassion for a character's dilemma, or characters, milieu, event, and/or idea.

Suspense comes from posing the life-changing complications of a character's dilemma, in other words a conflict, ideally both an emotional and an external dilemma that correlate. Ie. a boy orphaned by a dark lord's ambitions is initiated into the trials of young adulthood through the agency of a secret magic society. Together, they strive to thwart the dark lord's supremacy.

Building suspense is artfully posing quesions that are artfully delayed in answering. An example of a rhetorical suspense question artlessly posed. Will the boy successfully negotiate the trials of young adulthood in spite of the dark lord's efforts to prevent him? All but gives away the plot and the outcome, doesn't it? Certainly artlessly tells the central suspense question.
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aspiring_x
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Re: Action, anyone?

Post by aspiring_x » March 14th, 2010, 12:28 am

now, i'm just learning here...
but action for the sake of action seems ridiculous. however, droning on about nothing is self-indulgent.
the reader needs to connect with the character, there needs to be movement propelling the character forward.
for me, it seems like the lack of action was a symptom of starting my story too early. the advice has been given often.
start your story as late as possible! there should be a reason why you are starting where you start, and the reason
likely comes with some sort of action.
however, i think a lot of people get roped into this notion that we need to make our writing into fast food. instant
gratification with no nutritional value. the reader can't wait! blood! sex! (whatever) now!
i think that is a dangerous trend in literature.

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mmcdonald64
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Re: Action, anyone?

Post by mmcdonald64 » March 15th, 2010, 6:31 pm

Jaime wrote:I have recently had my first 10 pages critiqued by a very generous literary intern, and the gist of the advice was that I need more tension/action straight off the bat. This got me to thinking, how many of you have some tension/action so early on? Is this an effective means of roping in a reader, or do you feel that it could come off as cliche? Of course, it's a subjective issue, but I'm curious.

Do you like to ease your readers into the story and allow them to get to know your characters a little more intimately, and give them some early hints as to where it might be going (so that you can then pull the rug out from under their feet)? Or do you chain them to a basin and give them a ticking bomb and a . . . *clears throat* . . . saw?
My story opens with a ton of action. It was meant to show the MCs motivation and what kind of guy he is, but as I've had no luck landing an agent, despite getting lots of very positive reviews specifically on the opening from a few hundred readers on another site, I'm re-thinking the opening. Maybe it's not relevent to the rest of the story. I just don't know. I've had no feedback from agents one way or another, so who knows?

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eringayles
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Re: Action, anyone?

Post by eringayles » March 16th, 2010, 8:15 am

I certainly think you have to 'grab' today's reader. Yesteryear, the classics did it with beautiful writing; maybe they couldn't achieve the same today. Is it, as it is in many aspects of modern life, that we're after instant gratification? The busy-ants syndrome?
So . . . yes, grab them. But it doesn't have to be with a suicide bomber or an axe-murderer chopping up page one. It can be done with innuendo and/or tension. Short sentences are good,too.
'His eyes didn't stay put. They flicked. That, and the tick at his temple, and the Einstein hair, and the drool, and the grunts, added up. But it was the blood that screamed evil. Screamed, 'Run'!
OR:
Micky eyed the dude's pocket. Bulging, it was. Fat dude, fat wallet. Needed to lose weight, din't he? Do his nibs a favour, then?

I feel you have to inject that 'What's going on, here?' feeling to get the immediate grab. And it needs to happen in the first lines.
Depends on the genre and audience, of course.

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Scott
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Re: Action, anyone?

Post by Scott » March 17th, 2010, 3:46 pm

Nathan Bransford wrote:Speaking personally as an agent, I'm much more wowed by good writing in the opening than by anything that happens right off the bat.
Thanks, Nathan. Very good to hear.

My book starts off with one of Chekov's no-nos: a woman, alone, in existential turmoil. But part of the idea of the book is to twist conventions and cliches, and I'm hoping the cleverness of the circumstances and the language itself keeps the reader thoroughly engaged.

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Colonel Travis
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Re: Action, anyone?

Post by Colonel Travis » March 17th, 2010, 9:27 pm

My all-time favorite opening is from Middlemarch, and it breaks every rule. The first paragraph is two pages long, all exposition, and absolutely jack $#!t happens until chapter, I don't know, 19 or 20? I'm exaggerating but not by much. Because Eliot is one of the most incredible writers in the history of this planet, it works. But the reason it works is, like others have mentioned, because of conflict. If Eliot wrote just as beautifully, minus purpose, she would have remained Mary Ann Evans and no one today would have a clue who she was.

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