Action, anyone?

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Re: Action, anyone?

Post by Bron » March 18th, 2010, 6:24 am

I think the 'start with action' advice probably applies mostly to debut authors. If you've written a few books and built up a fan base, they're less likely to want to be hooked immediately and more willing to wait for a payoff because they've read your books in the past and enjoy them, and know that a payoff is coming. A debut author usually doesn't have that luxury, so we need to hook people straight away.

I also think this advice is given because it's easier for novice writers to hook someone with action than by perfect writing. Given Nathan's comment, I guess people starting with action (which includes myself) need to be careful we're not relying solely on the action to hook people and make sure our writing is strong :-)

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Re: Action, anyone?

Post by Jaime » March 18th, 2010, 6:40 am

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.

Thanks, Nathan, I'm glad to hear it. It's a paranormal romance, and although I've noted this person's advice, I'm not changing my opening. What this person suggested I do with it goes completely against the build up of the story. The reason I haven't cut this scene is because all of my beta readers thought it was a great opening, and that it introduced the characters well. It also plants a seed for the overall story arc.

It's one person's opinion. I'm not going to lose any sleep over it. It's just interesting to see how many people regard action or tension in the first 10 pages as essential for further reading.
aspiring_x wrote: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.
My thoughts exactly, aspiring_x! My opening pages used to be a scene in chapter three. When I told my betas that I was cutting it, they complained. I guess that's good feedback? :)

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Re: Action, anyone?

Post by aspiring_x » March 18th, 2010, 8:22 am

Jaime wrote: My thoughts exactly, aspiring_x! My opening pages used to be a scene in chapter three. When I told my betas that I was cutting it, they complained. I guess that's good feedback? :)
yeah, my first chapter used to be chapters 1 and 2 and somewhere around 5,000 words longer. I think sometimes we start a bit early, because we need to walk around in our characters shoes a bit before we feel comfortable enough to start the actual story. (but maybe that's just me) great thing is that it's easier to cut than construct.

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Re: Action, anyone?

Post by Xakara » March 18th, 2010, 9:52 am

I'm a first page reader and I think you definitely need an action to start your story, but you don't need "dazzle". Anything your character does, says, or thinks that engages and gives insight to the stakes or characterization counts for me.

"Stewart clicked on the refresh button for the tenth time in two minutes and let slip an obscenity when his inbox remained empty."

As a reader I immediately empathize with Stewart because I've done this. I'm instantly curious about what he's waiting for, (response to a submission perhaps?), and I want to know what happens next and if the elusive email eventually arrives.

I think you have to start with "doing" so the reader has somewhere to follow your character as they get acquainted, but that will be unique to each story, character and genre. It's not about the flash but the movement. Even description can have movement if setting is treated as a character. "Emerald fields rolled on as far as the eye could see. Rowan barely noticed." Now I have an image, I instinctively want to know where these fields are, why Rowan is unmoved, and if appreciation for the scenary is around the corner. I'm also assuming the setting will be essential to the story because I meet the rolling hills before I meet Rowan. Depending on the genre I'm immediately anticipating certain things (alien landscapes in sci-fi, magical kingdoms in high fantasy, lush estates and aristrocrates in historical romance) so I'll read to see if there's follow-thru with all of that.

Your first page, like every page needs to tell me something relevant and move me along in the story, but the only dazzle necessary is the writing itself, not the sparkly two-megaton explosion and rain of shrapnel. Of course that's my opinion as a reader not an agent, but since agents are readers I think it holds for many of them as well.

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Re: Action, anyone?

Post by bronwyn1 » March 19th, 2010, 1:35 pm

I'm having sort of the same problem. The only real "action" comes at the very end of my first chapter (which I guess is good in a way because it makes people want to read on), but at the same time, I've received a few comments that the rest of the chapter before the action-filled last part is boring and uneventful. Though the beginning of the chapter is a conflict in a way (though an internal one, no car chases or anything), I kind of wanted the first chapter to not be backstory, but set up how normal the protagonist's life is and contrast with the rest of the book (when that normality goes out the window).

Thanks Nathan! That's very good to hear from an agent's perspective :)

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Re: Action, anyone?

Post by polymath » March 19th, 2010, 1:56 pm

Action means two different things in literary terms. One is physical movement. The other is plot movement. A story without any physical movement isn't a lost cause. One without plot movement asks for attention. Action in the plot movement sense comes from audience rapport with an insuperable dilemma wanting resolution, be the dilemma a character's, a milieu's, an idea's, or an event's. Posing a dilemma through a narrator or viewpoint characters interacting with their personal spaces' influences starts and maintains plot movement from the moment emotional equilbrium is disturbed until emotional equilibrium is restored.
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Re: Action, anyone?

Post by bcomet » March 19th, 2010, 4:07 pm

Some thoughts:

I recently read a MG book and was exhausted from all the relentless action. It was probably right up-the-alley of a twelve-year old, but it plain wore me out. It made a great movie.
But, in a book, I need my pauses and quiet moments too, short sentences and longer, more thoughtful ones.

We live in a fast paced, instant-gratification culture. However, even though we love a good roller-coaster ride, the finer things, like a taking a sailboat out, might take all afternoon (or longer), and even if they are often more acquired tastes, they can also be soul-satisfying in more lasting ways.


A book I recently read had so much of everything in it that it lost its cohesiveness. All of the elements were intriguing. But it could have been split into about sixteen books. Sometimes too much is too much.

I am so intrigued by authors who take a single potent element and then build the tension around it and build it and build it and build it.
I think of Enduring Love by Ian McEwan. It was almost too much with just that. (Whew!)

And on another note:

I have a small piece that I recently shifted. I intuited,last night, that I needed to change the POV for that piece to first person and WOW, it completely changed the tension.

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Re: Action, anyone?

Post by Margo » April 5th, 2010, 1:43 pm

Several of the comments here have edged toward the distinction one of my favorite writing instructors makes. Action and tension do not necessarily go hand in hand. Gunfights and car chases can be awfully boring without knowledge of what's at stake. The excitement/anxiety/worry comes from the tension of putting those stakes on the line. I wish I could elaborate upon this more clearly, but I spent four whole brain-frying days at a workshop on tension alone. I can only say that it boils down to tension being in the emotion, but the emotion can't be overwrought, repetitive, or cliche. Still, the tension can appear in the first few pages.

If you (like me) struggle with tension, try reading Fire in Fiction by Donald Maass. It doesn't cover tension as exhaustively as the High Tension workshop he used to do, but I don't think he offers that one anymore.
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Re: Action, anyone?

Post by polymath » April 5th, 2010, 3:12 pm

I've been working on what is meant by action openings. I consider dramatic action the answer, which is plot movement rather than necessarily physical movement, per se. The many stories I've dissected for illumination have several common factors regardless of story type. The overarching characteristic is building audience rapport.

The attributes of rapport that raise tension are; resonance with a narrator, a focal character, a setting, an event and/or an idea, and in some cases an acclaimed author; empathy for an insuperable dilemma, purposes and complications, and stakes and motivations, private and/or public.

That's become my checklist for rewriting, revision, or critique commentary in one discrete area of storytelling. I have other checklists for discourse, dramatic structure, and so on. Of course, the checklists have no bearing during free writing of drafts.
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