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Here’s a rule all new writers will have heard: start when the story starts. Don’t faff around with a long loving description of the setting or some backstory or a history of the fictional country (ahem, I am looking at you, Three Hands of Scorpio). It is often condensed as ‘start with action’. Start when the heroine knocks on the door of her adventure, not when she’s born.
It’s a good rule – new writers sometimes do write pages of extraneous stuff before we suddenly, on page four or five or lord knows twenty, get to seeing a character take his or her first step on the actual story being told in the pages to follow.
But the ‘open with action’ rule does not literally mean you must open with an action scene (depending on what genre you’re writing in). This particularly applies if you’re writing about relationships and characters and aiming an audience who enjoys reading about relationships and characters, even when they also like lots of action.
Consider these two examples:
“Betsy was born to a poor but genteel family. Her father died when she was nine, her mother when she was thirteen. Surviving on a stipend, she struggled to raise her younger sisters. Eventually she realised she was going to have to marry to support her family. With her typical calm and fortitude, she reviewed the list of eligible bachelors, selected the best of them, and presented herself to him with a placid announcement that he would marry her.”
“Betsy knocked on the door of the fashionable London house and presented her calling card to the sniffy butler who answered. ‘Tell Lord Tallbert his future wife is here,’ she announced.
(Well, it’s not a great example, because, actually, she could very well be his future wife, how would the reader know otherwise from that snippet, but you get the drift – it starts with the moment of action, not the decision-making process).
That’s what the rule means, when it says open with action. Say you take this rule too literally and open in the middle of a dramatic, bloody battle, two sides valiantly grappling to seize victory (lots of action!). You, the writer, know who the heroes and heroines are and which side should win. But why should your reader care? They haven’t had time to get to know anyone, why the fight is happening, who they should cheer for, who they should feel sorrow over. It’s just a battle. Some readers like reading about that kind of thing without emotional investment in the characters. Other readers shut the book and try a different one. Which reader is in your audience?
If you do open with a frenetic action scene, you need to somehow make your characters apparent too. A good example of this is The Blade Itself by Joe Abercrombie. Now I didn’t particularly like this book, but the opening is a good example of how, if you start with action-action-action, you can also introduce your character and flesh him/her out at the same time, not incidentally getting your readers’ sympathies on side while you do it. It works well because it follows a single character, told from his point of view, with a dash of humour. This is more or less a perfect application of the ‘open with action’ rule.
I can’t stress how important the choice of character and POV is. You could open with a jewel thief creeping along a tunnel, alarm bells ringing behind him. Sweat drips from his brow; his satchel, slung over one shoulder, is filled with diamonds. Are we rooting for him, or for the security guard dashing to the mouth of his escape tunnel behind him? The POV will tell you.
The pressure to open with action happens in subtler ways too. Take, for example, the opening of Scott Lynch’s Red Seas Under Red Skies. I really enjoyed this book, but I felt the prologue doesn’t work – it’s a dramatic scene from later in the book, put at the front in an effort, I suppose, to entice readers onward. Either the author or the publisher felt the opening wasn’t ‘action-packed’ enough. But: Is there a fan of the first book in the series who cared about a ‘slow’ opening or needed that scene to want to follow Locke? Is there someone who didn’t read the first book and read that scene and went, gosh, two complete strangers to me are having an argument, I must keep reading to find out why? (well, maybe…curiosity is a powerful driver, as all who have read to the last page of a crappy book just to see how it ends will attest).
Of course you want to start with action. But don’t make the mistake of equating ‘action’ with ‘action movie’. Maybe it would be better to say, start with drama. Start with interest. And start with character.
This entry is part of an occasional series exploring when good writing rules go bad. Previous entries are here:
Adjectives and adverbs II.
Don’t consult your thesaurus
Kill your darlings
Write what you know
Cut 10% in editing
Avoid adjectives and adverbs
Show, don’t tell
Just keep writing