Image: Matthew Loffhagen
If you’ve ever read an authors’ ‘How To’ book, attended a creative writing class or pretty much sought writing advice of any kind ever, you’re bound to have run into this phrase: ‘always start with the action’. It’s probably as ubiquitous as ‘show don’t tell’ and ‘do not, under any circumstances, use Comic Sans. EVER’.
But should you always start with the action? And if so, what does that really mean?
What is ‘action’?
If you look up ‘action’ in the dictionary, you’ll very quickly see why people are often confused as to what it really means. After all, the word can be used to describe anything from sexual activity, to court proceedings, to military combat, to the CLACK! of a director’s clapperboard. Obviously, when we’re talking about action in the context of storytelling, we can ignore all of these fun variations and focus on the one that’s relevant. But even then, there are various definitions to consider:
Action: (1) : an event or series of events forming a literary composition (2) : the unfolding of the events of a drama or work of fiction : plot (3) : the movement of incidents in a plot.
What’s more, none of these definitions actually crystallizes what we mean when we talk about action at the start of your story. It’s also the case that when considered in relation to storytelling, action will probably conjure up images of helicopters crashing into the White House; mushroom clouds erupting from unsuspecting city centers or Superman slicing through crumbling skyscrapers at vision-blurring speed. Hollywood blockbusters have limited our view of action to huge and dynamic showpieces. We forget that action can be as simple as, “an act of will” or “a thing done”, as the dictionary also puts is. Ultimately, any physical deed – big or small – can count as an action.‘Action’ doesn't mean ‘explosions’, no matter what Hollywood has told us. Click To Tweet
Take a look at the start of Brett Easton Ellis’ American Psycho.
ABANDON ALL HOPE YE WHO ENTER HERE is scrawled in blood red lettering on the side of the Chemical Bank near the corner of Eleventh and First and is in print large enough to be seen from the backseat of the cab as it lurches forward in the traffic leaving Wall Street and just as Timothy Price notices the words a bus pulls up, the advertisement for Les Miserables on its side blocking his view, but Price who is with Pierce & Pierce and twenty-six doesn’t seem to care because he tells the driver he will give him five dollars to turn up the radio, “Be My Baby” on WYNN, and the driver, black, not American, does so.
This is one of the most action-packed opening paragraphs I’ve ever read, and the actions themselves are all relatively small. The cab “lurches forward”, a bus “pulls up”, the character we are following “tells the driver he will give him five dollars to turn up the radio” and the driver “does so”. All of this is peppered by observational description that tell us exactly where we are and what kind of man this character is.
How should you use action?
Another misconception about action is that it has be fast, and that example from Brett Easton Ellis certainly seems to corroborate this. But Ellis’ blisteringly fast pace works for American Psycho specifically because it immediately parallels the type of city New York is, and the volume and nature of the actions that take place define the kind of man Timothy Price is. If you choose to start with action, the choice, pace and context of that action should give your reader a flavor of what’s yet to come. Action for the sake of action, with no weight of purpose behind it, will leave your reader cold.You’d be surprised how uninterested readers are in action for the sake of action. Click To Tweet
The opening scene of David O’Russell’s American Hustle (I’m not picking these examples on purpose, I swear…) follows just one slow action – or ‘process’ – as it unfolds over an almost uncomfortably long period of time. We see Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale) painstakingly applying and adjusting a terrible toupee in the mirror. Straight away, this tells us two things. The first is his approximate age, and the other is his character: particular, self-conscious, preening and a little pitiful. The comedic pay-off from the length and detail of this process comes when the younger Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper) greets Irving by ruffling his hair, and we instantly feel the festering animosity between the pair.
This not only serves as characterization, but the transition from Irving alone in front of the mirror to joining Richie DiMaso and Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams) in the hallway advances the narrative, which is another key purpose your action should serve.
How shouldn’t you use action?
I’ve explained some of the ‘dos’, so let’s move on to the ‘don’ts’. Starting with action doesn’t mean you have to include dialogue or any other kind of interaction with another character right away (e.g. on the first page). However, the longer it is until those things happen, the harder it can be to maintain your reader’s interest. If you remember that most readers base their purchase decision on flicking through the first couple of pages of your book, it’s probably best to hook them within those pages.
An easy, ‘just-add-water’ kind of hook would be to launch into the middle of danger or horror, which is fine, but you should also be wary of having a character in peril straight away, as it will be difficult for your reader to empathize with a stranger so early on. A lack of empathy leads to a lack of caring, and then a lack of interest.Introduce peril too early and your reader will wonder why they should care.Click To Tweet
This feeling of being ‘dropped’ right into the middle of a scene that’s already started can be either exciting or jarring, depending on how well you pull it off. If you start too far in, you may also feel the need to backpeddle later on into heavy exposition, which might throw the pacing off. I’m not saying you’d be better off avoiding this, just that it makes sense to proceed with caution.
Do you have to start with action?
While I don’t think you have to start with action, I do think it’s often harder not to. As I’ve said, action – if done well – is usually the easiest and quickest way to hook a reader. But not every great novel starts with action.
Look at James Ellroy’s opening paragraph in American Tabloid (once again – pure coincidence. Honestly.)
America was never innocent. We popped our cherry on the boat over and looked back with no regrets. You can’t ascribe our fall from grace to any single event or set of circumstances. You can’t lose what you lacked at conception.
Or the opening of Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities.
It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way — in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.
You’ll tend to find that non-action openings such as these start with a description or observation, and while the best ones aren’t always as grandiose as Dickens, but they are all instantly engaging.A story should instantly engage the reader – action can do that, but there are other tools.Click To Tweet
What could qualify as instantly engaging? Here are some ideas:
- Something unusual – not necessarily fantastical, just something out of place or off-kilter.
- Something shocking – an admission from your character or description of a shocking scene, like a murder.
- Something unclear – unfamiliarity or abstractness that becomes clearer the further your read.
- Something unique to your character/setting – highlight an interesting quirk or defect.
- Something ordinary that you can describe in an extraordinary way.
Engagement is more important than action
I’m sure I don’t need to remind you that how your book starts is as crucial as how it ends. Perhaps even more important in the context of hooking a reader. If you choose to start with action, you need to think carefully about what, how and why that action (or series of actions) is happening, as well as what it’ll lead into and how quickly. Not starting with action might be trickier, but not impossible. And above all, engagement is key. As Jeff Gerke, author of The First 50 Pages, writes:
The point isn’t what sort of engagement you use. The point is that you engage.
– Jeff Gerke, ‘Begin Your Novel with Action: A Good Rule?’, Jane Friedman blog
Do you prefer to start your stories with action, or do you find description works better? Have you faced problems or successes with either decision? Let me know in the comments! Or, for more on this topic, check out Save That Cat! The Easy Secret To Introducing A Hero and Short Story Authors, Give Your Opening Paragraph A Little Love!