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The Biggest Bad Advice About Story Openings

Categories: Craft & Technique.

Following up on
yesterday’s post (No. 1 Challenge of Memoirs), I’d now like to address
the biggest dilemma and balancing act for all storytellers: starting
with an action-oriented scene.

It’s probably the most over-repeated and cliche advice—so much so that writers have come to hate hearing it: Start with action.

I’ve
critiqued hundreds, maybe thousands, of first pages, and this advice is
most to blame for story beginnings that leave the reader in a quivering
mass of Why-the-Hell-Do-I-Care-About-This?

Here’s why:

The action ought to have context—and be as grounded as possible in a character that we’re already starting to love.

If your opening scene has weak (or no) characterization, but tons of action, this may create a scene that:

  • Lacks personality, voice, or viewpoint
  • Delivers a stereotypical crisis moment that’s full of action or pain, but without a center
  • Offers an action scene for the sake of excitement, but without any real connection to the real plot, conflict, or story arc

The story beginnings that I find most compelling offer the following:

  • A character I feel I immediately know and understand
  • A situation that presents a tension, e.g., a character who’s not getting what he wants or meets opposition
  • An indication of the larger story problem or conflict between characters

Here’s a sample of an opening paragraph that does these things:

When
she stepped from the Cessna my first thought was that a man can’t help
but fantasize about a woman like that even if he doesn’t much like her.
My second thought was that she didn’t look the type to venture into the
mountains of Idaho where the nearest road is more than thirty miles
away and phone service probably twice that. She wore a turquoise
blouse, charcoal skirt, and three-inch heels; not the kind of outfit
I’d recommend for hiking and riding.

Think about some of your favorite openings in books you’ve read. Study them. Here are three of mine:

On Love by Alain de Botton

Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert

The Crimson Petal and the White by Michel Faber

Looking for more instruction on story openings?

Photo credit: McBeth

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11 Responses to The Biggest Bad Advice About Story Openings

  1. Ninety percent of agents online want to see the first five pages of your novel.

    Five. Pages.

    That’s less than one percent of most novels. That’s just enough to tell an agent that the author cannot write. But it is NOT enough to distinguish the good writer from the great, or even the mediocre from the good. Yet this is all we poor writers have to hang our futures on. So yeah, we open with action. It may not be the way we wanted the story to go. It may not fit with the characters, voice, or plot. But by damn, if all we have is five pages to catch an agent’s attention, we’re going to make it as memorable as possible. And that means action.

    There’s damn little room in five pages to give a reader or an agent
    " * A character I feel I immediately know and understand
    * A situation that presents a tension, e.g., a character who’s not getting what he wants or meets opposition
    * An indication of the larger story problem or conflict between characters"

    Sometimes the best we can do is one out of three, or risk distorting the story itself into something we no longer recognize.

  2. dayner says:

    This is an interesting debate. One in which I find particularly important since I’m agonizing over my first chapter. I started with action, an attempted rape scene. All the feedback I’ve received consisted of people telling me they don’t care about my character. One comment said "Why should I care about Sarah, shes just a woman having a bad day".
    With this I have to take your advice to heart, Jane. Thanks for the post. I’ll go back and try to turn my action into interesting conflict that people will care about.

  3. Stephanie says:

    Action at the beginning is largely ineffective because it is faceless. We don’t care that John is running from a wildebeast unless we also know he is trying to save a beautiful African girl he fell in love with a week earlier – despite the fact neither speaks the other’s language.

    People are more important than action.

    Here’s a snarky blog about the worst kinds of first sentences:

    Part One:
    http://silkenleather.xanga.com/713050017/the-best-of-lines-the-worst-of-lines-part-1/

    Part Two:
    http://silkenleather.xanga.com/714175312/the-best-of-lines-the-worst-of-lines-part-2/

  4. @Sharon – I don’t think I could’ve presented a better example. Thank you for adding such clarity and valuable insight!

  5. Having read thousands of books in my novel-addicted life and thought very carefully about many of them now that I am writing my own and heading into revision on the one with the best overall first-sell characteristics yet, I’ve been thinking a lot about openings. I understand what Jane is getting at with regards to "quivering mass," though I’m not sure it ever got me to actual quivering, but it is disconcerting to find oneself in the middle of, say, a battle in which one does not even know which side matters or who to care about, and starting in the heat of the crisis scene and then flashing back through the whole rest of the story gets old. On the other hand, books that start with pages of rambling exposition or descriptions are not exactly engaging either.

    My working answer at this point? Part of it is start with *an* action of significance to the story. Not necessarily "the" action in terms of climactic or something large or extreme, but *something* central to the main character(s) should be happening, moving in the first sentence, in a way that contributes to forming an image in the readers mind that engages, and something significant should keep happening after that sentence. Quick examples:

    No significant action:

    The sun on the horizon shone clear and bright in a blue sky with floating picture-book clouds. A rooster crowed, sounding proud in the still air, answered by a ba-ah from a waking sheep. Morning had broken and it was a fine day for the fair.

    Significant action:

    Two pairs of small blue eyes opened to the ray of sunshine that peeped through the curtains. Sally jumped out of bed and ran to the window, her heart beating fast. "It’s a beautiful day for the fair, Mary," she said, "and I just know our pumpkin is going to win the prize!"

    I think choosing the right significant action—one that lets you start painting your picture and engaging people in your characters— is very important. In my second example, in three sentences we are introduced to two characters, we start getting a picture of them, and we have at least one question introduced and the beginning of tension. Most people will cheer for kids trying to win a prize at the fair, so reader engagement begins. Because something happens right away, there is more of a feeling that the story is going to keep moving. The elements are working for the story. In the first example, nothing is really working for the story except a hint that there will be a fair involved. It could be the opening for any one of hundreds of stories about going to the fair.

    Rock bottom, for a story to succeed, you need to make the reader care, whether that reader is a prospective agent or editor or your next-door neighbor. Beginning with the right significant action—one that is graphic in terms of making an image in the reader’s mind—can be very important. The right significant action doesn’t necessarily have be part of a large event or action, but will be one that contributes to engagement with your character(s) and one that can logically lead to further development of story questions, tension, and directions.

    That’s my current take on it anyway. We’ll see how well it works if things come out the other side of revision looking as promising as they do going in and I begin the agent hunt some months down the road.

  6. @Kimberly – Thanks for adding your perspective.

    Based on manuscripts I’ve read by aspiring novelists, advice to "start with action" creates more problems than it solves — and usually only means "Don’t be boring" — because too many writers start with static descriptions (droning about the landscape or weather or backstory).

    Starting with a chase scene, murder, or robbery — maybe these things really are required to interest an agent or publisher in specific genres — but that doesn’t mean the story is getting to the point! Many times the action has no relationship at all to the point of a story and is not successful in hooking the reader; it can be used as a crutch.

  7. As a multipublished, award-winning author have to disagree with the writer "Jane" about this piece. Unless you’re writing literary fiction, the "start with action," rules DO apply. Genre fiction demands that the writer get to the point within the first 1oo to 200 words. I have plenty of supporting evidence by top experts in the field to prove this (Bickham, Swain, Adams, etc). It’s also what I teach in my college creative writing classes and my students are getting published, winning awards and finding work as writers. Everyone should study and learn from published authors who write in the genres that they’re interested in writing in. The market is highly competitive, even now more than ever.

  8. Armand says:

    And yet, very few good (great) books start with action. Nothing cues a throwaway book like opening on action, or worse, dialogue. Go to your book shelf, take down a book with "Pulitzer Prize" on the cover. See how many open on action. Act accordingly.

  9. Helen – You are absolutely right; I’d say most writers need to lop off their first TWENTY pages, or even their first 50! And depending on the audience/genre, there is, as you say, even less time to capture the reader.

    "Start with something interesting" – I think everyone can agree with that. :-)
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  10. Helen Hollick says:

    I agree with you entirely – but – I help a lot of new writers get started. The common faut of inexperienced writers is to start with a four or five page rambling prologue (or first chapter) which explains a long and usually tedious back story which has little to do with the story being written. Hence the words "start with action" – a kinder and more tactful way of saying "delete the opening rubbish".

    And does it not depend on the type of book? And which age group it is written for? YA & children have the attention span of a mayfly!

    Reading your article though, perhaps it would be better to advise "start with something interesting"?

    Thanks for the advice.

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