Story Openings: What Constitutes Significant/Meaningful Action?

My post on The Biggest Bad Advice on Story Openings has generated a
lively and sometimes controversial discussion about the facets and subtleties of an action scene opening.

I still think my advice is dead on, and
that agents/editors aren’t looking for action-oriented scenes as much as
a compelling and interesting opening. But action does not automatically
equal compelling and interesting.

Sharon Cousins posted a
response that I found extremely helpful, offering examples of action
that is meaningful, not empty. Here’s what she shared:


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. 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 reader’s 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 to 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.

My thanks to Sharon for granting me
permission to post.

Brief bio of Sharon: She is the Idaho
regional representative for the International Women’s Writing Guild.
She spends most of her time in her unique
travel-trailer-turned-writing-studio, working on her novel-in-revision,
her newsletter, and her website, Write ’em Cowgirls!
Sharon also writes and edits for Solar Cookers International,
where she serves on the executive board. She hopes to be agent-hunting
soon.

Photo
credit: BottleLeaf

You might also like:

  • No Related Posts

8 thoughts on “Story Openings: What Constitutes Significant/Meaningful Action?

  1. Ollin Morales

    Personally I love to hit the ground running. As a reader I like to be engaged automatically, but as you said, not in the typical stereotypical way in which we are thrust into some kind of battle. I want to sense some sort of conflict, not big, but not small either. A conflict that reveals who this character is and a hint as to the direction their headed. The first pages are like a signpost, I guess. A sign that says "DANGER" is more compelling than one that says "CROSSWALK" for example. Thanks the great posts and all the focus on Harry Potter! Great stuff! 🙂

  2. Les

    Hi Jane–I hesitated to comment here, mostly because WD published my book on story openings, "Hooked," but thought perhaps I could contribute to the discussion.

    First, I’ve found that some readers of the book seem to have read "selectively," meaning, they may have read a portion that spoke to them (good or bad), but neglected perhaps to read the entire information on the subject, i.e., the "qualifiers." Second, I think at times that we as writing teachers, are at a disadvantage having to employ terms that mean one thing in a layperson sense, but have entirely different meanings in a literary sense. One term that fits that description is the word "action." I suspect that many writers think of action in a particular lay sense–someone doing something physical and many times not in a dramatic sense but in a melodramatic sense. That’s where all these opening scenes with rapes and murders, et al, sometimes derive from–a misinterpretation of the word "action."

    My entire premise for the book is simple:

    1. That contemporary stories are always about trouble. Again, not "trouble" in the layperson’s sense of the word. The lay definition of the word trouble many times means something entirely different from the literary meaning. A person whose husband has been murdered, a person who has been thrown out on the street because they can’t pay the rent, a person who’s been raped–those things are "trouble" in a lay sense, but not necessarily in a writing sense. Many times they’re just "bad situations," and bad situations aren’t the basis for a story.

    2. If stories are about trouble (and they are) then today’s stories need to begin when the trouble begins… and that means with the inciting incident. Doing so eliminates all that setup/backstory/description/etc. that writers want to begin with.

    Here’s just one example I give in the book on "action." The beginning of James Baldwin’s story, "Sonny’s Blues." It begins in the protagonist’s mind with: I read about it in the paper, in the subway, on my way to work. I read it, and I couldn’t believe it, an I read it again.

    That’s the inciting incident. It’s the moment his story problem was realized–reading about his brother’s arrest. It’s "action" in the literary sense. We’re there, with him, when his problem is revealed to him. Five minutes before that moment is backstory/setup, and doesn’t belong in the opening at all. Backstory is important; it just shouldn’t begin the story.

    A large part of the problem is our terms derive from lay terms, but have vastly different meanings. The above is "action" and some have trouble seeing that as action. Nobody gets raped or murdered or thrown out of their house into the street. Actually, what some call action isn’t dramatic; it’s melodamatic.

    There are two levels of problems in stories and both are entwined. The first, I coined my own term and called it a "surface problem." It’s the outward problem the protagonist is striving to resolve, and is symptomatic of the "real" and underlying problem, I termed the "story-worthy problem." It takes going through the struggle to resolve the surface problem to reveal and resolve the story-worthy problem, which I identify as a deeper, psychological problem. Interesting, I just came upon the "Save the Cat" books by Blake Snyder, and he’s arrived at the same things. He calls his the "tangible" and the "spiritual" stories, and his definition of each is exactly the same as mine. I suspect he was like me–there weren’t any good terms available so we had to invent our own.

    Forgive me for intruding–just thought this might help!

    What we need is a book standardizing and defining our terms. Under "A" should first be listed "Action" and it doesn’t mean physical action, necessarily.

    Blue skies,

    Les Edgerton

  3. Andrea Wenger

    Jane, you’ve got it exactly right. The opening must orient the reader to the story to be effective. That means revealing the character through action, providing the right details without overwhelming the reader. A good opening is more than a hook – it establishes the pace and tone, and it foreshadows the ending. The opening should never be a gimmick. It should be intrinsic and inevitable, the same way the ending is inevitable. Great opening lines, like those in "Pride and Prejudice" and "Charlotte’s Web," are memorable not just because they’re great hooks, but because they start the novel at the perfect moment in time and capture the essence of the story conflict.

  4. Theresa Milstein

    I’ve heard that beginning with a conversation is wrong, and now that I’ve looked at openings on the "Miss Snark’s First Victim" blog and joined a critique group, I can see why. If a reader starts off confused, why would they bother to read on?

    With all the warnings – not too much backstory, just enough info to a set scene, grab the reader with a hook – writers like me lose sight of the fact that just setting tension and piquing interest rather than dramatic action (which may be more like chaos) IS the hook.

    Easier said than done.

  5. Steph

    I always say that a successful action opening is anything character-related and not mere crash-boom-bang (it works in some movies but even then, it’s about characterisation more than action per se). Also to note seems to be the confusion related to the term itself; some prospective writers think that action must signify something shocking or fast-paced while it is meaningful sub-text that we are after, not guts and blood. A couple of weeks ago I was writing that operating like a screenwriter for a while can be extremely helpful to all writers. I believe that You’ve Got Mail is a movie that showcases a beginning in media res which immediately involves the audience with the characters. That’s something that should be applied to fiction-writing as well. Thanks!

COMMENT