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Clarity on opening a book with "action"

Discussion in 'Writing Discussions' started by Miskatonic, Nov 1, 2015.

  1. Mythopoet

    Mythopoet Auror

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    Interestingly, this quote just showed up on tumblr:

    "The more you know, the more unflinchingly you deny casual beliefs and Accepted Wisdom when it flies in the face of reality, the more carefully you observe the world and its people around you, the better chance you have of writing something meaningful and well-crafted." ~ Harlan Ellison

    I think that really says it all.
     
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  2. Heliotrope

    Heliotrope Staff Article Team

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    Mythopoet is calling us all geniuses!

    Yay Mythopoet!
     
  3. Steerpike

    Steerpike Felis amatus Moderator

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    Ellison has never been shy about sharing his opinion.
     
  4. Chessie

    Chessie Guest

    I'm late to this conversation but hopefully this tidbit can help. It comes from Writing Deep Scenes by Martha Alderson (still making my way through this awesome book, I recommend it):

    Scenes don’t so much begin as launch– often in the midst of an event or activity. That is to say, you need not start scenes with an explanation or exposition but simply with an entrance into the action. Then, by following a character’s goals and desires, you walk your reader through a setting– preferably in a way that shows the protagonist interacting with it, not just observing it– employing the character’s sensory perceptions, introducing his conflict and relationship with inner and outer antagonists and allies, and building the character to a high or low point. Never leave the reader too satisfied at the end of a scene; she must want to keep reading to find out what happens next. Each scene creates consequences that must be dealt with or built upon in the next scene. And thus, scene by scene, you tell a compelling story that has the dramatic power and emotional impact of a great piece of music. A scene is defined by the presence of more real-time momentum than interior monologue (contemplation) or expository explanation. Real-time momentum is a combination of action, dialogue, and character interaction with his surroundings and other characters. Scenes crackle with energy and rhythms that make readers feel as though they are right beside (or inside) the character as he experiences any number of situations and scenarios. In contrast, narrative summary– lecturing, explaining, or describing– puts readers to sleep after too long.

    Alderson, Martha; Rosenfeld, Jordan (2015-09-04). Writing Deep Scenes: Plotting Your Story Through Action, Emotion, and Theme (Kindle Locations 430-440). F+W Media. Kindle Edition.
     
  5. Mythopoet

    Mythopoet Auror

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    At least I have that in common with him. Now if only I could manage to write as prolifically. ;)
     
  6. Incanus

    Incanus Auror

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    Addressing the OP--I consider 'action' in this context as anything that might be occuring 'on stage'. So not necessarily chases or fights or explosions. A conversation would qualify.

    My novel opens with an 'action' scene--action as in a fight. I've been trying to figure out the best balance--do I start with introducting characters, then put them into the action, or do I start with the action, and then show who these characters are?

    I tried to strike a balance between these two things when I wrote the first draft (actually, it probably emphasizes action as I'm still getting to know the characters better). Hopefully I'll get it right in the revisions. The situation is complicated enough that I could spend 15-20 pages setting it all up, introducing characters, explaing the situation and goals. I think that's way too much though. As it is, I fill in most of that stuff a little later on.
     
  7. Miskatonic

    Miskatonic Auror

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    My opening scene is a man standing at the bow of a merchant ship that's sailing through rough, icy waters on. He's been sent to a foreign land that up until this point has shunned outsiders. Now all of a sudden they are opening their borders to the outside world, and he is both a representative of the trading company as well as a de-facto ambassador. A lot of responsibility has been placed on his shoulders.

    So the focus would be a combination of discussing the conditions of which he's sailing, as well as the responsibility that's been laid before them. Perhaps drawing parallels between the two.
     
  8. Incanus

    Incanus Auror

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    I like the idea of drawing parellels between the elements you mention. Always good. However, despite the cool setting (ship in icy waters), the 'action' of this opening simply has the man 'standing'. In other words, the ship is doing something interesing, but the man is not. Maybe give him something to do--I don't know what exactly, but if you can make it further relate to him or the main story, all the better.
     
  9. Russ

    Russ Istar

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    "Action" can be a funny word.

    The plan I follow (derived from reading too many writing books, taking too many courses and talking about writing too much) is to start my book as close as possible to either "the initiating event" (the event that causes the plot) or as close as possible to the first turning point for the MC (the point where the MC gets committed to the main conflict). If they are bot the same thing, all the better, but in many cases they are separated by time, sometimes centuries, sometimes minutes.
     
  10. JCFarnham

    JCFarnham Auror

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    I do think that "begin with action!", as many have said before me, needs clarification. I also think that it's perfectly possible to introduce a character, in such a way as to make the reader feel for them, while that character engages in their high octane action.

    There almost seems to be a division in common advice between "do action" and "create sympathy for character". Surely it's possible to do both concurrently, even if that action is an in media res fight scene (for examples sake)?

    I'm not near my book shelf, so I can't come up with any examples right now, but my reading seems on the face of it to support my thoughts.
     
  11. Caged Maiden

    Caged Maiden Staff Article Team

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    Whoa, JC, where the hell have you been? Welcome back!

    Okay, back to the topic...

    I think the worst thing a writer can do is open with something dull, and I think the worst of that is sort of similar to that Harry Potter opening (which admittedly, was probably meant to appeal to young readers, so it's not particularly an apt assessment on my part), but it's some version of:

    Like, OKAY, there's a question, but we've also got POV confusion, blatant tells, and focus on the wrong things. This is a TERRIBLE opening, though it raises a question and technically might be considered "action". And the worst part is that this kind of opening appears in books over and over again, and no matter how you slice it, it doesn't get any better just because a writer has a richer world, a more unique-looking character, or whatever. In my opinion, it's less about how much action is going on, and more about the subtle conveyance of bigger-picture experiences conveyed in tone and word choice. Someone mentioned immediacy (sorry, i'm not scrolling back to see who it was), and I think that's the nail on the head...um...hit? anyways, IMMEDIACY is exactly the name of the game. I think it's fine if you don't show action, but then you need a character goal. If you don't want to show the goal up front, then have a situation that's interesting, that gets readers asking questions. If you don't have a reader asking questions about a weird tower or whatever, then give them a great description of the underbelly of a decrepit city and let them wonder for a moment who lives there. I mean, none of it is wrong, but it has to be gripping, dammit!

    So (and I know I'm rubbing folks the wrong way already, but meh, I have an opinion, and maybe it'll help someone else, so here it goes), consider instead of "action or description" (if you can simplify any opening into strictly one or the other), the quality of whatever you're trying to show.

    I think sometimes writers get caught up in the literal translation of certain advice snippets (someone mentioned "show and tell" earlier, and that's another perfect example), rather than reading between the lines more completely and getting a deeper understanding of the issue.

    I don't think I've ever opened a story with anything resembling real action (akin to the Bond reference earlier), but I think some of my openings are really good. Sometimes they begin with a question, but mostly, they show a little thing, a mini short story, and to me, that's the best way to open. One small problem the character faces right from the beginning, and after that one experience is over, the larger story begins. I guess that's kinda hard to explain. This is the first paragraph of my new opening to a book I'm rewriting:

    No action. Like, none. And no action follows, either. A guy is walking through the street, and he goes to his friend's house, and they have a conversation. It sounds like a HUGE no-no. But to me, it works really well, because it isn't too big, or too small. Like, sometimes I think writers bite off more than they can chew, and they try to rush right into a story that's going on in the present, when a couple paragraphs of context might have been a better choice. On the converse, I think a lot more folks like to do a wide angle pan before they begin to close the distance to what the immediate situation actually even is (and for me, this is terribly boring). And then there's writers who are filming, but the lens cap is on and they try to keep a reader in the dark, but it goes on too long (I might be stupidly guilty of that last one, especially, HA!). For me (and I can only talk about what I like to write and read), the opening needs to be pertinent descriptions, brief intros to important things, and most importantly, convey the book's tone. I know I've raved about The Lies of Locke Lamora like it's my first love and I'll never get over it no matter how many other books I read, but the opening paragraph is just SO GOOD, I can't praise it enough. Yet, there are readers who disliked the entire opening and found it didn't appeal to them because it was in the past (compared to the rest of the story), and again, I'm just reminded that folks have different tastes...and let's be honest, some folks have no taste.

    Here it is:
    I mean...I thought it was so good, I've read the opening chapter like a dozen times, just trying to understand why I felt it was so captivating, because captive was exactly what I was, from the beginning page until I finally put it down 200k words later. I even had the computer on the counter while I was cooking dinner. And I think the opening was the main reason I was riveted to my computer screen. It just so fully pulled me in, I was helpless to resist its tug.

    But if you try to sum it up, the main action is a page of a thief trying to sell a boy to a priest, and then it cuts to a long segment about how the children went to live with the thief, and then it cuts back to the negotiation, and then it goes back to Locke two years earlier and how he got to know the thief. It's humorous, descriptive, and not filled with action.

    So, in short (right? After I wrote this long reply, I'm gonna give the condensed version now? HA!), I think action is relative, characters need context, as do immediate situations (if they are to be truly engaging to readers), and tone is overall the thing that either pulls me in or lets me know the write isn't half as committed to their story as I want to be right from the get-go (and I'll probably not enjoy the rest of the story). I think when writers display their talent like a strutting peacock all over the first chapter, I bite hook, line, and sinker, but when I get that wide angle pan feeling, I just sort of start skimming...and that's never what a writer wants.

    That all being said, I've read plenty of stories I thought were awful. Awful execution, every amateur mistake in the book, and just dull beyond dull...and some other folks love them. So, THERE ARE NO WRONG CHOICES. Action or contemplation, both can be very compelling and both have the ability to engage and captivate readers. Just remember execution is the critical element in any book's opening.

    P.S. I meant to post this last night, but found it this morning un-poted. The conversation has probably moved on, but I thought I'd just hit post anyways.
     
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  12. kennyc

    kennyc Inkling

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    A blog post I ran across on G+ about how NOT to start your novel. I'm neither agreeing or disagreeing with any or all of it because as I've said before the main thing AFAIC is to invite the reader in to the waking dream, create interest, raise questions that get them to turn the page and continue reading, not through blatant shenanigans, but by sharing the dream with them.

    https://writersanontaunton.wordpres...o-begin-your-novel-7-ways-to-kill-your-story/
     
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  13. Russ

    Russ Istar

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    I had read that list before...but it is a good reminder.
     
  14. FifthView

    FifthView Istar

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    Caged Maiden,

    This was an excellent example of a boring opening:

    A good exercise for students would be to revise it to make it interesting without altering the essential facts (info) that it presents.
     
  15. Caged Maiden

    Caged Maiden Staff Article Team

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    Well, a challenge, then! Do it! I'll do it too. Maybe we can open a new thread and see what we come up with. I love it. I mean, that's exactly what I do when editing, I take my first draft (that looks exactly like the opening I made up) and change it to be engaging and focused on the right things. Thanks for understanding what I meant by calling it horrible, I worried folks would take offense at my example (because I read a ton of books with this exact opening), but I feel examples are so much more concrete than talking theory, which let's be honest, often gives a credible set of advice, but doesn't show a convincing sample of what bad and good are. Now, I'm not saying my openings are the most engaging, because we all struggle with this from time to time, or forever...but when you can clearly take a sample paragraph and go "oops, there's a POV conflict, there's a weak tell of information rather than an experience, whoa, here's an unnecessary description that's neither engaging nor pertinent," it makes it so much easier to judge whether an opening paragraph opens the story to the reader or stands like a bouncer's stiff-arm, barring them entry. I mean...doesn't a reader just want to come on in to the party? ;)
     
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  16. FifthView

    FifthView Istar

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    @Caged Maiden: I'm currently at my day job, and ought to be doing other things, but I'll think about that revision until I have a chance to focus. My original comment arose because I had automatically started to revise it in my head when I read your post! But I'm beset by distractions while sitting at my desk, mostly of the sort "I really need to get back to work!"
     
  17. danr62

    danr62 Sage

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    Caged, I like your opening. It definitely got my interest going. I'm wondering what's up with the weird gem, or the weird raven that sees auras, or that weird man thing with the weird aura, and where is it going? And why is the raven following?

    On the other hand, I don't like the Locke Lamora opening all that much. It's not terrible, but it has too many names and terms that I don't have the context to understand.
     
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  18. JCFarnham

    JCFarnham Auror

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    Yeah, that Locke Lamora opening... I've got no idea whether I'm supposed to be impressed by the random names/"world building", or find humour in the ridiculous lengths it's been taken to.

    Maybe I'm not on the right wave length to get it? Considering the writer I can pretty much understand why that's the opening. So, meh.

    It does raise an interesting question though for me. Clearly, dependant on taste, an opening can go too far with the questions and mystery and end up confusing its message. To take another example, in the Locke Lamora excerpt, would it have be better to figure out an more action packed way for the thiefmaker to sell the boy than front loading the paragraph with detail that means literally nothing to us as of yet?

    The real question is how far is too far? When does the detail start harming your "immediate" intro? Ymmv, right? But I definitely think that's something we should muse on when putting fingers to keyboard. Interesting prose is great, but for me something else has to also be communicated. It's like in multi-starred restaurants. "Looks great, but could do with more meat."
     
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  19. Caged Maiden

    Caged Maiden Staff Article Team

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    I have to say that when I opened TLoLL, I was very confused by the world and the months (or how time passed, really, because I'm still not sure how that works), and the places (because every bridge and hill are named), but I like the way the author just assumes you know it all and it makes sense, rather than spending time on it. Admittedly, reading it for the second or third time is a whole lot easier than the first, because i can now focus on some of those details, when the first time, I was more concerned with understanding the plot. But now I know what happens, so I can sort of enjoy the skill a little more. I WAS totally captivated the first read, though.

    Thanks for liking my opening, Dan. I didn't post it expecting anyone to like it, I just wanted to say I never open with action, and that's a perfect example of how little action I usually begin with. I'm flattered.
     
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  20. JCFarnham

    JCFarnham Auror

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    It all depends on what you're going for as an author, what the reader prefers... Personally I'm not sure I have the time to spend on letting something to grow on me.

    Figuring that out went a long way towards figuring out what kind of openings I should be writing, action or not.

    I will say this, I always appreciate when a writer assumes you know whats going on. I love to experience stories as though I were a fly on the wall, especially on tv and in film, but books also. But for me it still has to make sense.
     
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