Analyzing 2 middle grade novels - why action works at the beginning?
A few months ago, I received similar feedback on my WIP not to start with action because the reader doesn't care what happens to the MC.
I'm reading MG novels and found two that start with action. I posted the first 350 words or so and I'd like to know your thoughts why both opening scenes worked (or didn't work for you). Is it voice?
From Ash Mistry and the Savage Fortress by Sarwat Chadda
“That is so not a cobra,” said Ash. It couldn’t be. Weren’t cobras endangered? You couldn’t have them as pets, not even here in India.
“That so totally is a cobra. Look,” said his sister, Lucky. Ash leaned closer to the snake. It swayed in front of him, gently gliding back and forth in tempo with the snake charmer’s flute music. The scales, oily green and black, shone in the intense sunlight. It blinked slowly, watching Ash with its bright emerald eyes.
“Trust me, Lucks,” said Ash. “That is not a cobra.”
The snake revealed its hood.
It was totally a cobra.
“Told you,” she said.
If there was anything worse than a smug sister, it was a smug sister three years younger than you.
“What I meant was, of course it’s a cobra, but not a real cobra,” replied Ash, determined his sister wasn’t going to win this argument. “It’s been defanged. They all are. Hardly a cobra at all. More like a worm with scales.”
Almost as though it had been following the conversation, the cobra hissed loudly and revealed a pair of long, needle-sharp ivory fangs. Lucky waved at it.
“I wouldn’t do that if —”
The cobra darted at Lucky and before Ash knew it, he’d jumped between them. The snake’s mouth widened, and he stared at the two crystal drops of venom hanging off its fangs.
“Parvati!” snapped the snake charmer. The cobra stopped an inch from Ash’s neck. Whoa.
The snake charmer tapped the basket with his flute. The cobra, after giving Ash one last look, curled itself back into it, and the lid went on.
Ash started breathing again. He looked at Lucky. “You okay?”
“See that? I just saved your life,” Ash said. “I practically hurled myself between you and that incredibly poisonous snake. Epically brave.” And, now that the heart palpitations had subsided, epically stupid, he thought. But protecting his little sister was his duty, in the same way hers was to cause as much trouble as possible.
From Middleworld by J&P Voekel
All was quiet.
Suddenly a flock of parrots exploded from the trees, shrieking and squawking, and three men burst out of the rainforest. One of them pushed a hostage, a young girl, in front of him. The other two shot at anything and everything as they ran across the clearing toward the steps of the pyramid.
The noise was terrifying—guns shooting, men shouting, birds screeching—but Max tried to stay calm, waiting for the right moment. He knew he would only get one chance. And, armed with only a blowgun, he also knew the odds were against him.
In the end, it happened so quickly that he hardly had time to think.
Just as the men reached the bottom step, something caught their attention high above Max’s head, and they stopped to blitz the treetops with bullets. He crouched behind a log, not daring to breathe, as leaves and twigs exploded and rained down onto the forest floor. An animal shrieked and fell through the branches, landing with a thud somewhere behind him.
It was now or never.
Adrenaline pumped through his veins as he fired his three darts in quick succession.
Yes! Yes! No!
He’d hit the hostage—again.
Max threw down the controller in disgust.
What was he doing wrong? He’d jumped over the massive tree roots, sidestepped the boa constrictor sleeping in the leaf pile, bypassed the battalion of army ants, and outswum the hungry crocodiles that lurked under the surface of the river. He’d got everything right, but he still couldn’t get past this level.
And what was that cross-eyed monkey trying to tell him?
He grabbed the case and scrutinized the small print. Nope, definitely nothing about cross-eyed monkeys. In fact, no rules at all.
Where had it come from anyway? It was just lying on his bed when he came home. The case looked new, but it smelled musty, like the gym lockers at school.
As far as not starting with an action, I'd say that depends on what the action is.
One notable thing about both of these examples is that there is a reserved sort of action and neither of the actions are integral to the plot -- they may foreshadow things to come, but it's not an action that gets the foundation of the plot moving. In this case, the action tells us more about the characters and gives us a little nod of what to expect in the ensuing pages. In the first example, we're thrust into the lives of the kids and we get a sense of their world, but we're not thrust directly into the heart of the story, which is when Ash is on the run.
Think of it like this:
You're at an Olympic track meet. You're rooting for the Olympian from your native country. You don't know him, but you feel like you have a quasi-vested interest because you're from the same homeland. When he loses, you think 'oh, darn,' but you go on with your day. The race is over.
Now imagine how different the race would have been if you had trained with the Olympian. If you knew him and his family. If you knew how hard he'd worked and how all his hopes and dreams were riding on this one race. It's the exact same race, but you have more than a 'quasi'-vested interest because this man is your friend. When he loses, it effects the rest of your day. You might even cry.
That may be a kinda-lame analogy, but the same is true of MCs. The more we know them, the more vested we are in their failures and triumphs. If you bring readers directly to the Olympic race, we may not cry when he loses.
The two examples provided don't bring us straight to the Olympic event. They're more like a training run -- a burst of action that gives us hints of what to expect, but the whole story doesn't ride on it.
Not sure if that made any sense. :-) I'm fond of rambling examples.
I noticed, along with the action, these examples both also open with a question; not a literal question in the text, I mean, but the scenario presents the reader with a question. Ash says, "That is so not a cobra," so the reader (or at least me) is wondering, "Is it a cobra? What are these kids doing with a cobra? Is anybody going to be bitten?" So I read the whole thing to find out. The second one does it by dropping subtle hints to the unreality of what's going on. "Wait, why are criminals, who you'd think would be quiet, making such a racket? Why is the rescuer only armed with a blowgun? Something's fishy here." So I read the whole thing to find out what. The question worked in tandem with the action and gave it weight, even before I knew much about the characters.
I like that Olympic analogy, Erin. That makes perfect sense.
I haven't read either of these books. For me, I could relate to the first, because I can identify with the brother-sister argument - both wanting to be right. The voice makes it relatable, too. Here are two normal kids, but then, surprise! they are in India. That's got my attention. Then all of a sudden the snake turns dangerous, and we see the brother's protective instincts jump out unbidden, and I immediately like him. I thought it was a really well done opening - voice, characterization, conflict, and setting.
The second one hit me right in the pet-peeve plexus (as opposed to the solar plexus). I hate the bait-and-switch. Mostly, this happens with dreams - there's a lot of action and then we find out it was only a dream. This is just as bad. I do like that the game mysteriously showed up, that's intriguing.
Represented by Molly Ker Hawn of The Bent Agency
Thanks for your comments everyone!
I understand much better why these opening scenes work
I completely agree!
Originally Posted by SheilaJG
Most agents/publishers don't like the bait-and-switch, either.
But I guess it worked for this author.