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Thread: Start with action or show the character first?

  1. #1
    practical experience, FTW CJSimone's Avatar
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    Start with action or show the character first?

    Or can you maybe do both?

    I've heard so much conflicting advice about this (in general, not directed at my work) and it's making me have doubts about my opening for my WIP (action). I'm prone to doubts anyway. And the idea that readers/agents/publishers often don't read past the first page freaks me out. After awhile a story's scenes become pretty set (flowing one from another), but at the beginning there are so many possibilities it's overwhelming. Any thoughts / advice?
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  2. #2
    Great Old One CameronJohnston's Avatar
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    I think an all-out action start can be very off-putting and weirdly dull when you don't know the character and are not invested in the stakes. Why should the reader care if some random guy might die? On the other hand, a good action start drags you into the character at the same time as putting them in action. For example, you might have two characters on the run from cops, bags of swag in hand, saying they now have the cash to pay for their daughter's operation if only they can make their escape - that brings action, stakes and character all in one.

    Character is more important than action to me when reading those first few pages. I need to care about them.
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    practical experience, FTW Calder's Avatar
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    Whether it's action, or explaratory, what you must do in any opening sequence is engage the reader, draw him/her in, make them want to continue. This can be done with an exciting action sequence. It can be done equally effectively by an intriguing, character-driven start - preferably both. When choosing a book, especially one they don't know, or haven't heard of, many readers will go immediately to Page 1. If what they find there doesn't engage them, or intrigue them, they put it back on the shelf. You must get your reader to invest in your story from page 1.
    For me, it depends on what I'm writing, but whatever the style, or POV etc, I try to plant questions in the reader's mind from the start (Who is this? What's going on? Do I like this person? etc?) without presenting them with a confusing conundrum.
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  4. #4
    practical experience, FTW Cascada's Avatar
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    Recent feedback I received said the reader needs to invest in the MC before the action hits, then its more meaningful, with better context.

  5. #5
    Let's see what's on special today.. Bufty's Avatar
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    What I've most recently been made aware of is the trap of trying to put an initial story or chapter goal question in the reader's mind during an opening scene, be it action or character focussed, without giving sufficient information for that question to really matter.

    Hope I've expressed that right.
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  6. #6
    Scribe of the girls in the basement Marissa D's Avatar
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    I think the "agent/editor makes snap decision after reading one page" is more a result of being able to tell within just a few paragraphs whether the writing is clumsy and labored or engaging and unobtrusive. It's easy to say no when the writing is sub-par, even before they get to issues of character/action.

  7. #7
    practical experience, FTW Jan74's Avatar
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    I've been reading so many conflicting suggestions as to how to begin a novel, some say action is a put off and others say start with action. TBH I think it's more about engaging the reader, pulling them in and making them want to read more, and sometimes that happens without any action but comes with enticing characters. Some advice says never start with a dream or waking up, but the hunger games she starts it with her waking up and there is no action, but you become drawn in by a great character.

    Honestly with all the stuff I keep reading and "tips" out there about what not to do etc it's very discouraging, I think you should just write what feels right for the story and go from there.

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  8. #8
    Come on you stranger, you legend, Devil Ledbetter's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by CJSimone View Post
    Or can you maybe do both?

    I've heard so much conflicting advice about this (in general, not directed at my work) and it's making me have doubts about my opening for my WIP (action). I'm prone to doubts anyway. And the idea that readers/agents/publishers often don't read past the first page freaks me out. After awhile a story's scenes become pretty set (flowing one from another), but at the beginning there are so many possibilities it's overwhelming. Any thoughts / advice?
    You've correctly identified this as a self-confidence issue rather than a storytelling issue.

    My suggested fix: Gather your 5 favorite novels in the genre you're writing in. Read each opening scene. Do they start with action? Show the character? Show the character in action? Hint at or flat out provide the main story goal?

    As you reread those opening scenes, try to soak in the confidence of your favorite authors. They trust that their story is good, that the reader has an attention span longer than a fruit fly's, that as long as the writing flows and something happens, the reader is going to stick with it. That's all you really need.

    Don't try to second-guess what will grab a slush reader or agent by the nutsack. Even they can't articulate what hooks them--they can only complain about what bores them. Avoid the "jaw-dropping" opener that falls flat, doesn't deliver, doesn't fit the story, or is dishonest (the wild action scene that turns out to be "just a dream," for example).

    Simply start with a person (character) in a place (setting) with a problem (immediate goal). As Kurt Vonnegut once said, every character has to want something, even if it's just a glass of water. Don't be afraid to make that initial goal small in relation to your overall plot. Have confidence in your story and trust in your readers that it will be enough.

    Most importantly, until you've completed the first draft of your manuscript all the way to the end, do not put too much thought into the opening scene. Where you begin is important, but the right place to begin isn't always clear until you know how the story ends.

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  9. #9
    Have pen, will travel Cindyt's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Bufty View Post
    What I've most recently been made aware of is the trap of trying to put an initial story or chapter goal question in the reader's mind during an opening scene, be it action or character focussed, without giving sufficient information for that question to really matter.
    ^This.

    Balance is key. If you give everything away too soon the reader may go on reading but without the excitement of a line by line discovery.
    Last edited by Cindyt; 03-01-2017 at 12:12 AM.
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  10. #10
    Come on you stranger, you legend, Devil Ledbetter's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Jan74 View Post
    I've been reading so many conflicting suggestions as to how to begin a novel, some say action is a put off and others say start with action. TBH I think it's more about engaging the reader, pulling them in and making them want to read more, and sometimes that happens without any action but comes with enticing characters. Some advice says never start with a dream or waking up, but the hunger games she starts it with her waking up and there is no action, but you become drawn in by a great character.

    Honestly with all the stuff I keep reading and "tips" out there about what not to do etc it's very discouraging, I think you should just write what feels right for the story and go from there.
    I know what you mean.

    This is why around here we often add the disclaimer if done well. Anything can work if done well, such a the opening scene in Hunger Games. It works because the main character isn't just waking up to go about her humdrum day, or waking up with the false tension of being late. She is waking up to a day that is the biggest deal in her unusual world, made more intriguing by the situation she's already in (poverty, crushing responsibilities, concern for her sister's life).

    As writers we need to look not just at whether something works, but why it works.

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  11. #11
    practical experience, FTW MaeZe's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Jan74 View Post
    .... Honestly with all the stuff I keep reading and "tips" out there about what not to do etc it's very discouraging, I think you should just write what feels right for the story and go from there.
    Advice needs perspective and context.

    If I tell a new writer, "show more, tell less," a debate inevitably begins about what is or isn't telling and how the advice is good or bad. But in context, the advice is not a rule, it's addressing a common issue with new writers who tend to tell us what happens the way one might tell a friend an interesting anecdote from the day before. In a book, however, you aren't just relating an anecdote, you want the reader to immerse themselves in the scene and that is done differently than one 'tells' an anecdote verbally.

    Try to look beyond the 'rule' aspect of the advice to the bigger underlying message. And if the underlying message is not clear, do some research to understand the rule or advice better.


    Quote Originally Posted by Devil Ledbetter View Post
    ... As writers we need to look not just at whether something works, but why it works.
    Exactly.


    As for the OP question, you need a bit of both but the focus can be either. Sometimes only a sentence or two is enough to make a character interesting (more can come later) during an action scene. And if starting with the character, one still needs something to tie the description to the story to come.

    Remember also that 'action' is not limited to any single kind of action.
    Last edited by MaeZe; 02-28-2017 at 09:34 PM.

  12. #12
    practical experience, FTW CJSimone's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by CameronJohnston View Post
    I think an all-out action start can be very off-putting and weirdly dull when you don't know the character and are not invested in the stakes. Why should the reader care if some random guy might die? On the other hand, a good action start drags you into the character at the same time as putting them in action. For example, you might have two characters on the run from cops, bags of swag in hand, saying they now have the cash to pay for their daughter's operation if only they can make their escape - that brings action, stakes and character all in one.

    Character is more important than action to me when reading those first few pages. I need to care about them.
    Quote Originally Posted by Cascada View Post
    Recent feedback I received said the reader needs to invest in the MC before the action hits, then its more meaningful, with better context.
    Thanks CameronJohnston and Cascada. I think character is key too. I don't know how much I'm getting character in with the action; it's hard to get both (for me) or hard to determine I am.

    Looking through SYW posts and comments (and other places), I've seen the exact comment you speak of Cascada, but OTOH I've seen readers getting bored without action.
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  13. #13
    @PeteMC666 PeteMC's Avatar
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    Absolutely both, at least in my genre - show the character through the action.
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  14. #14
    practical experience, FTW CJSimone's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Calder View Post
    Whether it's action, or explaratory, what you must do in any opening sequence is engage the reader, draw him/her in, make them want to continue. This can be done with an exciting action sequence. It can be done equally effectively by an intriguing, character-driven start - preferably both. When choosing a book, especially one they don't know, or haven't heard of, many readers will go immediately to Page 1. If what they find there doesn't engage them, or intrigue them, they put it back on the shelf. You must get your reader to invest in your story from page 1.
    For me, it depends on what I'm writing, but whatever the style, or POV etc, I try to plant questions in the reader's mind from the start (Who is this? What's going on? Do I like this person? etc?) without presenting them with a confusing conundrum.
    Quote Originally Posted by Jan74 View Post
    I've been reading so many conflicting suggestions as to how to begin a novel, some say action is a put off and others say start with action. TBH I think it's more about engaging the reader, pulling them in and making them want to read more, and sometimes that happens without any action but comes with enticing characters. Some advice says never start with a dream or waking up, but the hunger games she starts it with her waking up and there is no action, but you become drawn in by a great character.

    Honestly with all the stuff I keep reading and "tips" out there about what not to do etc it's very discouraging, I think you should just write what feels right for the story and go from there.
    Thanks Calder and Jan74. Maybe one's not better than the other and it is just a question of engaging the reader. Now if I knew the secret of getting the reader to invest from page one, I'd be good.

    I agree it gets discouraging at times, but hang in there Jan74.
    2017 Pitch Wars mentee.

    "I am absolutely THRILLED to be working with @CJSimone333 on a gritty, voice-y contemp YA, THE EDGE. You guys, the voice on this! *swoon*" (Dawn Ius, author of ANNE AND FRANK, OVERDRIVE, and LIZZIE).

    Twitter: @CJSimone333

  15. #15
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    Obviously some degree of emphasis here will vary by individual story, but this is by no means a dichotomy. Character and activity can (and usually should be) parts of a whole. I don't see any reason why this amalgam shouldn't happen at the beginning of a story.

    caw
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  16. #16
    practical experience, FTW CJSimone's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Bufty View Post
    What I've most recently been made aware of is the trap of trying to put an initial story or chapter goal question in the reader's mind during an opening scene, be it action or character focussed, without giving sufficient information for that question to really matter.

    Hope I've expressed that right.
    Thanks Bufty. I've come across advice about the question/goal, but hadn't really thought about the sufficient information for the question to matter. That's good and something to think about.
    2017 Pitch Wars mentee.

    "I am absolutely THRILLED to be working with @CJSimone333 on a gritty, voice-y contemp YA, THE EDGE. You guys, the voice on this! *swoon*" (Dawn Ius, author of ANNE AND FRANK, OVERDRIVE, and LIZZIE).

    Twitter: @CJSimone333

  17. #17
    practical experience, FTW CJSimone's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Marissa D View Post
    I think the "agent/editor makes snap decision after reading one page" is more a result of being able to tell within just a few paragraphs whether the writing is clumsy and labored or engaging and unobtrusive. It's easy to say no when the writing is sub-par, even before they get to issues of character/action.
    Thanks, Marissa D. This is probably true in a lot of cases, but I've also seen writers say when they changed the opening scene/sample, they suddenly got requests. Bad writing will be dismissed by page one because it's bad, but I also think a good portion of writers do write ok, and yet there's still so much competition that even with decent writing, we have to really grab an agent/publisher from the start.
    2017 Pitch Wars mentee.

    "I am absolutely THRILLED to be working with @CJSimone333 on a gritty, voice-y contemp YA, THE EDGE. You guys, the voice on this! *swoon*" (Dawn Ius, author of ANNE AND FRANK, OVERDRIVE, and LIZZIE).

    Twitter: @CJSimone333

  18. #18
    practical experience, FTW CJSimone's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Devil Ledbetter View Post
    You've correctly identified this as a self-confidence issue rather than a storytelling issue.

    My suggested fix: Gather your 5 favorite novels in the genre you're writing in. Read each opening scene. Do they start with action? Show the character? Show the character in action? Hint at or flat out provide the main story goal?

    As you reread those opening scenes, try to soak in the confidence of your favorite authors. They trust that their story is good, that the reader has an attention span longer than a fruit fly's, that as long as the writing flows and something happens, the reader is going to stick with it. That's all you really need.

    Don't try to second-guess what will grab a slush reader or agent by the nutsack. Even they can't articulate what hooks them--they can only complain about what bores them. Avoid the "jaw-dropping" opener that falls flat, doesn't deliver, doesn't fit the story, or is dishonest (the wild action scene that turns out to be "just a dream," for example).

    Simply start with a person (character) in a place (setting) with a problem (immediate goal). As Kurt Vonnegut once said, every character has to want something, even if it's just a glass of water. Don't be afraid to make that initial goal small in relation to your overall plot. Have confidence in your story and trust in your readers that it will be enough.

    Most importantly, until you've completed the first draft of your manuscript all the way to the end, do not put too much thought into the opening scene. Where you begin is important, but the right place to begin isn't always clear until you know how the story ends.
    Thanks Devil Ledbetter. You make a lot of sense and a lot of good points. I have completed the novel (other than a switch from third person to first person) and I'm now trying to figure things out as I revise.
    2017 Pitch Wars mentee.

    "I am absolutely THRILLED to be working with @CJSimone333 on a gritty, voice-y contemp YA, THE EDGE. You guys, the voice on this! *swoon*" (Dawn Ius, author of ANNE AND FRANK, OVERDRIVE, and LIZZIE).

    Twitter: @CJSimone333

  19. #19
    practical experience, FTW CJSimone's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Cindyt View Post
    ^This.

    Balance is key. If you give everything away too soon the reader may go on reading but without the exciting of a line by line discovery.
    Quote Originally Posted by MaeZe View Post
    As for the OP question, you need a bit of both but the focus can be either. Sometimes only a sentence or two is enough to make a character interesting (more can come later) during an action scene. And if starting with the character, one still needs something to tie the description to the story to come.

    Remember also that 'action' is not limited to any single kind of action.
    Quote Originally Posted by PeteMC View Post
    Absolutely both, at least in my genre - show the character through the action.
    Quote Originally Posted by blacbird View Post
    Obviously some degree of emphasis here will vary by individual story, but this is by no means a dichotomy. Character and activity can (and usually should be) parts of a whole. I don't see any reason why this amalgam shouldn't happen at the beginning of a story.

    caw
    Thanks Cindyt, MaeZe, PeteMC and blacbird. Balance, a bit of both, show the character through action, parts of a whole... Makes sense.
    2017 Pitch Wars mentee.

    "I am absolutely THRILLED to be working with @CJSimone333 on a gritty, voice-y contemp YA, THE EDGE. You guys, the voice on this! *swoon*" (Dawn Ius, author of ANNE AND FRANK, OVERDRIVE, and LIZZIE).

    Twitter: @CJSimone333

  20. #20
    living in the past ishtar'sgate's Avatar
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    One thing to keep in mind is that no matter how you open your story, it's not etched in stone. It can be revised later on or dumped altogether. More likely than not you're going to change it. As your story unfolds and you become better acquainted with your characters and what's going on in their tortured little lives, you'll think of something better. Don't let your fear of writing the perfect opening ham-string you and keep you from moving on with the story.

  21. #21
    Swooping is bad. mpack's Avatar
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    Most stories should begin with tension created by conflict. Remember not to confuse conflict with action. It can be action, but it isn't necessarily action. Conflict can be perception or dialogue or the juxtaposition of characters or tension in reader expectations. Pick up ten novels. While some may open with an action scene, I suspect almost all will open with tension built by conflict.

  22. #22
    practical experience, FTW CJSimone's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by ishtar'sgate View Post
    One thing to keep in mind is that no matter how you open your story, it's not etched in stone. It can be revised later on or dumped altogether. More likely than not you're going to change it. As your story unfolds and you become better acquainted with your characters and what's going on in their tortured little lives, you'll think of something better. Don't let your fear of writing the perfect opening ham-string you and keep you from moving on with the story.
    Thanks ishtar'sgate. I have written the story (completed around 80,000 words), but I keep changing the opening. Since the MS has been complete, I've had six totally different openings for it (not just revised, but completely different scenes). I can't seem to get confident in my opening scene or chapter.
    2017 Pitch Wars mentee.

    "I am absolutely THRILLED to be working with @CJSimone333 on a gritty, voice-y contemp YA, THE EDGE. You guys, the voice on this! *swoon*" (Dawn Ius, author of ANNE AND FRANK, OVERDRIVE, and LIZZIE).

    Twitter: @CJSimone333

  23. #23
    practical experience, FTW Jan74's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by MaeZe View Post
    Advice needs perspective and context.

    If I tell a new writer, "show more, tell less," a debate inevitably begins about what is or isn't telling and how the advice is good or bad. But in context, the advice is not a rule, it's addressing a common issue with new writers who tend to tell us what happens the way one might tell a friend an interesting anecdote from the day before. In a book, however, you aren't just relating an anecdote, you want the reader to immerse themselves in the scene and that is done differently than one 'tells' an anecdote verbally..
    Show not tell was one of the best pieces of advice I've seen yet and I frequently rewrite my paragraphs. It's natural as a new writer to tell things, reading out loud helps me see this and then I adjust and show it. I find it overwhelming with the lengthy lists of don't have a love triangle, don't have a prophecy, don't have a chosen one, don't this don't that....those are things I think new writers should frankly ignore but listen to the tips on "how" to tell your love triangle prophecy fantasy story.

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    WIP Romance or Women's fiction, hopefully by the end I'll know.
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  24. #24
    practical experience, FTW Jan74's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Devil Ledbetter View Post
    I know what you mean.

    This is why around here we often add the disclaimer if done well. Anything can work if done well, such a the opening scene in Hunger Games. It works because the main character isn't just waking up to go about her humdrum day, or waking up with the false tension of being late. She is waking up to a day that is the biggest deal in her unusual world, made more intriguing by the situation she's already in (poverty, crushing responsibilities, concern for her sister's life).

    As writers we need to look not just at whether something works, but why it works.
    Very good point!

    "You fail only if you stop writing" ~Ray Bradbury~
    "The road to hell is paved with adverbs" ~Stephen King~
    WIP Romance or Women's fiction, hopefully by the end I'll know.
    "If I waited for perfection, I would never write a word." ~Margaret Atwood~
    "There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you." ~Mary Angelou~


  25. #25
    practical experience, FTW cornflake's Avatar
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    Don't you often not read past the first page?

    How many books have you picked up in a bookstore, or clicked the 'look inside' and not gone past a page, because it was boring, not engaging, not your thing, had errors, etc.?

    Your goal for the first page is to get someone to read to the next, period.

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