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Thread: Start with action or show the character first?

  1. #51
    practical experience, FTW CJSimone's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by indianroads View Post
    One of the things that seems to work for me when I write action scenes is to use short choppy sentences. To me, it feels more immediate and adrenaline filled.
    Good tip. Thanks indianroads.

  2. #52
    writer, rider, reader...ex-pat! BethS's Avatar
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    It's also possible to use long flowing sentences to convey a sense of one-thing-happening-after-another action. This happened and this and this and this and this...

    Bernard Cornwell does this to perfection. I'll try to come back later and post an example.

  3. #53
    practical experience, FTW CJSimone's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by BethS View Post
    It's also possible to use long flowing sentences to convey a sense of one-thing-happening-after-another action. This happened and this and this and this and this...

    Bernard Cornwell does this to perfection. I'll try to come back later and post an example.
    Thanks, Beth. I've seen this done too and it does work, at least for those who can do it well.

  4. #54
    reading all the things Anna Iguana's Avatar
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    Two thoughts:

    Action shows character.
    This extends the "show don't tell" principle. I know what you mean, distinguishing action vs. character, but it may help to think about how they overlap.

    Your genre should influence how your story starts.
    The start of the story sets reader expectations. If you're writing an action-packed story, start with action. But, if you're writing a more meditative novel, then starting with action may leave readers disappointed later, because they are expecting more action.

  5. #55
    writer, rider, reader...ex-pat! BethS's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by CJSimone View Post
    Thanks, Beth. I've seen this done too and it does work, at least for those who can do it well.
    I forgot I said I would come back with an example. This one is actually three sentences, but the first two are very short. Which, btw, shows good technique; it's usually advisable to frame long sentences with shorter ones.

    From Bernard Cornwell's The Last Kingdom:

    "Bail!" I shouted desperately. "Bail!" And then, with a noise like thunder, the great sail split into tatters that whipped off the yard, and the ship came slowly upright, but she was low in the water, and I was using all my strength to keep her coming around, creeping around, reversing our course so that I could put her bows into that turmoil of sea and wind, and the men were praying, making the sign of the cross, bailing water, and the remnants of the sail and the broken lines were mad things, ragged demons, and the sudden gale was howling like the furies in the rigging and I thought how futile it would be to die at sea so soon after Ragnar had saved my life.
    This has a breathless feel to it that mimics the sense that things are happening fast, both sequentially and concurrently. Also notice the frequent use of the progressive tense--using, creeping, reversing, howling, etc--all of which contribute to the feel of flowing, constant movement.
    Last edited by BethS; 03-21-2017 at 12:44 PM. Reason: to fix formatting issues

  6. #56
    practical experience, FTW CJSimone's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by BethS View Post
    I forgot I said I would come back with an example. This one is actually three sentences, but the first two are very short. Which, btw, shows good technique; it's usually advisable to frame long sentences with shorter ones.

    From Bernard Cornwell's The Last Kingdom:



    This has a breathless feel to it that mimics the sense that things are happening fast, both sequentially and concurrently. Also notice the frequent use of the progressive tense--using, creeping, reversing, howling, etc--all of which contribute to the feel of flowing, constant movement.
    Thank you, BethS, this is a good example. Probably not something I could pull off, but good to think about - the flowing, constant movement and all.

  7. #57
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    Quote Originally Posted by Anna Iguana View Post
    Two thoughts:

    Action shows character.
    This extends the "show don't tell" principle. I know what you mean, distinguishing action vs. character, but it may help to think about how they overlap.

    Your genre should influence how your story starts.
    The start of the story sets reader expectations. If you're writing an action-packed story, start with action. But, if you're writing a more meditative novel, then starting with action may leave readers disappointed later, because they are expecting more action.
    Thank you, Anna Iguana. It's a good point about the overlap and I'm guessing action openings that are successful do manage to get a good deal of characterization in there.

    Also good points about the genre, how action-packed the story is, and setting reader expectations. It's tricky for me with this MS because it's middle of the road as far as action. It's a YA contemporary with suspenseful elements (possibly YA suspense but I don't think so). There's an ongoing action thread through it (which I started with), but it's also a psychological story (lots of inner demons) and has romantic elements, so not all action.

    I'll probably post a short alternate beginning before my current first scene in SYW and see if I can get any feedback about which one (if either) I should start with.

    I really appreciate all the feedback so far.

  8. #58
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    According to some craft book I read, character is decisions. So character is action. Starting with action is fine, but don't equate this with battle scene. A battle scene is fine, as long as it's not smite, smite, dodge, smite, oh no giant orc! Put some decisions that reveal character in there, and you can start with it.

  9. #59
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    Quote Originally Posted by morngnstar View Post
    According to some craft book I read, character is decisions. So character is action. Starting with action is fine, but don't equate this with battle scene. A battle scene is fine, as long as it's not smite, smite, dodge, smite, oh no giant orc! Put some decisions that reveal character in there, and you can start with it.
    Thanks, morngnstar, that's a really good point. The current action beginning is a car chase, but there are definitely choices in there since the MC is driving off with a trafficked kid, and her pimp's goons are chasing him.

    I've been toying with an alternative opening, which would put the current action opening at scene two. The other possible opening starts with the MC performing at a club and involves him and the romantic interest (bandmate) and their difficulties and such. I'll see how feedback on it goes. Right now indecision and the current work on possible alternative openings is holding me back from my next step, which is betas for a partial, but maybe that's a good thing for whatever reason.

  10. #60
    down the rabbit hole of research... CWatts's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by morngnstar View Post
    According to some craft book I read, character is decisions. So character is action. Starting with action is fine, but don't equate this with battle scene. A battle scene is fine, as long as it's not smite, smite, dodge, smite, oh no giant orc! Put some decisions that reveal character in there, and you can start with it.
    Yes, this. I have backed up my opening to where the story actually begins, which is a battle. It lets me show how my MC, her lover and her friends decide to act when facing death. Many of these people were going to be posthumous characters anyway but I need to make good use of the time I show them alive.

  11. #61
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    I feel like it 100% has to do with your book. You're goal is to hook the reader within the first few pages. If your narration is compelling and your character uniquely interesting, I see no reason why you can't start off with your character. If your character is average, run-of-mill (and there's nothing wrong with that, plenty of adventures start with the average individual), then it might start off with some action. My advice would be to write two openings, send it out to your friends/beta readers, and see which one they prefer!
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  12. #62
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    Quote Originally Posted by ACAuthors View Post
    I feel like it 100% has to do with your book. You're goal is to hook the reader within the first few pages. If your narration is compelling and your character uniquely interesting, I see no reason why you can't start off with your character.
    I think the character has to be doing something. It doesn't have to be "action", which is a loaded word anyway, but something has to be happening. Static description of a character is like static description of a setting: an attention-killer for most readers.

    caw
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  13. #63
    Still confused by shoelaces Once!'s Avatar
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    For me, the best action scenes are when someone that I care about is in danger or needs to overcome an obstacle. This isn't action for action's sake. It is a character or a group of characters trying to do something difficult or challenging.

    Similarly, the best character descriptions are when the character is engaged in some form of action. They need to be doing something.

    So if I'm faced with a choice of action or character, I tend to wonder why I can't have both.

    I like openings to books to grab me, either because I feel empathy for one of the characters or there's an unresolved question that I want to be answered. I need a bit of foreplay, a bit of tease, a nice cuddle, before we get to the main action.

  14. #64
    practical experience, FTW CJSimone's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by ACAuthors View Post
    I feel like it 100% has to do with your book. You're goal is to hook the reader within the first few pages. If your narration is compelling and your character uniquely interesting, I see no reason why you can't start off with your character. If your character is average, run-of-mill (and there's nothing wrong with that, plenty of adventures start with the average individual), then it might start off with some action. My advice would be to write two openings, send it out to your friends/beta readers, and see which one they prefer!
    Quote Originally Posted by blacbird View Post
    I think the character has to be doing something. It doesn't have to be "action", which is a loaded word anyway, but something has to be happening. Static description of a character is like static description of a setting: an attention-killer for most readers.

    caw
    It makes sense it would depend on the story, or most writers would be doing it the same way. Yeah, I'll try to get feedback about which opening I should go with (I still have to find betas; my friends would prefer I never talk about writing). Hopefully the narration is compelling; he's not an average type.

    I'm not big on static descriptions, so he's doing something in all opening versions. I can see where static descriptions would be boring and the biggest turn off.

  15. #65
    practical experience, FTW CJSimone's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Once! View Post
    For me, the best action scenes are when someone that I care about is in danger or needs to overcome an obstacle. This isn't action for action's sake. It is a character or a group of characters trying to do something difficult or challenging.

    Similarly, the best character descriptions are when the character is engaged in some form of action. They need to be doing something.

    So if I'm faced with a choice of action or character, I tend to wonder why I can't have both.

    I like openings to books to grab me, either because I feel empathy for one of the characters or there's an unresolved question that I want to be answered. I need a bit of foreplay, a bit of tease, a nice cuddle, before we get to the main action.
    Thanks, Once! I have read stories that open with what feels like action for action's sake and I agree it doesn't work. My opening isn't action for action's sake and starts in the middle of the ongoing action thread, but I am worried readers won't care about the danger yet since they won't care about the character yet (and like you say it's when you care about the character that you care about the danger).

    I guess there's action meaning just doing something / being active, and action meaning the more dangerous kind of action.

    Maybe the alternate beginning will be the foreplay.

  16. #66
    New Fish; Learning About Thick Skin Mel101's Avatar
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    I'm not saying anything that hasn't already been said, but action through character is a starting point for me. As others have said, it doesn't have to be a battle. I interweave both in my stories and if I'm still struggling with either action or character, writing out a scenario that I want to read or a decision I want to see my character make in the book fleshes out what will work best for the novel. Like others have also said: it also depends on the tone and flow of your novel.

    Hope that helps and happy writings!

    Also, wrote this out via cellphone so I apologize for formatting!

  17. #67
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    Quote Originally Posted by Mel101 View Post
    I'm not saying anything that hasn't already been said, but action through character is a starting point for me. As others have said, it doesn't have to be a battle. I interweave both in my stories and if I'm still struggling with either action or character, writing out a scenario that I want to read or a decision I want to see my character make in the book fleshes out what will work best for the novel. Like others have also said: it also depends on the tone and flow of your novel.

    Hope that helps and happy writings!

    Also, wrote this out via cellphone so I apologize for formatting!
    Thank you, Mel101, appreciate it!

  18. #68
    practical experience, FTW CJSimone's Avatar
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    The feedback here has all been awesome and is much appreciated. I just posted a new alternate opening in SYW, followed by the previous opening (now possibly scene 2). If anyone's willing to take a look and either comment or PM which opening is better to start with (if either), it would help A LOT. I really don't have anyone outside AW to turn to for this. THANK YOU to anyone who's willing!

    Here's the link (it's on page 3, #74):

    http://absolutewrite.com/forums/show...2#post10024242

  19. #69
    practical experience, FTW cornflake's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by CJSimone View Post
    Thanks, Once! I have read stories that open with what feels like action for action's sake and I agree it doesn't work. My opening isn't action for action's sake and starts in the middle of the ongoing action thread, but I am worried readers won't care about the danger yet since they won't care about the character yet (and like you say it's when you care about the character that you care about the danger).

    I guess there's action meaning just doing something / being active, and action meaning the more dangerous kind of action.

    Maybe the alternate beginning will be the foreplay.
    This is true, to an extent.

    I've seen people cite Bond movies as opening with action that grabs people. The problem with the argument is that they're Bond movies. No one going in is confused about the basic setup: the audience knows one of the characters by name, by job, by motivation. Thus any action sequence can be parsed on a superficial level very easily: Bond good, other guy bad. People know who to root for and why.

    If you redid the opening of, say, Skyfall, replacing Daniel Craig with an unknown actor, and changing the character to Bob Smith, the thing falls apart. The audience would be lost as to why one guy is chasing another, who's meant to be good, bad, right, wrong, what's going on, why someone was shot, etc. Something has to ground people, even if it's uniforms.

    Same deal in print. There has to be enough for a reader to grab onto.

  20. #70
    practical experience, FTW CJSimone's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by cornflake View Post
    This is true, to an extent.

    I've seen people cite Bond movies as opening with action that grabs people. The problem with the argument is that they're Bond movies. No one going in is confused about the basic setup: the audience knows one of the characters by name, by job, by motivation. Thus any action sequence can be parsed on a superficial level very easily: Bond good, other guy bad. People know who to root for and why.

    If you redid the opening of, say, Skyfall, replacing Daniel Craig with an unknown actor, and changing the character to Bob Smith, the thing falls apart. The audience would be lost as to why one guy is chasing another, who's meant to be good, bad, right, wrong, what's going on, why someone was shot, etc. Something has to ground people, even if it's uniforms.

    Same deal in print. There has to be enough for a reader to grab onto.
    Thanks, Cornflake, this makes a lot of sense - grounding the reader and giving them something to grab onto.

  21. #71
    At one with The Force Keithy's Avatar
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    I tend to vary the sentence length in action sequences. When it's blow by blow, short sentences. When things are a little more deliberate, such as pausing to draw breath or find a weapon, longer sentences.

    As for action sequences at the start - that's not just James Bond. So many times I've seen movies with action at the start and end, with nothing much between. snore.

  22. #72
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    Quote Originally Posted by Keithy View Post
    I tend to vary the sentence length in action sequences. When it's blow by blow, short sentences. When things are a little more deliberate, such as pausing to draw breath or find a weapon, longer sentences.

    As for action sequences at the start - that's not just James Bond. So many times I've seen movies with action at the start and end, with nothing much between. snore.
    Thanks Keithy. Good tips. Sounds weird, but I do agree that too much action and not enough else going on throughout the story is boring.

    I hope it's easier to revise the rest of the MS; the beginning is driving me crazy. I guess because there's so much weight on it and it has so many things to do at once. It's really hard to determine if I'm getting it right.

    I had made an effort to display character in with the action, but based on a lot of comments here (along with the comments I'd noticed in others' threads) I'm leaning toward starting more with character before the action. It is bringing its own concerns if I start with character. It's been mentioned here about the character needing to be interesting and all, and I've gotten good feedback about my MC's character, but because of his mania, I have some concerns he'll be more off-putting in a/the character scene than the action scene.

  23. #73
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    As a slight digression, this thread reveals the difficulty with using the word "action" in relation to narrative. I often think the word "activity" would be more appropriate. You don't need to have exploding zombies running around, but you do generally need to have something happening. And something suspenseful, which may be very quiet from a descriptive standpoint, is often a more effective hook for a reader than is a violent action scene.

    caw
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    -- Terry Pratchett

  24. #74
    practical experience, FTW indianroads's Avatar
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    It occurs to me that our work can follow the course of a piece of music. What kind of novel you are writing can align to a type of music.

    So, if your novel were to have a soundtrack, would it be something fast paced and hectic like "Hot for Teacher" by VanHalen, or something slow and thoughtful like "Sound of Silence" by Simon and Garfunkel? Or maybe something in between like "Malaguena", a classic played on a guitar?

    Youngsters: please excuse my old fashioned song picks... I'm an old fart.

    So if your novel is along the lines of "Hot for Teacher", starting with action would probably be your best bet. You'll have to keep that pace up though.
    If "Sound of Silence" is more your thing, then character first, or if Malaguena works for you then you'll have to have a bit of action near the front, followed by thoughtful dialogue and character development.

  25. #75
    practical experience, FTW CJSimone's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by blacbird View Post
    As a slight digression, this thread reveals the difficulty with using the word "action" in relation to narrative. I often think the word "activity" would be more appropriate. You don't need to have exploding zombies running around, but you do generally need to have something happening. And something suspenseful, which may be very quiet from a descriptive standpoint, is often a more effective hook for a reader than is a violent action scene.

    caw
    All very true, blacbird.

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