If I took a poll for the most common writing advice, “start with the action” would make the list. Which it should, as it’s great advice. But it’s also like “show, don’t tell.” We know we ought to do it, but we don’t always know how, and those four words don’t help.
This can be especially hard on new writers, because they can feel like they’re doing everything right and not getting anywhere with their writing. “I do start with action,” they cry. “Can’t you see that car barreling off that cliff there? What do I have to do, blow up a planet?”
Maybe it’s the movie industry and all those summer blockbusters, but say “action scene” and most people are going to envision something Michael Bay-ish—car chases, fights, explosions, people in dire straits. Action equates to people in crisis, so “start with the action” often equates to “put characters in crisis.”
Trouble is, total strangers in crisis are kinda boring. We don’t know who they are, we don’t know what their problem is, we don’t know why any of the action is happening. Which means we don’t care.
Openings where the reader doesn’t care = bad.
Thus the problem with this wonderful, yet often frustrating, advice.
Let’s break down these four not-so-simple words and explore what “start with the action” really means.
Simple version: Start with something happening—characters physically doing something to achieve a goal.
Timeframe: Within the first few pages. “Start” doesn’t mean page one, just the opening scene.
Sounds crazy simple, right? Just have your characters doing something in the first few pages.
That something doesn’t have to be a crisis. It doesn’t have to be a shootout or a car chase or a struggle to survive. More times than not, putting a stranger in random jeopardy results in readers skimming to get to something they can care about.
Can that something be thinking?
Sure, as long as A) the thoughts are directly related to the action in that scene and B) it doesn’t take pages and pages to get to the physical action. My own novel opens with a page (about 250 words) of the protagonist musing over the merits of stealing eggs vs. the whole chicken. But she’s having this mental discussion while she’s in the middle of stealing those eggs, and at the end of those 250 words, she’s gets caught.
(Here’s more on the first page, with an analysis of my own first page)
“Start with” doesn’t mean blow something up on the first page. The implication of action is enough if readers can see the character in the middle of something that’s going to go somewhere. You have a few pages to get to it—if there’s a sense of something about to happen. And that’s the real key to this entire advice. If readers feel like the scene is going somewhere, it’s “starting with action.”
The not-so-simple version: There’s a lot more to a strong opening scene than starting with the action. It’s just one aspect of what an opening scene needs to do. So, “my novel opens with my protagonist cleaning her house” is indeed starting with action, but if that housecleaning does nothing to advance the story or create conflict, it doesn’t make a good opening scene.
(Here’s more on writing strong opening scenes)
What action isn’t: Description and exposition.
Since we’re drilling this down to the basics, let’s look a little closer at what “description” means here, because we describe our characters being active. Does that mean that’s bad?
Description in this sense means describing the world, the people, the setup, explaining how things got to be this way and why this is all very important to the story. It’s everything that isn’t about a character physically doing something.
“He walked down the tree-lined street, swinging his arms,” is action, even though we’re “describing” what he’s doing.
“The street opened before him, a river of black asphalt shimmering in the noon-day heat,” is description. There’s no person here doing anything.
This doesn’t mean you can’t use any description in your opening scene. Good writing blends action, internalization, dialog, description, and exposition. Strive for a balance between these elements to create a rich and interesting story world for your readers.
(Here's more on punching up you action scenes)
Common Red Flags for an Actionless Scene:
No characters. If there aren’t any characters in the scene, odds are it’s not starting with action. There might be people, but there’s no one the reader is supposed to connect with and care about doing anything that moves the story forward.
No interaction. Who and what the protagonist interacts with can vary, but if it’s one person standing there thinking or musing and they do nothing else, there’s probably not enough action to keep things moving. It’s a head in a blank room thinking. Interacting with the room can work, but be wary of empty gestures—if the character is just randomly picking things up and none of those interactions are leading anywhere, it’s still a head in a room.
No dialog. While you can have a action scene that spends a lot of time in a character’s head, no dialog at all for pages and pages can indicate nothing is going on, or the “action” is of the action-movie variety.
There can and will be exceptions to this. Some classic novels start with pages of description (The Grapes of Wrath is the most commonly referenced here). There are bestsellers that have random strangers in crisis in the first paragraph. You can have a character musing for several pages and make it riveting. It’s just more challenging to make these non-conventional openings work (which is why most folks advise starting with the action).
It’s up to each writer to determine if their scene is working or not. The most important rule to follow is “hook your reader.” Do that however you can. But if you’re getting less-than-positive feedback on your opening scene, not starting with the action could be a reason why.
How does your novel start? What are your favorite openings? Do any of them break the “start with the action” rules?
Looking for tips on revising or planning your novel? Check out my book Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, a series of self-guided workshops that help you turn your idea into a novel. It's also a great guide for revisions!
Janice Hardy is the founder of Fiction University, and the author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, where she tapped into her own dark side to create a world where healing was dangerous, and those with the best intentions often made the worst choices. Her novels include The Shifter, (Picked as one of the 10 Books All Young Georgians Should Read, 2014) Blue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The first book in her Foundations of Fiction series, Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure is out now.
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