Friday, October 02, 2020

Why "Start With the Action" Messes Up So Many Writers

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

Sometimes really great advice is anything but helpful.

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 saying, “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 us with the beginnings of our novels.

This can be especially hard on new writers, because they might think they’re doing everything right, but still get negative feedback or even rejections on their manuscripts. “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?”

Well, no. 

Maybe it’s the movie industry and all those summer blockbusters, but say “action scene” and most people envision something Michael Bay-ish—car chases, fights, explosions, people in dire straits. Action equates to people in crisis, so “start with the action” naturally equates to “start with characters in crisis.”

Trouble is, total strangers in crisis are boring. We don’t know who they are, we don’t know what their problem is, and we don’t know why any of the action is happening. 

Which means we don’t care.

And opening scenes where the reader doesn’t care = bad.

Thus the problem with this wonderful, yet often frustrating, advice. If you don’t know what “action” means in fiction, you can easily misunderstand how to use it.

“Start with” doesn’t mean blow up a building on the first page. The implication of action is enough if readers can see the character in the middle of a situation or action that’s going to go somewhere. You can take a few pages to get to it—if there’s a sense of something about to happen on page one. 

And that’s the real key to this advice. If readers feel like the scene is moving toward something interesting they want to know more about, it’s “starting with action.”

Let’s explore what “start with the action” really means.

The simple version: Start your novel with characters physically working to achieve a goal or deal with a situation—something happening or about to happen.

When should you do this? Within the first few pages. “Start” doesn’t mean page one, though the sooner you get to the action the sooner you’ll hook your reader.

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. 

For example:
  • Romance: A just-divorced woman is failing to adopt a puppy. (Anyone But You)
  • Science Fiction: A young man starts his first day at the FBI during a walkout. (Lock In
  • Thriller: A man is arrested in a diner. (The Killing Floor
  • Mystery: A mischief-maker ends up dead. (Pretty is as Pretty Dies)
  • Historical: A woman learns her husband is going off to war. (Whisper of Jasmine
  • Fantasy: A boy is about to deliver an illegal book to a buyer. (Ink and Bone
  • Women’s Fiction: A self-sequestered woman with secrets is leaving for the cemetery. (Carousel Beach
Notice every one of the above examples has a hint of conflict? How each one makes you ask a question about what it sets up? And these are only one-line summaries, not the whole page. I recommend reading the opening pages of these to see how the authors started with the action in different ways.

Okay, here’s where it gets tricky.

Just because a book starts with action doesn’t mean it’s a strong opening with the right pieces to hook a reader.

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. Hence the conflict in the above examples.

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.

But if the action suggests something is about to happen, or something isn’t going to go the way the character planned, or things are about to go very, very, wrong, then it does indeed start with action.

(Here’s more on You Get One Page to Hook a Reader. Yes, Really.)

Let’s recap:

What action is: The sense that something interesting is about to happen.
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 the bad 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. This character is doing something. What happens in the next line or two will determine if this will hook readers or not.

“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. And again, what happens in the next line or two will determine if this will hook readers or not.

If example one goes on to describe the man’s day and there’s no conflict or any hint of something about to happen, it’s not the right kind of action. But if he runs into a mugger, or an ex-lover, or his boss who knows he called in sick that morning…then readers see a conflict brewing and will want to know what will happen next.

If example two goes on for another page or two describing the street, the town, the weather, then odds are readers will move on because nothing is happening. But if this shifts focus to a character about to engage in something intriguing on that hot street, readers will be curious to see where it goes.

This doesn’t mean you can’t use description in your opening scene, or that setting the scene isn’t a valuable part of a strong opening. It’s just not action.

Good writing blends action, internalization, dialogue, description, and exposition to tell a strong story. You want to strive for a balance between these elements to craft a compelling opening that will draw readers in.

(Here's more on The Difference Between Painting a Scene vs Dramatizing a Scene)

And before you ask (because I know some of you will).

Action doesn’t necessarily mean “action.” Action can be a character thinking.

However…those thoughts must be directly related to the action in that scene, and it can’t take pages and pages to get to the physical action. 

For example, 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. She’s thinking about what she’s doing, not just waxing philosophical. 

When it comes to opening with a character thinking, you want to avoid “navel gazing,” where the character is musing about the world and drones on without any sense of something in progress. 

Still unsure if your opening passes the action test? Here are Some Common Red Flags for an Action-less Opening Scene:

It has no characters: If there aren’t any characters in the scene, odds are it’s not starting with action, because characters drive action. There might be people in the scene, but in this case, they’re more like background details. A “character” is someone readers are supposed to connect with and care about. And that character should be doing something.

It has no interaction between the protagonist and, well, anything: Who and what they interact with can vary, but if it’s the protagonist 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 or the environment can also work to show action, but be wary of empty gestures—if the character is just randomly picking things up so you can describe them and none of those interactions are leading anywhere, it’s still a head in a room.

It has no dialogue: While you can have a action scene that spends a lot of time in a character’s head, no dialogue at all for pages and pages can indicate nothing is going on, or the “action” is of the action-movie variety. 

Characters talk, and conversations are active by nature.

(Here’s more on Bob and Weave: How to Mix Character Actions and Internal Thoughts)

Exceptions do exist, but don’t use them as an excuse to ignore the advice.

There are novels that open without action, and yes, some of them are even bestsellers. But they work because they have strong openings, not because they didn’t start with the action.

Some classic novels open with pages of description (The Grapes of Wrath is the most commonly referenced here). There are novels with random strangers in crisis on 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).

“Start with the action” is good advice, but the most important advice to follow is, “hook your reader however you can.” Give them something interesting that makes them want to keep reading.

And if you’re getting less-than-positive feedback on your opening scene, test it against these red flags. 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? 

*Originally published July 1025. Last update October 2020.

Find out more about show, don't tell in my book, Understanding Show, Don't Tell (And Really Getting It).

With in-depth analysis, Understanding Show, Don't Tell (And Really Getting It) teaches you how to spot told prose in your writing, and discover why common advice on how to fix it doesn't always work. It also explores aspects of writing that aren’t technically telling, but are connected to told prose and can make prose feel told, such as infodumps, description, and backstory.

This book will help you:
  • Understand when to tell and when to show
  • Spot common red flag words often found in told prose
  • Learn why one single rule doesn't apply to all books
  • Determine how much telling is acceptable in your writing
  • Fix stale or flat prose holding your writing back
Understanding Show, Don't Tell (And Really Getting It) is more than just advice on what to do and what not to do—it’s a down and dirty examination and analysis of how show, don’t tell works, so you can adapt the “rules” to whatever style or genre you’re writing. By the end of this book, you’ll have a solid understanding of show, don’t tell and the ability to use it without fear or frustration.

Available in paperback and ebook formats.

Janice Hardy is the award-winning author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, including The Shifter, Blue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The Shifter, was chosen for the 2014 list of "Ten Books All Young Georgians Should Read" from the Georgia Center for the Book.

She also writes the Grace Harper urban fantasy series for adults under the name, J.T. Hardy.

When she's not writing novels, she's teaching other writers how to improve their craft. She's the founder of Fiction University and has written multiple books on writing.
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  1. This is a very simple and clear guideline for helping writers understand exactly how to ease readers into their stories. I love the advice of how starting with the action doesn't have to mean dramatic, high-tension, high-risk feats of daring. One of my favorite pieces of advice for openings suggests that characters be trying to achieve something from the start--even if it's just a small goal. But giving them something to work toward in those first scenes helps hook the reader into their world, and gives ample opportunities for characterization.

    One of my favorite book openings is in "The Girl of Fire and Thorns." We see, from the first page, that the main character literally does not fit into the roles being forced upon her. Elisa's being forced to marry a stranger against her will, and she's a plump girl who cannot fit into the wedding dress her maids are trying to squash her into. The scene becomes a very visual representation of what will become a personal struggle for Elisa throughout the novel.

  2. I don't think I can add more than Martina and you have already said. Great advice, ladies!

  3. "We know we ought to do it, but we don’t always know how"

    In a nutshell, that's why I tell everyone about this website, and what itry to do when wring with other writers. Highlight the area, mention the problem, make a suggested replacement/fix.

    It takes time and effort but we all have to learn.

  4. Thanks for the excellent article and the clarity it brings to amping up opening scenes.

    In addition to 'starting with action', I also love stories that pique my curiosity in the opening paragraph(s). On a parallel with the 'action' advice, raising curiosity doesn't have to mean a dead body, who-done-it moment. It can be something as simple as making readers wonder, "What's in that bag?".

  5. "There’s a lot more to a strong opening scene than starting with the action."

    Amen to that. In fact, that "more" is INTRIGUE. Something has to grab the reader, whether it's some interesting action, a compelling voice & thoughts that will heavily influence what's going to happen later, or stellar exposition that creates the entire story's mood & introduces the theme.

    Ideally, the opening scene has ALL of these. And more. :)

  6. Thanks so much for a terrific post. I will be posting the link on my blog.

  7. This post is great, especially since many writers misunderstand what "start with the action" really means. One rule that I think works really well with openings is start in the ordanary world. This way, there would still be action, but it would move the story foreward and intruduce the characters. So if your story is about a super spy who's daily life is defusing bombs and escaping death, it would be ok to open with a near death action scene as long as it's clear that the MC has done this before throughout his life. The same thing applies if your story is about a girl in highschool. A run in with the snobby bully who she spends her days trying to avoid works just as well as the previous example because it goes with the ordanary world.


  8. "Trouble is, total strangers in crisis are boring."

    Thank you, Janice! I've resisted the start with the action advice most of my writing career. Because I know as a reader that stuff happening to strangers is not all that interesting. I spend a few paragraphs at least, sometimes a few pages, showing the reader who the protagonist is and why they should care about him/her.

    1. Most welcome :) So many writers struggle with this. If they've been taught what "action" means, it's easy, but if not, it's just confusing. I wrote so many horrible openings before I learned this lesson, lol.

  9. Oops. forgot to check the notify me box.