Monday, May 17, 2010

Opening your novel with action

"...and then I woke up."

I think a lot of writers have been led to believe they need to open on an action beat. This is a misinterpretation of the rule that you should start with the beginning of the story, with the things that happen, rather than with backstory, world-building, info-dumping or exposition.

Opening on an action beat is often a bad idea, because it focuses on the mechanics of the action rather than introducing the characters. If your action beat reveals something about the characters, it can be a fine opening, but a lot of times it doesn't.

An unhelpful action opener looks like this:

MC is fighting somebody. The opponent punches, MC blocks. MC counters, but the opponent dodges. Then MC sweeps his leg and knocks the opponent down. MC smiles.

We don't know anything about the characters, so we are not invested in this fight or its outcome. And at the end of this, we don't know anything about the characters that we didn't know before, other than that they know how to fight, and that MC is maybe a little better than the opponent.

A more helpful action beginning would look like this:

Bully antagonist punches MC in the face. MC falls down, and rubs at his injured nose. MC's hand comes away bloody, so MC smears the blood on the bully's clean white sneakers. Bully, enraged, punches MC again. MC figures it was worth it.

Here, at least, we've learned that our MC is physically vulnerable, but he can be a little bit vindictive and a little bit masochistic. He's kind of dark, and that's interesting.

But the violence or the action isn't what draws the reader in; it's the conflict, it's story happening. Action scenes, like sex scenes can be exciting, but they're rarely the meat of the narrative. The story and its tension lends punch to the action sequences, not the other way around.

Consider this possible opening, which utilizes a much lower-key conflict:

MC gets on a bus. He's wearing a thousand-dollar suit, but it's all rumpled and dirty. He's got a black eye and dried blood crusted on his ear. Bus Driver says: "Exact fare only." MC pulls out his billfold, and it's stuffed with hundred-dollar bills. He peels one off and hands it to the driver. "This is all I got." Driver says: "Exact fare only." MC says: "How about you keep the change?" Bus Driver shrugs and pockets the hundred. Bus Driver: "If you've got all them Bennies, what're you doing riding the bus?" MC: "How about you keep your questions, too?"

The conflict in this scene is that the guy wants to get on a bus, and doesn't have exact fare. But that's all you need to do to put us into the story, because things are happening here. What's this guy been doing? Why is he on the bus? Where did he get the money?

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