Ever since I started writing, I’ve heard the following advice: start with action.
It makes sense, right? Who wants to read pages and pages of nothing happening except exposition?1 Paragraphs upon paragraphs of description of the worldbuilding, the character’s backstory, the events leading up to the events in the story? So you start with action and get the reader’s blood pumping with a car chase. It works in movies, after all.
But in books, starting with action isn’t quite so straightforward.** It can be confusing when the reader needs to be not just hooked, but grounded in the world. That is, they need a sense of who the character is before they can really care about whether this car chase is going to work out. They need a sense of the world to know how to form the mental image, whether to put the characters on a deserted highway or a busy inner-city street at rush hour. And it needs to be written in a way that pulls in the reader, and makes them want to read more. That’s a lot of work for the first few paragraphs! While the movie can put it all out there in one shot—because it’s a visual and auditory medium and you can’t help but absorb it—the book has one tool: the words.
So I have a different suggestion for you. Start with a change. Start with movement.
One of my biggest issues with starting with action is that it’s incredibly difficult to both ground the reader in character, setting, and story, while still maintaining the pace required of an action scene. It’s not impossible, but typically something gets neglected, the pacing or the grounding.
Not starting with action doesn’t mean your beginning has to be boring. Hook the reader with an interesting first line. Put your character in a situation that shows who they are and gives the reader a hint that something is about to change. (In The Hunger Games, we get Katniss going about her day, but all morning she’s thinking about the Reaping and we know something terrible is going to happen.)
The change can be the first thing to happen and we get a few pages of attempted normalcy before it all goes sour. (I’m thinking of Gone by Michael Grant, when the adults vanish in the first line and all the kids try to figure out how to act now.)
It can be a decision to do something or go somewhere, or someone new coming to town, or an announcement that someone has died (boo) but they’ve left the character a ton of money (!!!), or whatever. As long as it’s interesting. As long as it advances the story. It can be a good or bad change, so long as the character’s situation is different on the other side of it.
What are some of your favorite examples of beginnings that start with a change?
- Of course, I’m not saying this can’t be done, or done well, even. As always, there are exceptions. ↩