Start With a Change, Not Just Action

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?

  1. Of course, I’m not saying this can’t be done, or done well, even. As always, there are exceptions.

2 Responses to Start With a Change, Not Just Action

  1. Marc Vun Kannon Jun 4 2014 at 10:12 am #

    Absolutely correct. Action is simply a body in motion, but the story is about the character in motion. Change in a character doesn’t really need any change in any body. Sometimes the change is a change in perception, or understanding. Think of that moment when the character goes wide-eyed as he suddenly realizes what’s going on. Not a lot of action, lots of change. My first novel started with a very slight action (“Tarkas paused on the forest trail as he became aware of the sound of voices raised in Song”), and I found myself wondering if it was enough to grab the reader’s interest, or should I use something more dynamic. I decided that the change was what mattered, not the motion, and kept it. The sequel starts more actively (“Tarkas was running for his life. Again.”).
    The first opening that popped into my head was for Megamind, with the MC falling to his death. Despicable Me had a nice intro, with the tour bus causing trouble and the pyramid that wasn’t. But those are visual. I’ve been buried in my fanfiction epic for a very long time, so I haven’t read any openings to remember for a while. I remember the opening of Tinker, by Wen Spencer, with the elf lord fleeing into Tinker’s junk yard and all that happens afterward. That was done in first person, so action and change are easier to link together.

  2. jeffo Jun 4 2014 at 6:11 pm #

    I think the problem is too many people don’t understand the meaning of ‘action’. It’s not necessarily car chases and explosions and the like, but it IS something happening. Still, better advice than ‘start with action’ would be ‘start with interesting.’

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