Tuesday, May 20, 2008
Action vs. conflict, the sequel
Another reason not to start with a tense scene where the characters are fighting for their lives is because the action will have to stop sooner or later for the story to explain who the characters are and to expand on the plot. Unless the author can weave information seamlessly into the narrative and make it interesting, this can be a letdown compared to the action. It’s not easy to stop the fight, deccelerate the story and still expect to hold the reader’s attention.
Starting with action can also backfire because it’s melodramatic to watch two strangers interact in too intimate a way, whether that way is fighting to the death or making love. Rather than being pulled into the story, the readers feel left out, because they haven’t been given time to get into the characters’ minds. Rebecca Brandewyne’s Desire in Disguise begins with a long, explicit scene where the hero and heroine have sex. Now this would have been wonderful if I’d read it at the climax of the novel, after I’d become interested in their relationship and wanted them to get together. To read it at the start… well, that’s the closest I’ll ever come to voyeurism. Since I didn’t know who these people were, I couldn’t be involved on an emotional level.
Starting with action can work - as long as it’s wedded to conflict or has a lot of suspense. One of the most startling openings I’ve ever read was in J. V. Jones’s The Baker’s Boy, where the wizard Baralis murders someone in the first paragraph and rapes a queen before the end of the first chapter. I was hooked, because the start made it very clear that Baralis was a thoroughly vile, creepy and manipulative person who wasn’t going to get what he deserved. You probably didn’t get the same impression from the John scene. In fact, it may have been all too clear that since John was the hero, of course he wasn’t going to be killed by two nobodies. A character getting what he or she deserves, at the start, doesn’t exactly make the reader’s pulse beat faster. It kills the suspense instead, and the reader has no reason to continue.
When authors receive critiques on these scenes, they often focus on honing the action, making it as explosive and realistic and exciting as possible. But it may also be necessary to look at the bigger picture and to see if there’s any other opening which could accomplish more.