Sunday, December 14, 2014

Starting with action

Starting with action isn’t the same as starting with conflict, though the two occasionally get confused. Conflict at the beginning of a story is nearly always good.

Action… is another matter.

When this doesn’t work

I read several fantasy stories some time back, because the writer needed critiques on them. They all started with the same thing: a knock-down drag-up fight between some villain and the heroine.

Despite the hacking and parrying and blood spilled and limbs lopped off, the stories were oddly dull. I soon realized that was because the characters were ciphers. Sure, one was obviously the protagonist (because the story was told from her POV), which made the other the villain, but I didn’t know why they were fighting or what was at stake.

Because action can’t realistically be slowed down to include details of backstory or characterization, starting with this kind of scene is usually tantamount to saying, “A and B fight. You need to be cheering for B.” Why? I need an in-story reason to care. There’s a reason even the most actiony of action films don’t start with a car chase.

Plus, if I know the protagonist is B, the fight loses even more suspense, because B has to win. Of course, if there’s a climactic battle at the end where B finally goes up against the villain, yes, I also know B is likely to win. But here’s the difference. If I’ve been reading the whole story, and if I’m thoroughly immersed in it, then it’s much easier to suspend disbelief. Maybe the villain has also been built up enough through the story that I’m genuinely afraid the heroine will lose.

None of that is possible at the start. I don’t automatically turn off the skepticism filter because I’m reading. The story has to earn that, and at the start, it hasn’t.

When this does work

David Farland’s The Sum of All Men begins with a fight to the death in an alley. That pulled me in, and I ended up reading the book.

1. The fight was between a named character who wasn’t the hero, and an unnamed assassin. So while I knew whom to cheer for, I didn’t know for certain that the good guy would win.

2. The fight was a great way to show off the worldbuilding. I read that book a long time ago, but I still remember the assassin smelled of curry powder. Through fighting him, the good guy also realized that the assassin must have “endowments”, which are donations of strength and reflexes that come from other people. That was an unusual detail which heightened the suspense.

At that point I wasn’t aware of the bigger picture, of Raj Ahten vs. the Earth King, but it didn’t matter. That tense alleyway struggle in the dark was done well and made me keep reading. And in the end, that’s all that counts—whether the story starts with action or not.


Unknown said...

I totally agree that 'blank' action is a poor opening. It seems to be the trend, and common advice these days. But an opening needs something for you to care about - whether that's the hero's life, the mystery of the world, or even just a need to know what happens next. Action can include those things, but it's not a replacement for them.

Marian Perera said...

I think one way the "action-only" opening could work is if the action was so unusual it was a hook in and of itself. Like... a Game of Thrones-esque tourney with cyborg unicorns.

But the story would need to live up to such an opening. As you said, readers need to care about something.