Writing Tip — Start With Action

Like a lot of new writers, I began my stories with two misconceptions: (1) That my characters were fascinating to everybody, and (2) I should start my story by showing my characters following their normal routines. Once readers got to know my characters, I’d bring in the problem or event that changed their ordinary lives and kick off the plot. I didn’t think I needed to start with action

Now I know better. My characters will never fascinate readers in the same way they do me, just like my kids will never fascinate the other people the way they do my husband and me. Also most daily routines are boring. Boring readers for a couple of chapters, if they last that long, should not be the goal of any writer.

Looking back, I see why I started like that. It was easier to introduce characters and backstory without having a pesky plot to deal with. Dribble in characters and description and backstory while the plot is under way? That’s hard!

At first, I didn’t think I could do it. But as I pushed through revisions of my first novel, it became a game. What nuggets of information could I drop into this scene that would flesh out characters or settings without slowing the plot? Rather like a snowboarder surfing the half-pipe and judging how many moves she can work in without losing momentum.

When I came to write “A Rose from the Ashes”,my YA mystery, I had several false starts. I need to start with action but which one? A mystery should be mysterious, but if I wasn’t careful, I easily could go from mysterious to confusing. I’ve set aside many novels in which the characters in the first chapter know a lot more than I do. Instead of these hints of a bigger story being intriguing, they are just frustrating. I give up.

I decided to keep the opening scene simple. I stopped trying to be clever. I described the scene as my main character experienced it. Here’s the first paragraph:

Glancing left and right, I crunched across the frozen weeds to the abandoned children’s home. I could not afford to be spotted now. If only I could take a few seconds and snap some pictures. The light from the early December sunset was perfect. Gashes of blood-red light seeped through the clotted clouds, creating an ominous background for the gray stone building that was rumored to be the scene of a murder.

So I start with my main character approaching a derelict building and not wanting to get caught doing so. Why doesn’t she want to get caught? There are many reason readers can imagine, and I hope that was enough of a hook to keep them reading. Readers don’t know who the narrator is yet and don’t have to at this point. The character’s fear of being spotted and the creepiness of the scene puts the reader in the character’s shoes and keeps them reading.

If you have an opening paragraph with action, please put it in the comments below. Or if you’ve read a particularly effective opening with action, please share it!

2 thoughts on “Writing Tip — Start With Action

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  1. That’s a great tip! I wound up needing to swap most of my first and second chapters so that the novel began with action rather than backstory. Your first paragraph is very enticing! Here’s my first paragraph from Avalanche:
    As I felt the wall of snow crash into me and sweep me down the mountain like I was an autumn leaf, I would have given almost anything to take back my decision to go along with this reckless idea. When I first heard the roar, followed by a deep rumble and rushing sound, all I could do was scream. My big sister Ellie grabbed my hand and frantically told me to grab our little sister, Lydie. I desperately reached back for her, but where was she? She had been hiking just behind me, but apparently had slowed. Sawyer and Marshall Miles bounded through the deep snow to us. Sawyer, almost eighteen, hollered, “AVALANCHE! Run to the side of the ridge!” Run to the side. I had read that tip in an article a few months ago, but thinking about it seemed much more possible than actually sprinting through shin-deep snow with a mammoth mass thundering toward me.

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