Get a Free Ebook

Five Inspirational Truths for Authors

Try our Video Classes

Downloadable in-depth learning, with pdf slides

Find out more about My Book Therapy

We want to help you up your writing game. If you are stuck, or just want a boost, please check us out!

Monday, July 18, 2011

Not Starting with the Action, by guest blogger Kat Zhang

Kat Zhang is a Spoken Word poet and a Creative Writing major. She is represented by Emmanuelle Morgen and her book WHAT'S LEFT OF ME is about a 15-year-old girl fighting for her right to survive in a world where two souls are born to each body and one is doomed to disappear. It recently sold in a three-book deal to HarperTeen. You can read more about her writing process, travels, and books at her blog, www.katacomb.blogspot.com


How many times have you heard someone tell you to “start the story with action”? I know it’s something I’ve heard a lot. In fact, I’ve read that the average new writer really ought to be starting their story with their current chapter three in order to get rid of all the unnecessary waffling and backstory.

Sometimes, this is absolutely true. One of the most important things a good beginning must accomplish is hooking the reader, and what easier way to do this than with some intense action? But sometimes, the “big moment” isn’t the place to start the story.

Think about it. Does Harry Potter start with Hagrid arriving to tell Harry he’s going to Hogwarts? Does The Hunger Games start at the Reaping? Yes, some stories can get away with plonking the reader right down in the midst of things, but others, especially those set in a world very different from our own, need a few pages to orientate the reader, first.

Also, the trouble with a high stakes beginning is that we don’t know the characters well enough to care. The Reaping would have been sad even if we didn’t know Prim and Katniss, but think about how much more it hurt after having read the scenes of Katniss hunting and striving so hard to care for her family. Collins had already given us enough backstory for us to really understand the depth of the bond between the sisters and the true impact of Katniss’s offer to take her sister’s place.

Likewise, if Harry’s suffering at the hands of the Dursleys had been summed up in a sentence or two instead of shown us, then the relief and magic of Hagrid showing up wouldn’t have hit us as strongly. Starting with the most exciting part of the story is all good and well, but sometimes, you need just the right amount of backstory to put that excitement in context and ramp it up even more. One of the important parts of the hero's journey is the beginning, when the hero is still at home. We can also call this the World Before, since not every hero actually physically moves. The World Before is…well, the world before. Before the Reaping that changed everything. Before Hagrid. How can the reader fully appreciate the effects of the Inciting Event unless he gets a glimpse of how things were before?

Of course, I’m not saying you should have a chapter of info dump before getting to the “good part.” There should still be action. But it should be a smaller blip in the radar, something exciting, but not so exciting that there isn’t time or space to slip in some backstory. The most exciting parts of a story are all about moving forward. You don’t want to slow down a gunfight with background information. Collins didn’t waste time during the Reaping scenes explaining how close Katniss and Prim were, or how horrible the Hunger Games were—all that had already been accomplished.

Weaving in backstory and keeping the story moving forward can be a tough balance to keep. But lately, I’ve been hearing so much about “starting the story right in the midst of things,” that I just wanted to put a little reminder out there: sometimes less isn’t more. Sometimes a little breath before the storm can be a good thing.

10 comments:

Gina Holmes said...

Great advice.

Anonymous said...

I've heard it preached again and again to begin with action or drop the reader into the middle of the story, but my favorite books don't do that. I like a little wine before dinner so to speak. Best wishes to you and congratulations on your upcoming books!
Jaime Duvall

Emy Shin said...

I really cannot agree more! Starting with action doesn't necessarily means dumping the readers into your Inciting Incident (although it can be that, certainly). It means starting at the best possible place for the novel -- where you can hook the readers. Sometimes, it's the time before that's appropriate.

Kat Zhang said...

Thanks, guys! :)

Gina Holmes said...

Jaime, you won the autographed copy of Wanda Brunstetter's latest. Email Gina at rnglh1 at yahoo dot com with your snail mail. Thanks and congrats.

Julie Long said...

I've been struggling with this very thing while revising my novel. Thanks for the perfectly timed post!

Anonymous said...

See Kal's 510+ stage hero's journey work over at http://www.clickok.co.uk/index4.html ; it's really a fascinating study of story.

Jelena said...

This is a great point!

In fact I've never started my stories with the "big moment" simply because I had to deliver my character to it's gates first (usually happens in the middle/end of the first chapter).

The purpose of this "delivery" is for a reader to care for the character and fully dive along into the BIG trouble/adventure.

Ane Mulligan said...

Both James Scott Bell in Plot & Structure and Christopher Vogler & Michael Hauge's in The Hero's Two Journeys, each say that "inciting incident" should come somewhere between 20% and 25% of the way into the story.

With a novel that can vary, but the reader has to care about the character prior to that. But the beginning has to be interesting to the reader - draw them onward into the story.

Al that verbiage from me really just says I agree. LOL

Byron said...

Yes, great post. And while I may shock you and grab your attention in the first sentence or two, I refuse to drop my characters on a battlefield right out of the gate. I hate to say it, but I think a lot of literary agents tend to perpetuate this problem by giving new writers the impression that everything must blow their skivvies off in the first two paragraphs. For example, "prologues are not necessary" "delete chpts. 1 & 2, start with 3", or the ever popular "it starts a little slow". Just saying...