Wednesday, February 15, 2012

In Pursuit of Action


For many aspiring writers, they dredge up a range of emotions. There's nothing quite like putting your baby out there, only for it to be returned to you a few months later marked up in red, with scores that have you wonder for a second if they've accidentally left a digit out.

I entered my first contest in 2008. To be honest, I knew little about writing and nothing about publishing. Fortunately, the contest ordained everything from the font, to the size, to the margins to the line spacing so I didn't have a chance to embarrass myself by sending in something single spaced, written in Verdana, in size 6 font, with 0.5 inch margins.

This was good, since the content held plenty that now makes me want to bang my head against the wall and be eternally thankful that at least entries are anonymous. Suffice to say the judges did not think they'd read the opening pages to the next Gone With The Wind.

I've since learnt that opening your story with you main character stuck in a traffic jam doing a lot of philosophical thinking isn't the best way to hook a reader. They also generally don't care much about what she had for dinner last night or how long it's been since her car got serviced.

What readers want, we're told, is ACTION. Especially at the beginning. Things have to be happening, and fast. You can fill us in on her elderly cat called Skittles who has a thing for donuts later.

My question for you is this; we're told that readers want action and they want it fast but how fast? What is your preference? Do you want to get to know your character at all before we knock her / him over the head with getting sacked / finding out  husband is cheating / discovering they've accidentally picked up the only copy of the nuclear launch codes and have terrorists after them? 

Or do you prefer a few pages (by which I mean 3 not 30) of getting to know them and scene setting before the writer turns their world inside down and upside out?


  1. That's a great question!

    As a reader, it's difficult for me to care about what's happening to a character if I don't have the faintest idea of what they look like or know anything about their personality. How do you envision the action with a mystery character?

    As a writer, I tried to balance the two. In the first few pages, I dropped in a few hints about the her life turned upside down. It's my very first book, so we'll see if it works.

  2. It is a good question. I've been told the new 'thing' is to push more action instead of description. And yet when I ask someone to read my manuscript, I get 'well, it just jumps right in, doesn't it?' I guess it all depends on the audience. Although when I'm reading, if after two pages the author is still describing? I'll put it down.

  3. It takes a great writer to jump into the action while describing the characters as the plot thickens. I prefer a little behind the scenes before I'm plunged in. But again, some authors can pull it off as the action starts.

  4. I think a lot depends on the type of novel it is and the character involved as to how it opens. I admit like Jenn I'd put a book aside if it was still describing after two pages.There needs to be a hook to keep me reading and wanting to know more.

  5. If it's an author I haven't read before, I will often read the first couple of pages to see if they interest me. If they don't, it's back on the shelf and on to the next book.

    If it's a book by an author I've read before, I don't mind so much, because I know that (hopefully) by the end of the book I will be happy.

    So... as a new author, you have to hook the reader early on, because they don't know you or your writing, and don't have that level of trust that allows them to move past the early descriptive passages into the main story.

    But... even as an established author, you will want to be attracting new readers, who could be picking up any one of your books off the shelf. So even if you have 10, 50, 100 novels in print, each one needs to be able to entice the first-time reader. And that is probably best done through a good hook in the first couple of pages.


    And these comments mostly apply to fiction - I think there is more leeway in non-fiction, depending on the kind of book (e.g. a commentary on the book of 1 Corinthians is going to have to start out with the 'from Paul' bit, no matter how much they might want to start with the exciting stuff).

  6. Thanks for your thoughts :)

    I agree - it takes a masterful writer to be able to both make us care about a character and thrust them into the middle of the action within a few pages. I have to admit that I'm pretty sure I'm not that writer yet!

    In my current ms we hit the action around page 4 but I've been told I should cut the first two pages and dive straight into it. While it works too, I have to admit my personal preference is to know a little more about the main character first so I'm a bit torn about which way I go for this contest entry.

  7. Start in the middle of a car chase seems to be the popular norm, but I've read a few contest entries that did that and left me more irritated than enlightened. Even in a car chase I need to know where it's happening, who's the good guy and why are they speeding? Action is good, but it needs to be grounded in character