Pablo Said So

Pablo Picasso said it well. “Learn the rules like a pro, so you can break them like an artist.”

We have had a number of posts, and an almost equal number of opinions, on the rules of writing and whether we need to follow them. I am of the firm opinion that is essential, initially, to know what the rules are. Then we can break them with awareness and can explain why, at least to ourselves. Occasionally we may wish to explain to others as well, but that could be fodder for another whole post.

There are often articles posted on what these rules are. I like to read them, if only to get new ideas and to challenge my own thoughts about them. The most recent appeared in Kristen Lamb’s blog, Five Red Flags Your Story Needs Revision. Kristen has a great blog site. She and her guests have a lot of good things to say. I recommend it.

This post, however, had one item that I cannot completely agree with, so I decided here would be a good place to open it up further.

Here’s the ‘rule’.
“Red Flag #2: If Your Novel Dumps the Reader Right into Major Action, You Might Need Revision”

Now, I’ll admit, up front, that I was not aware of such a rule. And that I broke the rule in both my novels, and come close to doing it again in the third. Okay, you may call me defensive. Maybe I am, but please hear me out.

The argument against jumping into the action is that the reader is not yet invested in the characters. There is some concern that too much action can be confusing and put the reader off unless they have some prior knowledge of, and investment in, the story and the characters.

On the other side of the fence we have those who urge us to ‘grab the reader’ with our first page, our first paragraph, even our first sentence. The easiest way to do that, in my opinion, is with action that involves at least one main character. There are other ways, and some writers use them very cleverly. Let’s leave those aside for this post.

I asked myself what the reasons for my problem with this rule might be. I am one of those in the minority who look at things from a wide perspective. It gets me in trouble because I so often can agree in principle but see other aspects that challenge blanket statements.

So, here’s what I do agree with. Too many characters in the first few pages, amid chaotic action for which we have not been prepared, can cause issues for the reader. They can become confused and since they have not yet become invested in the characters, may not care enough to find out what isn’t told up front.

But the rule, like so many, does not allow for the inevitable continuum. It’s a matter of degree. There are times when beginning with an action scene, even introducing a small handful of characters, is reasonable and appropriate. The trick is in knowing when those times are.

One commenter, Lynn Blackmar, (I have her permission to quote her) had this to say:

I’m with Yvonne about #2, but I think this varies by genre. In thriller, action-adventure, sci-fi, sometimes fantasy, and sometimes mystery, everybody wants an action scene straight off the bat. It doesn’t necessarily have to be a major action scene, but there needs to be central thematic tension from the first paragraph. Is it hard to do this well and make the readers care about the action scene? Yes. Will they complain if you leave it out? Yes. For that matter, so will editors.

Lynn makes a good point. The genre influences the best way to begin a story. Perhaps that is what raised my hackles when I first read the ‘rule’. I write fantasy. One way to find out more about how genre affects how we open a story is to read what successful authors in that genre do.

To get another opinion, I asked my editor, Wendy Reis, (Member, Editors’ Association of Canada) whether she thought I ought to have used different openers. She read my first book and edited the second. Her words? “Your writing is stellar.” She assured me that my openings work well for my stories.

In the final count, it is the reader who will decide if you have crossed a line. But I’ll admit to being relieved by Wendy’s vote of confidence. Whew!

Author: Yvonne Hertzberger

Yvonne Hertzberger is a native of the Netherlands who immigrated to Canada in 1950. She is an alumna of The University of Waterloo, with degrees in psychology and Sociology. Her Fantasy trilogy, ‘Earth’s Pendulum’ has been well received. Learn more about Yvonne at her blog and her Amazon author page.

26 thoughts on “Pablo Said So”

  1. I agree with the commenter — it’s a genre convention, particularly for fantasy and sci-fi. The trick is to work enough detail about the characters into the opening scene so that readers do care about them — enough, anyway, so that they’re hooked into reading the rest of the book.

    I know a whole bunch of people who are crazy for Steven Erikson’s “Malazan Book of the Fallen” series — including me. 😀 And that’s even though I spend the first 100 pages of every book trying to figure out what’s going on and who all these people are, lol.

    1. Thanks, Lynne. I know so little about conventions and ‘rules’ as i never took a creative writing course. (yes, the cat’s out of the bag). But I do know what I like and what works for me. It’s good to know I’m not alone.
      Hm, another series for me to read – but not until I’ve read yours.

      1. 🙂

        You know more than you think you do. I’ve probably picked up more in my reading since grad school, particularly about genre fiction, than I did *in* grad school. 😉

  2. Once upon a time books started slower, but in these days of instant gratification I feel that a running start is the norm. However, you are right, Yvonne, horses for courses, and skilled writers can make whatever they want to work.

    Great post, Yvonne.

  3. Too many characters in the opening scene can cause bedlam in the reader’s mind. Yvonne knows how to rivet focus while the scene is surrounded with upheaval. It has been a while since I read Back from Chaos (Yvonne’s first book) but I was immediately drawn in because the focus was primarily upon one young woman. I was instantly ‘invested’ in what was to become of her. I couldn’t stop reading. I have never looked back.

  4. For me, dropping into an action scene immediately works as long as I know where I am, who I’m with and what’s happening; which pretty much means I’m invested in the character. Starting with an action scene that explains nothing wouldn’t hold my attention. I’ve read your books, Yvonne [well, you know that:)] and yes, you start right in with action but [big but] I know everything I need to know in order to want to keep reading. Dump me in the action without any weaving in of information, and I’m probably not going to continue.

    For me, it’s all in how it’s done and when it’s done well, it’s my favourite beginning. So . . . just keep writing.:)

  5. Great post and very germane to the work I am currently shopping to agents. The agent most interested wanted me to dump the first chapters in favor of getting to the first major action. I tried…it felt like jumping off a cliff. I work shopped it and the critique group felt like I did. I compromised by cutting a lot, but not all, and sent the agent the first 100 pages and I’m waiting. My genre is upmarket fiction (strong female protagonist). However, in thinking about this so long I’ve concluded that books did used to start slower. But I think television and movies has had a huge influence on how people read. The pilot in these series seems like a runaway train. Characters don’t develop until episode two or three. It’s just a theory. I thought I’d throw it out there 🙂 Great post Yvonne!

    1. Thank you. It sounds like, for your book, dumping the reader into major action just isn’t right. I think it depends on the story. My advice, for what it’s worth? Stick with your gut.

  6. I agree with your point about having too many characters or too much action too fast. The beginning must have a simplicity and yet a pull toward the tension that is very hard to balance. There is a distinction between action which leads into the conflict and action which is the main conflict.

    In thinking about this topic more, I went back and read the beginnings of some of my favorite books. Because I like action, fantasy, sci fi… most of them had some sort of active scene at the beginning, with the exception of those with prologues. They were character-focused, usually with a very narrow field of vision and few characters, like you said above, but they also had some sort of example of the conflict into which the characters were embroiled. They presented the conflict viscerally, and how that conflict had affected their main character. The books that had a lead-in I found slow, especially if it went on for chapters. For example, I am reading In the Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss, and I didn’t get into the story until the main character started telling it. The prologues I found the most dull, because they usually didn’t introduce me to characters, conflict, or action. Of my favorite books, I determined that Harry Potter was the only good example of a slow lead-in that was still captivating, and I think only because of Rowling’s stellar ability to capture the characterizations of the bumbling Dursleys’.

    I came to the conclusion that action can tell us a great deal about the main character, and it’s a misconception that action cannot be character-driven. You can take an action scene, focus it on a character, live it through their emotions, and connect the reader to that character through that situation. If you can’t connect the reader to a character through action, then the problem is the writing, not the vehicle. Likewise, you can capture a reader through a lead-in, but again, you have to be a good writer to do it. If you are too slow, too obtuse, too focused on an agenda, you will lose your readers.

    1. You have analyzed this very thoroughly. And it is also a good argument against prologues, although i do think they have their place as well. Thank you for your insights.

      1. Where prologues work for me are in sequels. Then I understand the background, and their meaning. But, on a first book, usually I don’t get their meaning or purpose, and I’d have to go back and read it at the end to remember it. What might work on a first book is an appendix…

  7. Since I read and write thrillers, I agree with Yvonne. That said, it doesn’t have to be an ‘action’ scene. I think an inciting incident works to pull the reader in just as well as a James Bond-style beginning (although I LOVE Bond…) The scene needs to posit enough gripping questions that the reader wants to /has to find out what happens next.

    Great post, Yvonne! Thanks 🙂

    1. Exactly. It is not so much about how much action or how many characters are presented. Rather it is about whether the beginning grabs the reader and makes them want to read on.

  8. In a few of the writing courses I’ve taken, the instructors have emphasized using action in the opening chapter as a way to draw the reader in and create empathy with your main character right from the start. If it’s done right, I think it can be very effective. In this age of instant gratification, short attention spans, and fast-paced action on TV, I think starting with action can be a good thing. When I watch a movie from the 50s, I get so impatient with the slow openings and long, drawn out plots. On the other hand, sometimes I like a slow build-up to action if there is a lot of tension. It really depends on how skillful the writer is. I love Kristen’s blog, but tend to agree with you on this red flag #2.

  9. Yvonne, I really enjoyed your analysis.
    I like a book to grab me. I have suffered through books for my book club that took way too long to develop. If I am finding reasons not to go back to a book, like I need to do laundry or something, it has lost me.
    My first book introduced a lot of characters quickly. The current WIP has a bit of action right away, but a slower introduction and richer development of the characters.
    I need to read “Back from Chaos.” It is now on the 2013 list. 🙂

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