Beware the Action Beginning

actionYou know what I’m talking about…the opening pages are filled with action, action, action – be it bombs exploding, screeching tires into a dark alley, or a midnight robbery. It’s about movement and immediately capturing the reader’s attention so they keep turning the pages and pulling out their credit card to buy the book.

But here’s the thing about Action Beginnings…you have a lot to live up to. The question is: Can you?

Cheap Trick

I’ve read many submissions that have Action Beginnings, and many times I’ve belched out a “Aw, such a cheapie move!” It’s like the movie trailer that shows all the funny lines, thereby seducing movie goers that the movie is a laugh riot…only to find out that all those funny lines were in the trailer, and the movie really sucks stale Twinkie cream.

So what makes it a cheap trick?

Inconsistency:  What I mean here is that the subsequent chapters are snooze fests.The Action Beginning is amazing and pulls the reader in, but then the next chapters are about as exciting as my attempts at meatloaf. These often read like two writers collaborated; one says, “Let me write the coolio begining, and you write the rest.” Only the other writer has no clue how to match the voice, pace, and flow of the Action Beginning.

This happened when I read a submission where the story opened with a dramatic, fingie-nail-bitey scene of a doc caring for a patient with a gunshot wound in the ER. Ooo, my heart was a-pumpin’, let me tell you. But then the following chapters backtracked to the doc getting up in the morning, figuring out what to wear, what to eat for breakfast, and walking the dog…the mundane. Being the heartless, ill-tempered editor that I am, I allowed The Rescue Beagles to use it for bed lining because the author’s fast-paced, tension-filled chapter was followed with the achingly everyday. It was like the author sent me from zero to 90 mph, only to suddenly stop and slam me into a brick wall.

Action Beginnings are great when they gradually let you down and slide you into the following scene. The boring chapters about the doc’s day made me want to go back to the first chapter, where something was happening. I felt dragged to the next chapters kicking and screaming…I didn’t go there willingly…because the author didn’t know how to properly organize his story. All the literary talent of the Action was missing from the next chapters.

Be consistent, or go home.

Logical: My other Cheap Trick litmus test is whether the Action Beginning is logical.

I remember reading a submission years ago where the story opened with a tension-filled robbery in the dead of night. Great chapter. Totally into it. After that chapter was over, the story went backwards in time to twelve years before, and was about as exciting as a root canal. There was no action, very little character development, and no indication of a plot. It became evident that the robbery chapter wasn’t a pivotal piece to the story, but merely a misadventure of one of the characters.

In short, it wasn’t logical. There wasn’t anything important about that Action Beginning other than it was a really cool chapter. It had very little to do with the overall plot.

Upon asking why he led with it, the author replied that he’d been told  it was a good idea to start a book with action. Ouch. Since the author only used the Action Beginning in order to draw the reader in, I labeled it a Cheap Trick and suggested that he yank it out and put it further back in the book, where it made more sense.

Ask yourself if it makes sense to put the Action chapter at the beginning. Is it important to the plot?

More importantly, ask yourself why you’re using that particular Action chapter for your beginning. Is it a good lead-in to your next chapters? Understanding your motivation is important to your writing arsenal. Don’t get me wrong; Action Beginnings can be a fabulous writing tool, but it can also go horribly wrong. If you start with a bang, you gotta keep that bang going.

Have you read Action Beginnings that you felt belonged there, or did you want to give the author a wedgie?

 

5 Responses to Beware the Action Beginning

  1. John Allan says:

    The thing is – and perhaps it’s just me – but I never, ever, rely only on the first chapter. In fact, I often don’t rely on it at all; I select two or three segments at random.

    And I hate to seem pedantic, but ‘Upon asking why he lead’ should read ‘Upon asking why he led’.

  2. Just an FYI, some of my root canals have been exciting. However, you do raise some interesting points about spring boarding into next set of chapters and being let down. Going from flaming cherries jubilee to tapioca pudding is not what I want either. Damn, now I have another set of revisions to work on. Thanks!

  3. ericjbaker says:

    I feel good about my beginning now.

  4. S.P.Bowers says:

    Another problem with the action beginning is if it’s all action and no character. If we don’t have any reason to care about the character the action part isn’t very enthralling.

  5. I confess, I open each of my Peri mysteries with a murder, but the next chapter is all about our plucky heroine learning about it (and deciding to stick her nose where it doesn’t belong).

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