To help with my series, ‘How to Follow Writing Advice that Makes No Sense,’ please comment with your favorite examples of high-action opening techniques. In the meantime, see Friday’s guest post on Cow Pasture Chronicles to cure your Writer’s Block by watching TV.
When I was teaching, I used to tell my students that readers and writers share a responsibility. I was quite pretentious about it, in retrospect; I tried to convince them that they needed to invest their attention into six or eight soliloquies before they could reward themselves with Hamlet double-crossing poor old Rosencrantz, or with Ariel taking Prospero’s revenge on the invaders. In order to enjoy those moments of action, after all, one would surely need an investment in understanding of the characters and the situations that motivate them. Wouldn’t one?
Perhaps one would, but it seems that literary agents don’t.
Several agents have given me feedback that leads to the third common phrase of advice in my series: ‘Start in the Middle of the Action.’ This may be the one that troubles me the most when I am writing my opening chapters. My obligation to provide background for readers clashes with my obligation to entertain them, until every attempt to balance the two seems like a compromise. Many of my opening chapters, in fact, have a current of apology in them, as if I am asking the readers to “just hang on” until things make more sense. Here are three of the cheats I have tried:
Interrupt Action using Flashback:
This is an effective technique for a number of purposes, but it always strikes me as “cheating” when used for the purpose of placing action early. Still, I have used it: in Death Imitates Art (which I recently submitted to the Mystery Writers’ Association competition), readers are introduced to Eloise and Phoebe while a van is chasing Phoebe’s Smart Car. The amount of background, though—the protagonist’s housebound mother, the news crew and policeman hassling her, and the serial killer who is staging murders based on her paintings—is nearly impossible to disseminate during a high-speed chase… so the reader is taken back a few hours, to learn this background while waiting to see the chase resolved.
This feels like “cheating,” because the reader may only be reading in anticipation of more chasing. Perhaps, my internal critic tells me, they should be gaining interest in the premise more organically.
Use an Action-Packed Prologue:
I read recently that manuscript submissions should not include prologues: and yet, so many published novels do. I used a prologue to solve the problem of opening with action in Labels. Teenager Jessica awakens from a coma to discover that she can no longer look into her parents’ or doctors’ eyes without seeing a ‘label’ describing something they have done wrong—that her father has perjured, her mother is a bully and her doctor philanders. The prologue joins her at a moment of intense distress, when she reacts to the phenomenon by attacking the threatening adults around her.
…but this must be “cheating,” too, because it delays the longer sequence needed to introduce her misogynistic psychiatrist, whom only Jessica knows is a murderer. That pesky critic of mine feels like I am hiding this from readers.
Use the chaos of Humor:
Featured heavily in nearly all of my lengthy fiction (whether it is funny or not), I used humor in Driven to introduce David Bosley and his driving students at the Provo DMV, before taking them on the road in Chapter 2 to be threatened by government conspirators. The absurdity of interactions between Deebo and his students—a Paparazzo, an OCD sufferer and a recent Cambodian immigrant—creates a scene that keeps his discussions with a visiting lawyer from growing too dry. The lawyer must physically and verbally dodge some fairly insane dialogue while appealing to Deebo to provide an alibi for a convict who claims to know him. This is the novel that had an offer of publication, so, by that measure, this might be one of the more effective techniques.
…if only it weren’t “cheating,” by distracting readers from the work of learning the core premise. Hush up, now, internal critic.
So, if the use of flashback, prologue and humor are all “cheats” designed to start with some action, then what should we do? Maybe it’s just a matter of acceptance. Maybe authors and writers should acknowledge themselves as cheaters, and use the techniques anyway.
Cheating at the keyboard may, in fact, be as good a definition as any of “writing fiction.”