Monday, July 19, 2010

Start with Action

If you've been reading blogs about writing, you always hear the need to start with action. Suck the reader in right away, get them involved. That's definitely true, but like anything, there is always a balance. If you start with action, make sure the reader cares about the characters in the action.

Some writers start their book with a bunch of back story, using tell instead of show. That's probably not going to get published. Today's readers don't have a lot of patience for this type of writing, are probably going to get bored, and end up putting the book down. However, the same can be said of action, action, action, if the reader doesn't care about the characters. If it is just page after page of bullets whizzing past some character's head, after a while, who cares?

So how do you get the reader to care about the characters? Use backstory to describe the characters so that the reader can relate to their motivation. But wait, you just told me not to use backstory. That I did.

The trick, is to weave the back story into the action so that the reader doesn't even know that it is there. Balance the back story with the action. If you look at any successful author, they are masters at this.

At Thrillerfest Ken Follet made a presentation on just this subject. He talked about the importance of having action, but written so that the reader cares about the action. Readers care because they worry about what is happening to their beloved characters.

Let's say you write a scene with a bloody shootout on page one. You start by giving each character a name, a hair color, what color clothes they are wearing, describe how tall they are, and let them kill each other. Do you really care? Bob is shooting at Fred, who is running away from Bill who's coming around the corner to ..... Boring.

It's like watching a shootout from a moving car. You may find it interesting for a little while, but you don't know who the players are and what they care about, other than not getting shot. Now, can you imagine the same scene if the shootout was happening on your front lawn, and it was your close neighbors doing the shooting. The impact is much more intimate and real.

That's exactly what you need to do with your story. You need action to get the reader interested, but make sure there is enough about the characters so that the reader can relate to their predicament, and have the chance to care.

How do you make your readers care about your characters?


  1. I try to do exactly what you describe: provide sympathetic characters to an intro action scene.

    It's definitely not easy!

  2. What an interesting piece, Douglas. It reminded me of what I heard from the writer Chuck Paulahniuk. He said that a writer should never start a story with a sentence that has an exclamation point, because there's no way a writer can build off that.

    As for me, I create a certain atmosphere around my characters to make the readers care. That atmosphere is by using thoughts similar to what the readers would have in the given predicament and also with the occasional twists at the end of each chapter, which will make the reader want more and more. I also weave the character's back-stories along with the most tense of scenes. Not by telling the reader, but by showing it. That's how I build on my characters.

    Awesome post and write on!

  3. @Vatche, it sounds like you are on the right track. Keep writing.


Join the conversation, add insight, or disagree with us! We welcome your thoughts.

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.