Pop culture reference. Huge one.
I wanted to mention something that ties back to last week’s rant. It’s about how I choose to begin a story. I almost included it then, but I figured it worked as a stand-alone, and I’m trying to get away from the posts where I just blab on and on.
Unless I really need to.
One piece of writing advice that people keep repeating is “start with action.” It started cropping up in Hollywood as development people became more and more involved in shaping a story, mostly because it’s a very simple rule. And from there it spread out to television, books, and other forms of storytelling. I’m tempted to say this isn’t so much advice as a good solid rule.
Now the catch (yeah there’s always a catch—if there wasn’t, I’d have nothing to write about on Thursdays) is that somewhere along the way a lot of people started pushing this rule when they didn’t really understand it. Some folks hear “action” and immediately think explosions, ninjas, car chases, and giant monsters fighting giant robots. So that’s what they tell people.
Thing is, there are lots of issues if I’m going to start with Action (capital A). One of the biggest is that I can’t start at big. If I start at big, I’ve got nowhere to go. Granted, the tension level in my stories should go up and down. But if my first point is 9.5 out of ten, it means everything after this either has to be a huge drop or it can only squeak half a point higher. Starting at 9.5 to 10 means every character arc, every bit of tension, every moment of action has pretty much topped out on page one. There’s nowhere else to go.
Also, let’s be honest... some stories just aren’t conducive to Action. What kind of great action scene could I begin To Kill A Mockingbird with? Or (500) Days of Summer? The Notebook? Heck, how many romantic comedies begin with a big action scene? Action (still capital A) is great for... well, action tales and some genre stuff, but there’s tons of stories that this advice just will not work for.
And because of that last issue, sometimes writers will force action into a story that doesn’t really need it. Or shouldn’t have it. But they’ve been told they need to start with action, so they come up with a way to cram it in.
Y’see, Timmy, when I say starting with action should be considered a rule, I’m not talking about martial arts or gunfire or high speed bank robberies. I just mean action in the classic definition of the word. I need to start with something happening. Because if there isn’t something happening, what’s the point of this?
For the record, this is why I usually shouldn’t begin with five pages of backstory or a random character moment. I don’t want to hear about what happened before—that’s starting in reverse. I want to begin with my story already on the move, heading forward. As I’ve mentioned before, stories are like sharks. If they’re not moving, they die.
“Something happening” can mean anything. Washing a car is action. Cooking dinner is action. Hurrying to make it to the meeting I’m late for is action.
I mentioned last week that most Jack Reacher books begin with the main character in very subdued, quiet settings. The show Orphan Black begins with a woman on a train and offending some people with her free use of profanity. Stephen King’s Doctor Sleep starts with a little boy who refuses to use the bathroom. Most episodes of Castle and Elementary begin with someone discovering a body, but rarely with the actual murder.
One of my own books, Ex-Heroes, begins with a woman on guard duty watching a zombie walk into a wall. Then another character shows up, they talk for a bit, and she goes back to watching the zombie. That’s all of chapter one. The sequel begins with a Fourth of July party. The latest book begins with a girl talking to her therapist about her dreams.
Want a better example? A bigger one, perhaps...?
Captain America: The Winter Soldier has pretty much been the smash hit of the year so far. It’s a Marvel movie, it has a huge cast of established and new superhero characters. It even (arguably) has a trio of giant killer robots. It’s pretty much the definition of a summer action blockbuster.
How does it begin?
The Winter Soldier begins with two men doing laps around the National Mall in Washington. That’s it. Two guys out for their morning run. One’s a bit faster than the other, but it’s not exactly a high-tension scene. And that’s almost the first five minutes of the movie.
But they’re doing something. So it’s starting with action.
Next time... well, I have limited ideas for next time.
Until then, go do something.