Action scenes, most often, do not make the best start to a book.
There, I said it.
Remember those seven books I pulled off of my shelf and read the first 500 words of? Not one of them started in the middle of a bar fight or an infiltration gone awry or a battle.
One of the books I pulled is Larry Correia's Monster Hunter International. I also peeked into Monster Hunter Alpha. If you've ever read Mr. Correia's novels, then you know they're packed with quirky humor, gratuitous violence and just enough plot to make things very, very interesting. The end of Alpha gave a few of my friends action fatigue—you know, like the Transformers movies, where you just wanted them to stop knocking down buildings and get back to why you should care.
Not even the Monster books started with action. And if any of them should have, it would be them.
This approach works great for a movie. The director doesn't have to slow down to let the character have inner dialogue or to describe the setting. A camera pans through the jungle, settling on a single woman (blonde, beautiful and armed to the teeth) crouched down behind a gigantic tree. Her eyes are riveted on a spot we can't see, so the camera turns and follows her gaze. An ancient temple is barely visible through the pouring rain, but we can clearly see the army uniforms. The woman's eyes then swivel to her right, where we see members of her faithful team—bright eyed and ready to go—waiting for her orders. She jerks her head. The tall guy raises his eyebrows and says through the radio, “You know we're not all walking away from this.”. She gives him a flat stare, to which he shrugs his shoulders and waves his hand for everyone to go forward.
A film has the distinct advantage of being able to set up a mood, a setting and characters through what we see and hear. No one has to describe the oppressive heat or how the pouring rain is going to hamper the upcoming fight, because we can see it. Ten seconds of panning replaces a paragraph or two of description. Then one line of dialogue as well as the character's outer reactions set the stage for the stakes. We're going in no matter what. The character is determined, her followers are loyal. That tells us loads.
But what about the same scene described in a book? I've read a few beginnings that are barely more descriptive than what I wrote above. An outline of what is happening rather than a scene being unfolded to a reader piece by piece.
Don't get me wrong, readers will fill in blanks, there is no need to put the type of trees or the exact brand of jacket someone is wearing (unless it's important) but after too much ambiguity they'll get lost and stop reading. We've all got other things to kill our time and emotional energy on.
As an author it's tempting to pull the reader in with action. Resist. In a novel, action is no replacement for getting the reader invested into the characters or the idea of the story. We write novels, readers read novels, no one watches them until they're made into movies.
And 99% of the time, the book is better than the movie.
Pull a book or two off the shelf (or fire up your Kindle) and read the first two pages. How does it start? Why did you keep reading? I'm betting that very few will start in the middle of danger or action. The story might go there in a few pages, but first an author must hook the reader into caring enough to read on.
What do you think? Action or not?
Next time: Pacing-Easy Tiger