When Should I Drop Into The Action?

A question I’ve been asking myself during revision is how soon is too soon to drop into the main action of the story. Another way to think about this is how much does the reader need to “get to know” my characters before they’ll start caring about all the things that happen to them.

Take a mystery for example. There’s a crime to be solved, and someone who does the solving. Should I start the book with the crime or the detective? Should I get to know the victim a little first before I bump them off?

Now a good story reveals things about the characters all throughout, and those characters can grow and change depending on what happens to them, but what is a good baseline of information I should know?

Here’s another example from a project I’m currently working on. A family is on a cruise line. Some disaster occurs separating the father from his wife and daughter and he must spend the rest of the book trying to find them. How much do we need to know about his family, the ship and the circumstances leading up to the disaster before we’re off to the races. In the case of this example my disaster happens on the first page (within the first paragraph in fact). As the story progresses we find out more about the father’s relationship to the daughter and wife told through his perspective, but they are taken away before we know them at all.

Would the story be better if I had them boarding the cruise line, spending some time aboard and interacting as a family before the crisis? As with most revision questions the best way to determine the answer is to write the scene, and then if I don’t like it I can always cut it. That’s one of my takeaways from revising my first book. The stuff you cut still provides value in that it helped shape an impression of the character in your mind, or helped you to explore the possible ways of telling the story before landing on the “correct” one.

“Flashbacks” are one way to bump the action up to the front. In our mystery example this is our detective with a smoking gun over the killer’s body (or better yet with the killer’s gun aimed at him) then flashing back to what led him to this point. Some of the revision texts I have been reading suggest this is a tired structure and I tend to agree. Non-linear story telling has applications in some stories, but most good conventional mysteries can keep you in suspense until the final conflict without having to show it to you first. And again, in a mystery there is always a decent piece of action in the beginning which is the actual crime itself.

Where has the crisis begun in the books you’ve read? What books have lost you before you reach the crisis? What books reached a crisis point too soon?

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4 Comments

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4 responses to “When Should I Drop Into The Action?

  1. Chuck Conover

    I don’t think there is any one correct answer to your question. In the example sited, this is a family. The rleationship between father and daughter is assumed. What you need to add is what makes thier particular relationship unique.

    I am a fan of non-linear, when it adds something to the story. Pulp Fiction would not have been as good had the story been told in real time.

    • Pulp Fiction is a strange example. I’m not sure how I’m supposed to feel about John Travolta’s ultimate fate given that it is not the note the movie ends on. Some stories benefit in their artistic style by changing the order of events, but I still think the principle holds that there needs to be a reason for those changes, otherwise it is just stylistically random.

  2. I personally like to be dropped right into the crisis and if written correctly I think you can learn about the character and care about them within the crisis that is happening. It depends a lot upon their reaction to the crisis. I’m not sure I’m as happy with a lot of backstory first, I don’t think it grabs you enough, fast enough. Although I definitely agree that writing something out one way first and then deciding how it should work is a really good tool and it does give you more insight into your characters. For me, my characters sort of taught me where the story should go, if I did the wrong thing, it just…felt wrong and not authentic. So I tried the second choice and many times it was the right one. Writing is so freaking interesting, don’t you agree? It’s a beautiful curse to be able to really do whatever you want and make any change you want. Sometimes it’s a good thing and you can find the right way to do something, other times, you could keep changing it forever and never be satisfied. Or that’s how it feels. Keep the writing posts coming! Good stuff!

    • It’s hard for me to know sometimes if I’m just rushing to the good stuff, or whether some set up is really filler. I generally believe that moments are better appreciated when they have context (hence why I don’t like to watch random “great” episodes of TV shows, especially dramas, until I’ve seen what came before). Ultimately the great thing about writing is you can try both, and see what works best. Glad you’re liking the blog!

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