Opening Action: how to make it work

Making your opening scene work is more than just starting with an explosion. The opening action sets the tone for your entire story. Make sure yours doesn’t fall into one of these traps.

Opening Action: getting it right

This week I had two similar manuscripts on my desk. Both were Jeanne Frost-style contemporary fantasy: Sexy young woman kicking ass in stilettos with a super-hot monster love interest on the side. Both writers had great mechanics, and both had opening scenes that began with conflict. But only one of them drew me in. The problem wasn’t subjective. One manuscript had a definable issue that could have easily been avoided.

Start with action

Start with action is a commonly spouted piece of writing advice, but not all action is created equal.

Manuscript 1 opened with the main character right before she has to fight for her life. In this example, the author constructed the fight to continually add to the tension. Every small question/conflict raised was answered with another, building a continuous chain that perpetually increased the stakes.

Manuscript 2 opened with the main character searching her environment for a defensible position and winning it after a minor brawl. Then, the chapter continued with chitchat that introduced another, unrelated problem.

Both these manuscripts started with action, but there is a critical difference: the opening action in manuscript 2 did not start the story.

Starting with the real action

Knowing where to start the story is one of the biggest problems new writers have with plotting. New writers want to recount all the events that occur from the moment a character wakes up to the moment he goes to sleep, but that is not a plot. Plot is a sequence of events that take your character through his/her journey. That means only the events that are related to that journey should be included.

Did we hear about Red Riding Hood searching for her basket that morning? Cinderella making her bed before the ball? Rapunzel getting her period? No. While these things certainly happened, they are not part of the plot. Why?

Those events didn’t change anything for the character.

Every point in your plot should change something for the POV character. When you are looking for your story’s true beginning, look for the first event that changed your character’s path.

Finding the Story’s True BeginningOpening Action-www.themanuscriptshredder.com

One of my CP’s and I are going back and forth on this issue with her current WIP. She wants to include the scene where a friend convinces the main character to go to a party. Her reason: this is the event that sets the Main Character on her path.

I disagree

My advice is to start at the party. Why? The Main Character’s decision to go to the party wasn’t what set her on her path. The Main Character could have gone to the party and, if the bad guys hadn’t shown up, nothing would have changed. The decision to go to the party was a low stakes decision. She’d been to plenty of parties in the past, so there was nothing special about this party at the time the decision was made. As a result, the initial conflict raised in the opening chapter: Main Character must decide whether to attend a party, is completely resolved without raising another conflict. Essentially, that plotline is over.

This was the same problem that surfaced in manuscript 2: the original conflict was resolved without effectively raising another.

What to do

  1. Identify your inciting incident- the point of no return for your character (Katniss volunteers for the Hunger Games)
  2. Trace the plot chain backward until you find the decision that made the inciting incident inevitable. That means that every decision made between those two points must connect in an unbreakable chain.

But wait? Doesn’t that mean that the decision to go to the party should be included?

No.

Plot chains must be linked by cause and effect

(Need a refresher on plot chains?)

The main character’s decision to go to the party did not cause the bad guys to show up. However, the bad guys’ behavior caused the main character to act, and the effects of her actions caused the next problem, etc.

Now lets look at the plot chain from Manuscript 1

It begins In Media Res, (which is great but not necessary.) The MC has been caught stealing and the antagonist is getting ready to make her fight for her life.

First link
cause: (Antagonist) releases the monster for her to fight
effect: MC gets knocked around a bit and realizes she can’t beat it
Second link
cause: MC knows she can’t defeat the monster
effect: MC looks around for another way and spots magical mind control cuff on monster’s ankle
Third link
cause: MC destroys cuff
effect: monster joins forces with MC and turns attention to captors
Fourth link
cause: MC starts smashing up the place
effect: (Antagonist) turns into something even more gruesome than the original monster.
End first chapter

In this simplified outline, the cause and effect relationship between all the events in the plot becomes clear. This is what a plot chain should look like. The most basic plot structure is cause and effect.

Notice how each link in the chain changes something for the MC.
Link 1 change: monster can’t be defeated
LInk 2 change: Another possibility emerges
Link 3 change: Monster changes sides
Link 4 change: Antagonist gets stronger

But wait? Wasn’t the MC’s decision to steal the beginning of the plot chain, and therefore should be included because “show, don’t tell?”

The author’s decision not to include these scenes was the correct one for two reasons:

  1. Seeing these scenes would not have added anything to the story.

  2. Once the MC had been caught, she lost agency (the ability to effect change) in her story. When characters lose agency, their plot chains are broken. Finding a thief in his toy chest caused the antagonist to arrest her and sentence her to death. The main character had no part in that decision. This break in agency shifted the theft/arrest scenes into the MC’s backstory. She regained her agency when the fight started, marking the beginning of the new plot chain.

Plot chaining isn’t only important for action genres, all stories should have a defined sequence of cause and effect. And if you find agency in your plot chain spread across multiple characters, then you should use multiple POV’s to tell it. Identifying the character with agency will tell you which POV to use. It will also prevent important events from happening off screen and keep the action “on page” where you want it.

Start with action sounds like simple advice, but making it work takes careful consideration and planning. By using the plot chaining technique, you will make sure your opening action truly starts the hero’s story. Don’t let your opening fall flat or wander aimlessly, use plot chaining to get your story off to a great start.

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6 thoughts on “Opening Action: how to make it work”

  1. Valuable advice! You put a lot of work into this; surely you’re writing a book about writing?

    I am less excited about action and the kind of close plotting you’re advocating here, but then I’m not working on a genre novel. This advice seems particularly ideal for a short story, though.

    Don’t see much else to comment on. It’s good, solid work on a somewhat difficult subject.

    Alan Carl Nicoll

    1. Thanks for the feedback. I enjoy hearing from readers.
      “Action” in this article refers to having characters who are working toward solving a conflict (which may or may not involve fists and explosions) rather than opening to static exposition. This has become the expectation in genre fiction.
      You are correct about the importance of this in short stories as well. The length restrictions make “getting the plot rolling” critical. There simply isn’t room for lengthy descriptions and exposition.

  2. Cause and effect. The very heart of story. Thanks for a clear explanation. I’ve shared the post online. Enjoy your week!

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