Here's the second installment of Critique Observations, thoughts gathered while editing and shared to help you improve your writing. The first installment, on rambling dialogue, is HERE.
It's an ongoing misconception, the idea that tension equals action. While it's certainly true that a good action scene is tense, and that tension moves a story forward, it does not logically follow that the opening pages of a novel need to throw us into the middle of an action scene. Here is why.
1. We don't know the main character yet. As such, we cannot invest in this character's life. If this life is in danger from page one, we don't have a reason to care. While a near-death scene at the opening of a novel might seem intriguing, it only serves to slap us upside the head with something we're not ready for, and can't possibly care about (yet).
Example A--The Wounded Hero opening:
I raise my head from the dust, the metallic zing of blood in my mouth. Even this small motion brings sharp pain, and I groan as I try to rise. I fail.
Cheek pressed against the cold earth, I close my eyes and try to remember why I'm here. Vague memories of acrid smoke and sharp metal assault my brain, but nothing makes sense.
So your first response might be, "Oh, this is tense! He's hurt! Wonder what happened!" But in the long run, this is a risky way to start a novel (particularly if you are inexperienced; I'm sure the masters-who've-been-writing-for-decades might pull something like this off). For all we know, this guy-with-a-bleeding-head might be a jerk. A loser. Someone we aren't going to care about at all. Do I want to commit to reading 400 pages about him? Probably not.
This doesn't mean we have to begin with Once upon a time, there was a man named Blake who wore his head in a long, red braid and worked as a spy for the Intergalactic Government. But we do need to get to know Blake a little better before we blast him with shrapnel.
The answer is, simply, to back up the story a bit. Sometimes just a tiny bit. Give us the tension that's building before the explosion or the accident, and offer us a few pages to get acquainted with your main character. If the Bad Thing is your inciting incident, it doesn't need to show up until the end of chapter 1 or chapter 2, anyway. So let things build for a while.
The suns were at their zenith as I made my way to the landing dock. This month's shipment was already days late, and operations would slam to a halt if something didn't show up soon.
Not to mention the part about starving to death. Dead soil didn't do much in the way of growing food.
Okay, nothing bad has happened yet, but you can feel the possibility that something might. The shipment's late. It sounds like our protagonist doesn't know why it's late. And he's clearly worried. A few pages from now, we can slam him with whatever lands him on the ground with blood in his mouth. And by that time, we'll know--and hopefully like--him.
Example B--The OMG-I'm-Going-To-Die Hero opening
Janet is just reaching for her iPhone when the car skids to the right. Gasping, she braces her arms on the dashboard.
In the next instant, the world blurs. Dana screams as she frantically tries to regain control of the car, and Janet goes numb. With sickening suddenness, the motion stops, and there is nothing but glass, thousands of tiny shards, everywhere. Glass, and the scent of gas. Glass, and sharp pain whenever Janet tries to breathe.
In all seriousness, this type of opening was so common during the Baker's Dozen slush reading this past year that Jodi and I dubbed it "car crash", regardless of whether or not the accident took place in a car. And I continue to see this type of opening in the projects that come across my desk.
This opening scene has the same inherent problems as Blake's scene above--we don't know the main character, so we can't care that she might be dying. (And of course, she's not dying, since the story is just starting. Or she is dying, because the story is paranormal. But that's so overdone that we can smell it a league away.) The answer is the same, too--back up the story so that we get to know Janet and her life a little bit before we catapult her into a 3-car collision.
2. We need to understand the world/setting before we're plunged into action. It's bad enough not knowing who our main character is before we yank his arm off or wake him up in the E.R. But if the world we're dropped into makes no sense, it's not going to do anything but confuse us. And we won't want to read more.
Example C--The World Is Chaos opening
Mira touched the molten glass with one tentative finger. The c'vku in the air glowed, hissing more loudly the longer she stayed in contact. She closed her eyes, trying to remember what step twelve was, when the floors and wall began to vibrate, the pitch growing higher as the vibrations increased.
Too late! She had begun the Weaning Declaration too late!
Dead crows--thousands of them--fell from the ceiling as Mira screamed, clawing her way toward the holy portal, the molten glass stuck to her finger. The universe tipped, spilling her north, then south, then in directions she couldn't keep track of. When the scent of lava pushed its way up her nostrils, she knew that her failure had been complete.
(Okay, that was fun.)
But seriously, I have encountered openings with this level of confusion. I'm certain that, in the mind of the author, everything is crystal clear. But foisting a world upon a reader in the midst of chaos is not going to draw him into your world, or into your story. We need a setting that we can understand, regardless of how fantastical your world may be. We need to feel grounded before you pull the rug out from under us.
Example D--The There Is No World opening
The pain in my legs is unbearable. I try to move first one, then the other. But each movement, no matter how small, wracks me with pain.
Slowly, I lie back and force myself to breath slowly, deeply. Then, as the pain subsides a little, I try again to move myself into a sitting position. Pressing my hands against the floor, I throw my weight into my shoulders and try to pull myself backward.
That's when I see the bone protruding from my left shin.
Not only are we given an injured main character whom we don't know, but we have no setting at all. No light or dark, no inside or outside, no sights or smells or sounds or anything else to give us a clue where--or when--we are. This character exists in a vacuum, which probably makes him the least likely to grab our attention.
In conclusion, I offer a plea: Don't mistake tension for action! Don't succumb to the well-meant but faulty advice to "start with action". You need to start with TENSION. You need to hint at CONFLICT. But you don't need to blow things up and shoot things and gouge eyes out and kill people. Not on page one.
I love the opening of Divergent by Veronica Roth (Katherine Tegen Books, 2011). It draws us into the world and offers a deliciously subtle hint of tension:
There is one mirror in my house. It is behind a sliding panel in the hallway upstairs. Our faction allows me to stand in front of it on the second day of every third month, the day my mother cuts my hair.
I sit on the stool and my mother stand behind me with the scissors, trimming. The strands fall on the floor in a dull, blond ring.
When she finishes, she pulls my hair away from my face and twists it into a knot. I note how calm she looks and how focused she is. She is well-practiced in the art of losing herself. I can't say the same of myself.
There you have it. Nothing is exploding. Nobody is dying. The writing is clean and spare, and in only three short paragraphs, the characters are coming to life. So is the world.
Craft your openings carefully, dear writers. War and mayhem can come later, when we care whether or not your main characters survives.