Terrible Tip Tuesday: Writing Advice to Ignore


April 1, 2013 by Kira Lyn Blue

Yes, I know it’s not Tuesday. No, I’m not planning on making this a weekly blog feature. I just like alliterative titles.

The Terrible Tip: Do not plunge your reader right into the action.


Dean Winchester can’t believe you just said that.

From what I recall of the article, the author was listing mistakes to avoid in the opening of your novel. Her reasoning for this particular piece of advice was that until readers get to know the characters we they won’t care if they survive a battle, or if someone close to them dies, or if a house is exploding around them. She said you have to give the reader a connection first.

(Edit: fellow blogger KD DID IT found the article! Go check out Kristen Lamb’s post on 5 Red Flags Your Story Needs Revision to see the other side of the argument plus 4 other tips that aren’t remotely terrible. Even snarky, opinionated gals like me can’t refute the rest of her wisdom :))

Why I think this is Baloney:

1) I’m an avid reader and I completely disagree.

I want to be dumped right into some action. Throw me kicking and screaming into the abyss of conflict from the first page and I’ll keep turning pages to find out what’s going on and who these battle-hardened warriors are. If you spend more than a paragraph telling me who the character is, all about their family, describing the city they live in, or waxing poetic about how much they love their job, I’m out. Get me to the good stuff already! I won’t care about the details of your character until after I’ve seen something of the struggle they’re going to be dealing with in this book.

For example, as much as I ended up loving the Kushiel’s series by Jacqueline Carey, she spent pages and pages setting the scene before ever getting to any action. Her prose was undeniably beautiful, but I just kept wondering when we were going to get to the point. I never would have kept going if the books hadn’t come so highly recommended by my friends.

2) If it’s a mistake to plunge right in, why is that exactly what happens in so many novels?

I don’t really remember the beginning of most books, but I can tell you that I clearly remember the beginning of both Fight Club and Invisible Monsters by Chuck Palahniuk. In both novels, Palahniuk starts dumps you right into the climactic scene, the very peak of the action. Not that I recommend this strategy for everyone, but he makes it work and makes it unforgettable.

For a less extreme example, let’s take mysteries where the main character(s) have to solve a murder. I can think of example after example of both novels and TV shows where we open with the murder itself happening or the MC finding the body or coming to the crime scene. Sploosh! Right into the action.

The Caveat:

Now, I understand the this is my opinion and opinions are like bellybuttons, everyone has one unless you’re a genetically engineered hominid grown in a test tube. Maybe I missed the entire point of that author’s piece of advice. Maybe she was speaking to a specific genre that is outside what I normally read or watch.

Fellow blogizens, what do you think? Can you dispute my argument? Do you agree with it? Leave a comment below to join in the debate!

And now I must go off to rewrite the prologue to my novel having realized it’s complete crap because it violates everything I said in the first point of my argument above. Whoops!

From http://www.cheezburger.com.

11 thoughts on “Terrible Tip Tuesday: Writing Advice to Ignore

  1. MishaBurnett says:

    Pacing is a tough thing to gauge. In both Catskinner’s Book and Cannibal Hearts I open with a description of what my main character’s life is like first, and then go into the action. (In fact, in both novels the first chapter has the highest body count.)
    So I guess what I’m saying is don’t open with action, but get to it within the first few pages. How’s that for noncommittal?

    • I need to put Catskinner on my ‘to read’ list… actually 1 sec… there, I added it to my Goodreads. I’m curious to see if maybe it’s just my definition of action differs from that of others.

  2. cptam1947 says:

    I open with a shovel in the face, a fist to the gut, or someone is waking up somewhere other than his or her bed. But the story I am writing, the one I like the best starts with a snap shot of this guys home life. I hint that his pets are not what they seem and then the poop hits the fan and his pets save him.

    • Ok, I had a bit of trouble navigating your blog to find story content. I was trying to find the opening of the untitled Gravedigger Smith piece you were working on, but could only locate later chapters 😦

      But, I did find the Tanker Boots one. I like how you opened with a quick exchange of dialogue, that leaves the reader going, “Oh, really? Tell me more!”. Definitely bookmarking that to come back and read in full later!

  3. […] Lyn Blue has a post which promotes dropping the reader right into the action while Kristen Lamb makes an equally good […]

  4. KD DID IT found the article I was referring to! I humbly bow to your interweb superiority, good blogger! I’m updating this post to include the link to the article 1) So you can see Kristen Lamb’s argument for not plunging the reader in and making the determination for yourself and 2) because the article does have solid advice for knowing when your story needs revising. Thanks KD!

  5. I’m with you on this, Kira! It’s not that I won’t read the heavy backstory beginnings, but if I don’t have action PDQ, I will probably put the book down for a while and pick up something else. Admittedly, though, I’m also not a huge fan of exposition generally. I do want to know more about characters and their spaces and histories, but I’m okay with having that information unfold organically from the story instead of coming out as a chunk of obvious backstory.

    • Same here or, worse, I end up skimming or skipping sections to get to the action and probably missed something the author wanted me to know. Then I end up being more lost later and just giving up on the book.

  6. Also? Are you a Supernatural fan? Because the SPN pilot is a kind of hilarious mix of drop-you-in-the-action and clunky backstory explanations. 😉

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