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Does a Book Need an Action-Packed Opening

“Start with the action,” a phrase commonly used by literary agents and writing teachers. But what does this really mean? Does a book need an action-packed opening to be successful?

No. And yes. Starting with the action does not mean you need to drop us into chaos. It does mean we are looking for a scene that will grab us and propel us into the rest of the book.

I see a lot of submissions that start with a bang. There’s a car crash, people are running everywhere, shots are fired and I have no idea what’s going on. I haven’t been introduced to the characters or even the scene. I have no sense of place and nothing is grounding me to the story. This is not the action agents are talking about.

When literary agents say action, what they really mean is active. We want to feel when reading that each moment is propelling us forward into something more. Active means even if your opening is a group of people sitting around and talking, the emotion of the story is active and moving us to the next step. It’s not a giant information dump.

Build up is great. Every opening to a book should have build-up, but is your build-up active? In that first page do I feel compelled by the writing, the plot and the characters to want to read the next page? Or are you simply giving me a giant background to everyone before you start the book? That’s the difference between action (active) and no action (passive).

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6 comments

  1. Love your distinction between “active” and “action.” Very helpful advice. Thanks.

  2. Thank you for clarifying the difference between action and active. Opening scenes can be difficult to write.

  3. Start with an active scene is clearer than start with action. It’s easy to see how writers get confused (confession: I did exactly what you described when I first started writing).

  4. Great feedback. Thanks. Just finished my first novel and starting on the sequel. Look forward to your articles.

  5. Thanks, this was really helpful. The point of “active” and “going somewhere” makes a lot of sense. Not all first chapters can start with Whitewalkers delivering messages to the North!

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