“Start in the action.”
I stared at the screen, my confidence plummeting.
My past experience teaching creative writing to elementary school students only went so far when attempting to write a novel, so I’d been brushing up my writing craft.
As you may have guessed from the title of my site, my time is not my own. It’s not easy to squeeze self-education in between meals, and snacks, and potty runs, and grocery runs, and play time, and Band-Aid applications, and stories and… more coffee, please!
My writer friends put me on to some very helpful articles, which I studied each evening while waiting for my middle child to finally give in and sleep. (What is it about bed time that shrinks a child’s bladder to something that can only stay unrelieved for five minutes?)
This article worried me, and it wasn’t alone in giving this sort of advice.
Start in the action. Start conflict right away. Hook your readers at once, or they’ll leave! No backstory!
I mentally sifted through my manuscript, and cringed. The action was there, eventually. but the first chapter…well, in the first chapter my MC has been invalided to northern England, effectively removed from the ‘action.’ This worked for the story, at least, I had thought it did.
But was there enough action?
Great. I’ve blown the beginning. I am submitting this thing to a contest I’ve paid for in a month, AND I HAVE NO BEGINNING!!!
I pummeled my brain for ideas, looking for SOMETHING that I could do to liven things up. Something that would make sense…
AH! The main conflict revolves around an undiscovered murder, committed four years previously.
I’ll write a prologue! With action!!!
I gave it a go, sat back and considered. It wasn’t too bad… though it did worry me that the characters involved wouldn’t become relevant again until much later in the story. Also, the murder was one of my bigger ‘reveals’…that was gone now.
But the articles SAID action…
I kept it.
It wasn’t until after I’d submitted that I read my first writing advice on prologues, how they’re generally frowned upon for first-time authors, and it’s safest not to attempt them.
The contest judges said essentially the same thing. Their response reminded me of myself, trying to kindly critique a students’ work. “Hmmm…I can see what you tried to do here…”
Long story short(ish), the prologue disappeared, and I tried some other beginnings, one of which involved a character waking up. Guess what else was on the list of things to avoid in your story if you’re a first time author?
In the end, I haven’t tried to add any crazy action scenes to the beginning of my current (final?) draft. They wouldn’t make sense. I tightened up the story, slimmed down the backstory as much as possible, and went with, essentially, a leaner, meaner version of the beginning I started with- which DOES have action, incidentally. It’s just that most of the conflict at the beginning is internal. I just panicked from reading too much advice and couldn’t see it.
My advice to those struggling with the beginning of your story is STAY CALM! There are many ways to add action and hook readers! Find good advice, but don’t forget the value of your gut instincts, or the feedback of other readers who are experiencing your story as the author of the article that is terrifying you hasn’t.
I’m confident that this new/old beginning is the best start for my story. Hopefully the people who will soon be clamoring to publish it (hey, dream big!) will agree…
Just for fun, I’ve included a slimmed-down version of my deleted prologue below, a deleted scene, if you will.
I’m happy with the fact that it is no longer part of the finished product, but hey, I spent enough time worrying over the thing. May as well print it somewhere…
France: May, 1940
“Are you all right, sir?”
“Yes, of course.” The captain lied, and finished wrapping the bandage around his arm, pulling the knot tight with his teeth. “Phillips, get the rest of these men back behind the new lines. There’s no use waiting around any longer.” The statement was punctuated by distant reverberations that could almost be mistaken for thunder, and brilliant flashes on the dark skyline.
“Aren’t you coming along?” Henry Phillips glanced over his shoulder. The rumbles of the tanks and artillery weren’t an immediate threat, but his foot hovered anxiously over the lorry’s accelerator.
“I’ve got to go back.”
“Captain, you don’t even know…”
“That’s the problem. I don’t know. No one’s accounted for him, he wasn’t with his company, and I can’t just leave. Not until I’m certain.”
“But the retreat’s been called, you’ll be going alone. Shouldn’t I…”
The captain clapped him on the shoulder. “Thanks, Henry, for the lift. Get yourself safe, and God willing… In any case, I’ll, or we’ll, follow quickly, never fear.”
“Yes, sir.” Phillips hesitated a moment as the captain vaulted down, then added, “And good luck.” He was rewarded with a wave, then quickly put the lorry back into gear. With a roar of the engine and a spin of tires, he was gone.
The captain set a brisk pace in the opposite direction, towards the positions they had lately abandoned. He loped along through the night, surefooted on the uneven dirt track, breathing deeply, ignoring the throbbing pain in his arm. The May air was cool and smelled of damp green countryside, laced with petrol and cordite and acrid smoke.
The dark effectively disguised the wounds on the land, but as he reached the first buildings there was light enough from the fires to distinguish the piles of rubble, broken machinery and spent shells. The French and British Allied defenses at the ‘impregnable’ Maginot Line were broken, and the brief success of their counter attack could only buy them a little more time before they were overwhelmed.
The rumble of artillery was growing louder.
He navigated the shadowy streets, unchallenged. He’d waited until the very end, until everyone that he was responsible for was out.
Almost everyone, anyway. In spite of everything, I can’t just leave him behind.
He paused, catching his breath and trying to think. Where would he be? There was that house where I saw him the other day… He changed course, searching about for familiar shapes in the flickering shadows. Down one side street, one more alley-
He called out, and the figure turned towards him. He felt a surge of relief as he recognized the other man’s face. The feeling was quickly supplanted by irritation, tinged with fear as he heard another shell impact. Too close…
“Thank God I’ve found you. What are you still doing here? You need to get back to your company at once. This is irresponsible, even for you. I ought to… ” Another shell, blast followed by the rattle of shrapnel and rock flung up from its impact. “Never mind- we need to move. C’mon…” he reached for the other’s arm, then froze.
The dim light glinted off of the barrel of the Luger, leveled at his chest.
“What…?” The captain never had opportunity to complete the thought.