Saturday, August 6, 2011

Question to Readers

As I've mention here, I teach writing along with writing books. Lately, I've seen more and more students writing books that are so action packed that you can't catch your breath. While it's nice that their stories are active, what's missing is that connection to the characters. But when I try to point this out, the students resist, saying readers give up on books that aren't immediately fast paced. But then I pick up best selling novels and by cracky, while many of them do start with an intriguing sentence or two, the majority begin with a character and drop us into the character's world before yanking the reader into action.

It's my contention that while an active beginning might thrill or capture the reader's interest, if the author doesn't quickly give us some context about the character and why we should care, readers will easily tire of action, action, action. Without that context, the action becomes meaningless.

From a reader's point of view what intigues you about an opening? Is is someone with a gun in their face? Or is it okay to start the story slower, as long as the character is a intriguing person we can empathize with who has a problem that needs solving?


  1. In romance, for me, it's all about the connection between the characters, seeing why they should care about each other (and why, as a result, I should care) and why they fall in love. Why are they better together than apart?

    I like beginnings that make sense. I like beginnings that give me a sense of the character, their POV, their problems, and how the OTHER person is going to fit into that landscape (either to help them or complicate their quest).

    I like books that start somewhere important. That doesn't mean with the hero with a gun in his face or the heroine thrown into the ocean and almost drowning, but at a moment where things are happening, where conflicts are rising, where it's not him sorting socks and thinking about his BS job or her shopping for shoes and being bored. A moment where you get that uh-oh something's about to go down and implode and you're there to witness it about 30 seconds before it does.

    I think the whole "actiony beginning" trend stems from contest reaction and results. A lot of writers are getting the advice of "you have to have the hero and heroine meet right away" and "you have to open with action!" and writers are taking that extremely literal -- Page 1 Paragraph 1 the Hero and Heroine are meeting (which to me comes off awkward and forced and rushed and gives me no time as a reader to settle or understand why I should care about anything going on) and the "action" is taken as literal action... car chases, guns, bombs. Many don't realize "action" just means your character doing something of interest/importance and not just staring into a mirror thinking about how smooth their skin is or how blonde their hair, or not info dumping a ton of history about the life of your hero before we see him engaged.

    Okay so what do I like books to start off it... an intriguing first line that is original, that demonstrates something of the hero or heroine's POV. Something that makes me laugh or smile because it's funny, witty, snarky (in a good way) or a unique observation.

    I like beginnings that show me something interesting about the character that helps me relate to them or like them. If I like them, I care what happens to them, and if I care... I continue to read and if I continue to read... well, your book goes in my shopping cart.

    Oh, and I need to feel that what the characters are after, what their problem is, what the conflicts are that are complicating their lives aren't (to put it bluntly) stupid. I don't like shallow characters doing shallow things for shallow reasons. I don't need to read about those people when my TV news seems to be filled with enough of them.

    I want people I can root for and connect to, so I need the opening pages to show me these people DESERVE love, to be love, and to give love. I don't want to feel like one great character is being saddled with a horrible person (and I've actually read that once. Can't remember which book, but I just remember thinking -- as I closed the book -- OMG he SO didn't deserve to be punished the rest of his life by marrying her! I hope he finds somebody else and dumps her! LOL. Not the response I think a romance author is looking for.

    Oh and sexual tension. I like a good amount of sexual tension from the opening as well. I like my heat level high. :)


  2. The opening of a booko has to grab me with feelings, not so much action. I have to feel the character, feel that heartbeat as the hero or herione come alive. You want to know what he or she is thinking, or the describing a moment in time or a place. Seeing "those hills come alive" so to speak.

  3. I want a beginning that makes me like the characters(s) right away and to feel empathy for their situation. Two things that make it hard to stay with a book are: 1. too many characters introduced at once; and 2. boring dialogue. Lori, I think you've hit the nail on the head with your comments.

  4. Excellent post, Julie. You should come guest lecture for me. LOL!

  5. LOL Lori!

    It's a silly point, really, but I think so many authors are so worried about the what happens in their book/plot factor that they forget the #1 duty o1f the book is the *love story* of the romance. Everything else is secondary to it and I think when we don't have enough conflict internally and a not "heavy enough" (important enough, complex enough, not easily solved type) external conflict, you start to fall prey to the "...and then there was a bomb! And kids stuck on a school bus! and a kitten in a tree! OMGosh, then a tornado!" Action can't take the place of character and couple development. Otherwise I'm going to feel massively cheated as a reader.


  6. The books I read are nearly always a recommendation from a friend. They're usually books in a series. The first books seem to start with a character interacting with his or her setting. Clues about the character come from the interaction.

    My son recommends books that start with action. The reader connects with the character by witnessing his thoughts and actions regarding the situation.

    The fourth graders I worked with this year cut their teeth mostly on action books. Some started with a prologue in medias res. Some start with an unusual setting and the character's interaction with it. There's a lot of first person narratives that start out with a warning to the reader. These books tend to be sensational. The characters in most of these books aren't learning a lesson so much as solving a problem. Understanding of the characters come from their interaction with their environment and their thoughts about it.

    Then there's a children's mystery series that is character driven. It was recently created by an adult author. It starts out with the focus on the character. He is a genuinely nice kid next door. I'm hooked. If all kids were like him the worked would be over populated. If I were twelve I'm sure my heart would beat for him.

    So, I'm reading a lot of action in the stories lately. The books I like have good characters that go with the action, but some of the action characters do seem flat to me. I mentioned the fourth grade favorites because they will be entering the adult reading community in a few years and I think the trend is fascinating.

    Most of the romance novels I read are yours Lori.