urgency versus action in your writing

A while back I wrote a post cautioning writers not to run off like a herd of brainless sheep every time an editor or agent suggests a technique for opening a novel. That particular post regarded the “open with action” advice that sent doors slamming, characters running, murderers murdering, etc., etc., etc., ad nauseam. That post was by no means a call to reject all writing advice that editors and agents are kind enough to post on their sites; it was, however, a caution against jumping on every bandwagon that rolls along just for the sake of becoming published.

It’s not all about creating action or eye-grabbing first sentences, it’s about creating a reason for your reader to become involved in your story. If you can do that, then the eye-grabbing first sentence will come to you. A writer should be able to fashion the need for a person to read, some clue, some reason that this story is important, an urgency, if you will, but don’t confuse urgency with action.

Let’s look at two novels that have no action at all in the first paragraphs, yet they both create an urgency to read. The first is one of my favorites, simply for the opening line, which sometimes just pops into my mind out of the clear blue:

“Spring came down hard that year. And I do mean hard, like the fist of some drunken pike poker with too much fury and not enough ale, whose wife just left him for some wandering minstrel and whose commanding officer absconded with his pay. The thunderstorms alone would be talked about for years, and the floods that followed erased whole towns along the Gusay River. Nature, as always, had the last word.” –The Sword Edged Blonde, Alex Bledsoe

That’s right, Alex Bledsoe broke the “don’t start your novel with the weather rule,” yet it worked for him. Why? Read that first line. Say it out loud. There is a rhythm and poetry to that whole first paragraph that thrusts you immediately into Eddie LaCrosse’s head. You know he’s either a soldier or a former soldier by the descriptions he uses, you know the weather plays an important part in his environment, you are given clues as to the world he lives in.

And there is an urgency to his words, something that makes you want to sit up and listen.

Look at the opening paragraph of Kathryn Magendie’s Tender Graces:

“All my tired flies out the window when I see Grandma Faith standing in the mountain mists that drift in and out of the trees. She’s as she was before, like one lick of fire hasn’t touched her, whole and alive and wanting as she beckons to me. Grandma whispers her wants as she’s done all my life.” –Tender Graces, Kathryn Magendie

Magendie’s opening is more ethereal, but so isn’t the character of Virginia Kate. In this opening paragraph, the reader sees that Grandma died in a fire, but she’s standing by the road, beckoning to Virginia Kate and whispering her wants. There is no action here other than Virginia Kate’s observations, but those observations make questions in the reader’s mind. Who is Grandma? Why did she die in a fire? How can she beckon to Virginia Kate?

Again, there is an urgency in Magendie’s words that makes the reader sit up and pay attention, but the style is completely different from Bledsoe’s harsher voice for Eddie LaCrosse.

You see, both of these writers let their stories and their characters’ voices dictate the opening. The reason it worked for them is because they weren’t trying to fit into a mold. They each had a story to tell and obviously had deep, personal reasons to tell these stories.

Writing a novel is about the sincere desire to give someone a message through the art of storytelling. It’s about the rhythm of your words and the meaning of your tale. That kind of urgency can only come from your heart.

Our characters speak to us and we work as clairvoyants, trying to relay those messages from the unseen world into reality. Words are our tools and our weapons, and used skillfully, these words can resonate with different people for different reasons.

While The Sword-Edged Blonde and Tender Graces may seem to be worlds apart in genre (fantasy and literary), both of these novels have identical themes. In The Sword-Edged Blonde, Eddie LaCrosse is forced to come to grips with his past and a mistake he made as a youth, and in Tender Graces, Virginia Kate is forced to come to grips with her past and her conflicting emotions over the mother she loved and hated.

Both novels wrestle with very intense themes, yet do so in a way that is entertaining. That is storytelling, and in both cases, it’s done from the heart. You can’t fake that.

Now look at your own story. What is the urgency of your tale? What makes your story important to you? Identify that theme and you have the urgency you need. Now close your eyes and channel that theme into a stranger’s life. Speak from your heart. You are telling a tale and if it has meaning to you, it will have meaning to others.

Write on . . .

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About T. Frohock

Please visit my web site at: www.tfrohock.com
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20 Responses to urgency versus action in your writing

  1. erikamarks says:

    A great post, Teresa, and so true. I have myself been guilty of that technique, and in thinking that action equals speed. A compelling opening is required, and readers can be compelled by fascinating characters or gripping emotional states, even by someone sipping a cup of coffee if written powerfully enough.

    It isn’t in the event, necessarily, and I think that is too often what we writers take away from the frequent advice to have a wow-opening. Not every book CAN open with breathless urgency but every well-written book will draw the reader into it by revealing something compelling. I think pacing, like voice, is a very difficult piece of the craft to master, and one that takes time to form and evolve…

    • Absolutely, Erika. I read somewhere that a serious discussion around a kitchen table can be just as gripping as a murder scene if done well. I’m glad you brought up pacing too. I think it’s a much overlooked topic in writing.

  2. Petula says:

    I have the urge to applaud! 🙂 This is a fabulous post. The examples you used inspired me as did your words and the way your weaved them. It was a song of a post. I felt the exact reason I first wanted to write a novel… I am so glad I stumbled upon your blog from “The Graces” Saga, which I also really enjoyed, to find another encouraging, mind fueling, creative and oh-so-true writer’s moment. Thanks for posting this. It reminded me that there is more than one way to entice a reader into your novel. I hope this type of advice will fuel me into finally finishing one. Although I’ve finished a children’s book manuscript, I have yet to feel the success of a complete fiction manuscript. I will now “write on…”

    • Thank you so much Petula. You’re very gracious! I’m glad you enjoyed the post, and I always enjoy Kat’s posts. She has such a wonderful way about her ability to communicate to her readers.

  3. ali says:

    What a great post Theresa, thank you!

  4. T, I love this post. It’s both beautifully written and helpful.

    I read a book review that came through my local RWA today, and it strikes me you’d probably enjoy it. It’s called “The Moral Premise: Harnessing Virtue and Vice for Box Office Success” by Stanley D. Williams. Supposedly it’s a different way to approach the character’s central task for the novel. As you’re discussing the importance of theme and infusing it from the beginning, thought you might be intrigued.

    • Hi, Jan! Thanks for stopping by! I’ll look into The Moral Premise. It looks like the kind of book on writing that I’d enjoy. I loved this month’s issue of Writer’s Digest where Donald Maas talks about characterization. It’s a great article.

  5. kat magendie says:

    Love the insights in the post, and not just because you mentioned my book *laughing* ….

    But it is so true – listening to too many voices and then trying to mold yourself into what you think someone else wants –

    • Kat,
      Then being flexible enough to go with the flow when the characters take it into a different zone . . . ah, but that’s another post for another day.

  6. Great post, Teresa – and you’ve picked some super examples. Drawing the reader in isn’t so much about grabbing them by the scruff of the neck and rushing them through an urgent scene. A good opening is not just about events. It’s about stopping readers in their tracks, like casting a spell. And that’s where voice is so important.

  7. miss ali says:

    Hi There! great post! i stumbled over from a retweet from elisabeth craig. You’re right- it’s in the voice. Doesn’t matter how many techniques you follow, if your character doesn’t have a voice that captures the readers interest, no one will want to read it. Thanks, very enjoyable! 🙂

  8. lawrenceez says:

    Hi, very good post!

    I like to think of the opening words quietly singing and setting the scene.

  9. Lindsay says:

    I love your examples, Teresa.

    I think the opening should reflect the type of novel it is. I write action-adventure stuff, so I usually start with the character doing something rather than sitting around internalizing, but if I wrote drama, I’m sure it’d be a whole different first page. 🙂

    I do think that, even if it’s appropriate for the novel type, it’s easy to screw up the “open with action” advice by putting the reader in the middle of a chase or a fight scene or something intense before he/she has anything invested in the characters.

    • Hi, Lindsay, how nice to have you stop by!

      You raised a good point about giving the reader time to become invested in the characters. That makes all the difference in the world, especially in getting the reader to turn the page and move to the next chapter.

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