Thursday, February 21, 2013

Action Or Description - Which Comes First?

I’ve mentioned this before, but I’ve always had difficulty with chapter beginnings. Writing those first couple of opening paragraphs often drives me crazy. I feel the need to begin with setting so as to allow the reader to orient himself properly—a paragraph or two if the area is new to the reader or a just a few sentences if it’s an old setting. But I also feel the need to get the scene moving as quickly as possible and that’s where the trouble lies. Scenes can be such sluggish beasts, hard to move at first (much like me in the morning), and unless the descriptions are lively, the scene stalls before it even gets started. And since I have trouble writing lively descriptions…. Well, you can see my problem.

Lately I’ve been rereading Brandon Sanderson’s book, Alloy of Law. It has a nice relaxed style which I find useful when teaching myself how to approach story problems. (BTW, for those of you who wish to write extended actions scenes without getting bogged down, this book has many excellent examples.) And I’ve discovered that one of his techniques is to begin scenes with a single line of action before starting the description. The action may be simple, but it gets the scene off and running before the reader hits the more static descriptions. Here’s an example:

Waxillium pounded on the door of the townhome. The area around them was a typical Elendel neighborhood. Vibrant, lush walnut trees lined either side of the cobbled street…(several more lines of description)

See how that works? Action is occurring in the very first sentence, so you scarcely notice the slowdown during the subsequent description. In fact, the description heightens the suspense as you wonder what’s going to happen when the door does open. I should note that the opening sentence doesn’t have to be a physical action. A simple line of provocative dialogue can be just as good an entry point.

Perhaps everyone else already knows about this trick and I’m just the last one to catch on. But if not, consider using this technique every once in a while.


  1. Good point. I think I've been doing that for the most part, but not because I knew it was a good trick. So you weren't the last to know!

  2. I haven't had the chance to try it out yet on any of my problem chapters, but I hope it will solve some of my problems. Of course, it's possible that I'll still have tons of trouble trying to write beginnings, even with that trick. Do you know of any other tricks for beginnings?

  3. I find that opening a scene with a snippet of dialog helps when I've been floundering and stalling. The line doesn't always remain, but it turns on the ignition.

    1. Hmmm... I wonder if I should try that from the very beginning instead of wasting all that time stalling around. As you said, that first line can always just go away once I've gotten the scene moving.