Openings: Action vs. Narration

What’s your preference? Many readers prefer action, and most writers would be wise to stick to a novel that opens in a scene. Better yet, opens in the middle of a scene (in media res). How much narration are you willing to read before a scene occurs?

Writing Tip for Today: The balance of narration vs. scene, especially in an opening, depends in part on that elusive quality, voice. Yet pacing is also a key. Readers are more likely to be sucked in by a unique narrative voice (think Charles Dickens or William Faulkner) but have you really found your unique voice yet?

  • For those of us in “voice” training, I suggest that your opening follow the good old rule of three: No more than about 3 paragraphs of narrative (and that narrative had better introduce the character, the problem and the book theme) before you dive into a real scene.
  • The first scene, you’ve heard, must hook your reader. Do it by using a scene that showcases your protagonist’s struggle. How do you find your voice? Easy. Just write and read and write and read some more. About 10,000 hours’ worth–at least. Don’t be discouraged, just keep churning out the word count, learning new revision skills and keeping abreast of other authors’ work.
  • Opening a scene in media res plunges the reader into a dilemma. In an old TV ad, a woman stands at her stove stirring a pot of something. A family member innocently asks her a question. She slams down the pot lid and yells, “Can’t you see I’ve got a headache?” This is an example of starting in the middle. We don’t need to know what caused the headache how long she’s had it or who the woman is.

Try This! Gather several novels you enjoyed. Analyze the first 2-3 pages. Are they narration (telling) or a scene (action)? If narration, how long until the first scene? If scene, how long until the first narration? Hint: Scenes often contain dialogue. Look for quotation marks to identify scenes. How do these books compare to your work-in-progress?

About Linda S. Clare

I'm an author, speaker, writing coach and mentor. I teach both fiction and nonfiction writing at Lane Community College and in the doctoral program as expert writing advisor for George Fox University. I love helping writers improve their craft and I'm both an avid reader and writer of stories about those with wounded hearts.

2 comments on “Openings: Action vs. Narration

  1. I wonder if all authors re-write their openings more than once. I know I have. Knowing that it’s the part of the book that will either capture a reader or put them to sleep puts the pressure on.

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