Zero to Sixty: Coming Off the Starting Line

Convenience culture is fundamentally changing how our audience interacts with the written word.  With the rise of the e-reader, consumers can select from near infinite libraries at low prices and receive their purchase in seconds.  Though our reach is greater than ever before, people are also more willing to put down books more quickly as well.  To catch the attention of ever increasingly fickle audiences, it has become more important to start fast and engage readers from the first few lines.  One technique that I have found to be effective is to use an early action sequence.

The introduction of any Indiana Jones movie does two things.  First, it provides propulsion and then it lays the ground work for the throughline.  Indy is finishing up his last adventure and does so in about ten minutes.  Then there is a return to normalcy (such as when he goes back to teaching in the Last Crusade) or into a slow build into his next adventure (such as the trudge through the forest in the Temple of Doom).  The plot lines of Indy’s movies will take a little time to build up, so the initial bout of action is the hook that pushes us forward into the long haul.

I have found using an action sequence early to be a delicate balancing game.  On the one hand, quick action is very useful for reader engagement, but it will be ineffective if the reader isn’t invested in the characters to begin with.  Why does the danger to Tom Hank’s soldiers affect us in the opening sequence of Saving Private Ryan?  We’ve only been with them for thirty seconds before the gate drops on the troop transport, but those moments are essential.  Spielberg shows us the soldier’s fear and anticipation, plays off our cultural memory of World War II and establishes the “good guys” thoroughly in our minds.  Because we want all of his men to survive, the danger feels real to us and it is an effective lure.

The second danger is that this technique can easily turn against the writer by coming off as gimmicky.  With the extensive use of early action sequences by Hollywood, we have become desensitized to explosions.  Also, starting with an action sequence makes a promise to the reader that the book will be action packed.  If I were to start a procedural detective novel with an explosive action sequence and then spend the next 80 thousand words slowly building up to the big reveal with no other action, the reader would feel cheated.

Like any other tool, the early action sequence needs to be used carefully and sparingly to be effective.  I have found that it works best when there is a long lead up to the main action of the story.  By the same token, I need to be very aware of reader investment and the promises I’m making to the readers when I do use this technique.


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