A Snarkling Challenges the Wisdom of Miss Snark's #1 Rule!!!!!!--is that hell I hear freezing over?

Dear Miss Snark,

I love the blog; it's both entertaining and informative. I do, however, question one of your rules --- the action should be up front.

Using Amazon's Look/Search Inside, I browsed through the first paragraphs of some of my favorites. Quite a few put action or the promise of action right in the first paragraph. Among my favorites: Par Lagerkvist's "The Dwarf," Dashiell Hammett's "Red Harvest," Georges Simenon's "Dirty Snow," and Flann O'Brien's "The Third Policeman."

But almost as many had no action in the first paragraph. Both Robert Harris's "Fatherland" and
Evelyn Waugh's "The Loved One" begin with descriptions of the weather. Both Ha Jin's "Waiting" and Harper Lee's "To Kill a Mockingbird" begin with backstory. Graham Greene's "The Heart of the Matter" begins with a man sitting and watching events of no particular importance. How would these have fared in the Crap-o-Meter?

Granted, you've said before that this rule can be broken to great effect, but I find so many exceptions that I question its validity. Could this rule be more of a personal preference than a fundamental of good writing?

Let's use Robert Harris' FATHERLAND as an example. It was published in 1995 so buying sensibilities are fairly similar to today's market. (Many of your examples were written more than 20 years ago--never a good comparison point).

Here's the text:

Thick cloud had pressed down on Berlin all night, and now it was lingering into what passed for morning. On the city’s western outskirts plumes of rain drifted across the surface of Lake Havel like smoke.

Sky and water merged into a sheet of gray, broken only by the dark line of the opposite bank. Nothing stirred there. No lights showed.

Xavier March, homicide investigator with the Berlin Kriminalpolizei –the Kripo – climbed out of his Volks and tilted his face to the rain. He was a connoisseur of this particular rain. He knew the taste of it, the smell of it. It was Baltic rain from the north, cold and sea (blank), tangy with salt. For an instant he was back twenty years, in the conning tower of the U-boat, slipping out of Wilhelmshaven, lights doused, into the darkness.

This is three paragraphs, 139 words.
Is it slam bang into action? Nope.
Does it set the scene? Yes.
Will I keep reading? You bet.
Why? Cause if this guy was sending me a query, his cover letter told me what his concept was: Germany wins the Second World War. The first five reviews on Amazon mention the concept. Add the idea of a detective novel, or a crime novel set in this alternate history and you can describe the weather for another 150 words and I'll STILL read on.

The "rules" I talk about do not exist in isolation. You can't have a fabulous first paragraph and nothing thereafter. You can't have a great concept and lousy writing. You can't have good writing and a boring topic (boring to me, I am the default setting cause it's my list you're being considered for).

But neither are those rules absolutes. You can natter on about the weather when I’m hooked by the concept. You can kill a dog if you do it with grace and dignity (North by Frederick Busch, remember?). You can't drown kittens, and you can't bore me. Those are absolutes.

But they are MY preferences indeed. I hope I've been clear about that. The Crapometer was designed to give you MY view and if you think I'm the one full of crapola, so be it. (In fact you won't be the first, you'll have to march double-time to the back of the line which stretches around the block about now).

However, if you look at other sites wherein editors and/or agents talk about how they look at writing, you'll see "get us INTO the action early" said frequently. There are always exceptions. The trick is, do it like this till you learn to do it differently. Writers do not spring fully formed from their keyboard. It's a learning process.

Lisa Selin Davis was asked recently about her book BELLY, a third person but not omniscient POV. She said she wrote it in the third person cause she didn't yet know how to write in first. She's published by Little, Brown; she teaches at Pratt, and she's still learning. (Her book is amazing in case you want to read something that will stay with you for a long long time.)

So yes, they're my rules. Yes there are exceptions, but NO you may not ignore them with impunity.


harridan said...

I sometimes think "get right into the action" is misconstrued.

Too often it conjures images of opening a novel with battle scenes, physical or verbal confrontation of some sort, etc. etc.

But this clip of work Miss Snark posted is a perfect example of what "get right into the action" really means to me.

The author's last paragraph has me wanting to read more. He hints of things that I, as a reader, want to know more about. Coupled with a good back blurb I'd be enticed to snuggle in to find out more about Xavier and the past hinted at in the opening.

Maybe a better term is "open with a hook."

What exists on your very first page that teases the reader into getting lost in the world you've created? If it's only scads of description with no hook, well that's not going to work.

Not that description is bad, but it has to meld with everything else to create a captivating opening. Then that same tone must be carried throughout the book in some manner. Not meaning you have to have flowery descriptions throughout the entire text, mind you. Nor battle scenes.

But the "voice" of the author and of the story should be set on that very first page and held throughout. Otherwise you can end up with a very disappointed reader.

Hmmm, I wonder if what I just said made sense to anyone but myself. (Smiles)

Off for more coffee. Two cups is just not enough!

KMFrontain said...

Made perfect sense to me. Actually, I've never read it put better.

Travis said...

I've recently taken notice to the fact that the first paragraphs of way too many books make mention of rain.

It has become a turn-off for me. It reminds me of Snoopy typing atop his dog house about dark and stormy nights.

To write about rain is not as right as rain. It's played out, and it was stupid the second time somebody did it. Nine thousand books later, it is as lame as a rain-allergic duck on the rainiest day of the rainiest dark and stormy night ever.

Get to the point. If you can't, please describe something other than the weather with your first salvo.

I haven't read FATHERLAND. Maybe it gets better after the dark and stormy night, but I'm willing to risk not reading it.

brainlesionssuck said...

I love when a book starts with action...I'll read past descriptiona and backstory if I'm dying to read something or a book is rec. by someone, but nothing beats action from start to finish...just the opinion of a not yet published novelist...its coming though, I can feel it.
kathie at housewifecafe.com