The conventional wisdom does not always hold true. We writers, when we are starting out, are told, in no uncertain terms, to get right to the story. But what is the story. To some, it is the action. That is not really the story. Stories are about people. That’s all. Just about people.
So where does this wisdom come form? I don’t know, but I’m guessing that it is from bored readers who need to be enticed into reading a book. I’m not sure that it does any good. It has not always been the case. I’ve read enough pre-twentieth century literature to know that a lot of the older writing does spend time getting to the meat of the story.
What brought this up is that I have noticed that a great many movies that I have watched in the last couple of years do NOT start with some action. The story starts with the characters. We get to know them, the setting, their joys and/or their sorrows, before the story really gets going. Now, not all movies start off this way, but a surprising number of them do. What is true for these movies, is that you get involved with the characters almost immediately. The characters are what draw you into the fictional tale.
Now to apply this to writing, it is not easy to craft interesting character interactions and to instantly make the characters breathe and come off the page and into the imagination of the reader. An action scene is much easier and gets right to the conflict. Of course a written story can take the time to go back and fill in the gaps as you go, but I think it relates back to writing ability.
When do you start your story? When you can draw the reader in, either through action or characterization. You have to have something that will catch the reader and make them turn the page. It does not have to start at that crucial moment when the heart of the story start, but when you have agents asking to read the first five to ten pages in the submission process, it does not enhance the craft of writing. It makes it very mechanical.
That’s not to say I have not succumbed to the trend to start with the beginning of the action. I have. I probably will continue. But that does not always have to be the case. If you have the skill to craft believable, likable, and three-dimensional characters and can catch the readers on page one when the meat of your story may start a chapter or two later, then trust the reader.