Wednesday, March 21, 2012

How Much Build-Up

So one thing a reviewer said of the excerpt I submitted to the Amazon contest was that while "the writing was excellent and the characters amusing" (I squeed so hard when I read that) they would have liked to see the action begin sooner. Now I've heard this from other people, that they would prefer the pirates to appear in, say, the first chapter. And I've cut a significant portion of the book that happens before Sarah is captured.

However, it brings up an interesting point. What about build-up? In The Hunger Games we have at little while before Katniss is tossed into the reaping where we get to understand District 12 and what's going on in the world. In Eragon there's world building and character development before he discovers that he's got a dragon egg.

How much build-up should there be? I generally don't like books that start with a key action moment because while I'm struggling to understand who the good guys and bad guys are, and what world I'm in, there are important things happening in the book. And I feel if there isn't any build-up, these action sequences will pack a punch, but I have less of an understanding of them.

What's your opinion? Is it better to do some build-up, or just jump straight into action?


  1. This question is so problematic because it depends on the individual reader. Like you, I can't stand when a book starts off with some huge events. I don't know about the characters enough to care about what is going on.

    My question would be: when does your action start? Maybe you can have some small bursts of action in your first few chapters that will lead up to the really big event.

    Since you have a picture of the Princess Bride with this post I'll try to use that as an example. Basically, even though you're not thrown into the thick of things you have small things happening throughout. Wesley leaves, presumed dead, Buttercup decides to marry the Prince, she gets kidnapped...These are all pretty important, but smaller things, that lead up to the main plot.

    It'd be easier if I knew your story, but I hope this is helpful.

  2. I agree with M.E. - I think a lot of when a novel "should" start depends on the reader, and we all have different opinions. However, I think most of us would agree that a story that meanders without any obvious conflict for fifty pages is starting too early, and one that throws the reader into battle with the character already fighting for their life is starting too late. We do need some time to get to know the characters before they face their conflicts, otherwise we're unlikely to care about the outcome of the conflict. However, we don't want to have so much time we get bored waiting for the conflict and put the book down before it arrives.

    With your story, for instance, I felt that the scene where Sarah is just starting out on the Crescent was the ideal compromise between lots of lead-up to the story, and when the action begins. It can be really hard to decide just which moment is the pivotal turning point of the character's life from which the story grows - arguably, for Sarah it's when she finds out she's betrothed, or later, when she receives the letter sending for her, or later again, when they're packing up to leave... but these can all be fairly easily covered using a few sentences in backstory. The real adventure only begins once she's left port.

    Theoretically, you could start when she first sees the blip on the horizon, which is the start of the story tension, and use the time between seeing the blip and when it arrives to build up character relationships and establish how she feels about her family. However I think, too, that the particular style of your writing and pacing doesn't require the constant tension all the time and so doing all the character building before the tension starts works fine for you and your story. Some people like this more relaxed style, some don't. I write more relaxed, too, so count me in the former camp. ;)

  3. Building on the oh-so-wise comments before me, I totally agree. I think it depends on the reader and a little on the genre as well. YA fiction (in general) is expected to move at a much faster pace. Adult, especially fantasy, is given a bit more flexibility to build things up. I've heard from a couple different agents that you need to have your "inciting incident" (the one that kick-starts all the action) happen within the first 15-30 pages at the very least.

  4. Thank you, everyone, for these fantastic comments! I shall take all of this into account when doing more edits on Griffin's Song.
    Oh, and Seabrooke, I did as you suggested and cut everything so that Sarah's story starts when she leaves port :) Plus doing some cutting of scenes that occur before the ship gets attacked. It flows much quicker now.