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Author Topic: Dramatic Action
Member # 8019

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Each time I start a new narrative I, of course, struggle with where to start the action. Of course, again, one principle on point is routine interrupted. I relearn each time that a place to start must pose a viewpoint agonist in action, dramatic action and movement, not per se physical action and movement.

By default I consider openings where the viewpoint agonist sits, stands, watches, waits, lays, lies, sees, hears, touches, smells, tastes, etc. After a time of agonizing about a doubt I'm off the mark, a duh-huh moment rises to clarity.

Start with the agonist in dramatic motion, a routine pendent about to be interrupted, being interrupted such that an antagonizing problem or want or both and striving over a satisfaction clash is on point, foremost, front and center foreground.

Romeo enters stage left. He rushes to Juliet prone, laid still on the bier.

In Motion!

I should post that on the wall in large block glyphs above the control center as large as the 36-inch monitor. Between narratives I forget too easily an opening must pose an agonist in motion that does not let up.

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Member # 9148

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I usually don't worry so much about where to start the action-which might be part of my problem. I try to do something active in the opening. My last WotF tale involved, basically, the MC flying in and glaring at her husband. So in one way I did start the action immediately. Other stories start with someone treading water or making their way into a dragon filled valley.

As to what you said extrinsic about the agonist being interrupted, I have read many stories and books with that type of opening, but not ever one uses it. Some top writers have used more sedate openings at times.

And a personal observation. When you said "block glyphs" my first thought was runes for some reason. Now that would make in intriguing sign to yourself. [Big Grin]

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Member # 9345

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I don't worry about where to start. I generally start somewhere in the middle anyway, and work my way back (or hop over unwritten scenes, as the case may be) until I reach The Beginning, which I know when I see it. Same with The End.

IMO the singular criterion for a good beginning is that it be interesting in some way at least vaguely relevant (so as not to pull a bait-and-switch) to the story to come. As a reader, I do not really care where your story starts; I only care that I'm not bored by it.

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Grumpy old guy
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extrinsic, are you asking where I start the story or the action? They are two different things in my mind.

Originally posted by extrinsic:
Romeo enters stage left. He rushes to Juliet prone, laid still on the bier.

This is not the start of the action in the Bard's play. Instead: Enter Romeo and companions, stage left . . . and we are introduced to one of our major protagonists, some supporting cast members and the context within which the looming dramatic complication will unfold before our eyes.

The stage is set and the nature and purpose of a major character is revealed . . .

Action, even simple dramatic action, in isolation is simply sound and fury signifying nothing. Setting context is what makes action significant.


[ August 31, 2014, 09:35 AM: Message edited by: Grumpy old guy ]

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Robert Nowall
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I'm drawn to the notion of starting as late in the actual story as I can possibly manage. Not that I've always followed it, but I'm drawn to it as a concept.
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Member # 8019

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The action may begin later than the story. Story according to E.M. Forester is a natural sequence of events. The action, as it were, is the plot, which is a natural sequence of events with a causal relationship, again, E.M. Forester.

A story can, perhaps ought best begin from the first word of a title. Rare if not difficult to start a plot and its action from the first word, let alone of a title.

I'm of the mind that event, setting, and character development begin plot and action movement, event foremost, which of necessity takes place in settings to characters, more or less simultaneously developed. A setting opening only develops perhaps when and where context. Who comes late in the context arena. What happens to who, where and when, why and how, develops texture and causality. If those W's have an order of priority--and to each their own sequence imposed--texture probably precedes context; the what naturally precedes why and how.

An agonist in motion encompasses the gamut, an event of consequence foremost that, in turn, introduces other texture and context features.

Readers identify with events easier than settings or characters because events in and of themselves are easier to introduce and comprehend and with which to build curiosity and rapport--empathy or sympathy for an agonist.

An agonist in motion moves through a setting, perhaps not physically, though an event of consequence no less.

Traditional openings begin with backstory, oftentimes a current state of being, a stasis state that doesn't per se introduce an event so much as a routine and pendent complication. Ernest Hemingway's The Old Man and the Sea Santiago, for example, has suffered eighty-three days without taking a fish and a prior streak that lasted eighty-one days, who, where, when begun; "salao" implies what, why, and how, though the term's meaning is mysterious. Romeo is unsettled, lacks meaning for his life that failed romance causes him to question his identity.

Neither is per se a particularly dramatic opening. They are backstory openings that portray a current time's state of being. Both expend about a quarter of their word count reaching a crisis turn that starts plot and action barreling along their roller-coaster tracks.

Starting the action now instead of opening with static backstory portrays a process: agonist in dramatic motion, robust verbs, dynamic events.

Whether an opening is interesting, entertaining, engaging, builds rapport depends on the event more so than a setting or character. A setting can strongly and clearly imply a dramatic complication event, probably as a best practice an event implied rather than directly stated. Likewise, an implication an agonist experiences an event.

For these reasons, oftentimes, an agonist as a best practice introduced in sentence object position may be an ideal, instead of in sentence subject position. Not Old man Karoly broke from the jailhouse into freedom's roads. A bald declaration, a tell.

Rather Left, the crossroads led toward town; right, toward the dark swamp; ahead, onto an interstate on-ramp. Rubble rattled from the jailhouse wall behind Karoly. Dramatic action in that Karoly faces a pressing decision, an event. That a person experiences the setting is initially implied by setting details, the event one of the agonist's reflected sensory experience of the setting. Implication that he escaped by a violent act, an event, a setting, and an agonist character in dramatic motion though not physical action. And an implied want, implied the want is momentarily satisfied though pendent problems implied and unsatisfied. No stasis or backstory either. Not per se an artful opening, an illustration of an agonist in sentence object position and in dramatic motion though physically inactive.

Shakespeare, like Hemingway, and many writers generally, favored openings that start small antagonism-wise, and build antagonism energy while antagonizing events unfold, so that later dramatic turns need not be especially dramatic. The narrative climax of The Old Man and the Sea falls midway in the word count. Santiago hooks the marlin. The outcome is not yet assured, still in doubt, though. The emotional climax for readers' sakes takes place when the marlin has been stripped by sharks and Santiago no longer fights to save his catch, about at the three-quarters word count.

Hemingway and Shakespeare believed a drama's main action followed a causal progress emphasis. Graphed, the storyline starts at the origin near the baseline, moves right and rises, culminates at a peak, and rapidly drops back to the ground state. That narrative graph type doesn't label the vertical axis, y-axis (tension), only the causation axis, x-axis. To make that graph make sense, causation events must accelerate; the y-axis then is time. Events themselves are on point. Causation, though, in narrative and story time senses is the x-axis.

Hemingway planned, drafted, and revised upon those causal bases. He had an intuitive grasp of tension's influences, and his writing both exemplifies that intuition and suffers for it. He had only a vague intuitive appreciation for antagonism's significance; it shows in his later writing.

Antagonism as event influence, as well as tension's reader effects; therefore, indicates why event is foremost for introduction and dramatic movement--agonist in motion.

[ August 31, 2014, 04:53 PM: Message edited by: extrinsic ]

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Grumpy old guy
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Admitted: event is best practice for introducing character and dramatic want. However, I would contend that the introductory event by its very nature, even your example of 'Karoly', is pregnant with untold back-story, implied by, in your example, the prison break; why was he in prison?

In The Old Man and the Sea Hemingway nicely sets the context of his character in movement. We know the past and present, the locale and the want; and all in a single sentence.

I always struggle to find the right manner in which to start my story. I always end up resorting to asking myself this question: What does the opening scene have to do? There are a myriad of answers depending on the style, genre and characters within that particular story as well as the requirements of the plot.

For me, the start of the story is when events begin to happen that impact on one or more of the agonists involved. And then I move onto the really hard part of deciding the narrative distance, the POV and what to show and what to tell.


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If you are writing science fiction or fantasy, you tend to have to show that it is not the normal world.
One book I loved started with a guy waking with a hangover and loud thumping outside as a unicorn and a dragon were playing tag.

Other stories would start with a space ship sliding into port, or a green woman talking to an insectoid as the character is heading to work.

After I typed that, I realize you are not talking about the opening scenes but the opening sequence.

Many stories I have read, especially science fiction and fantasy, did not start with a disruption of the person's life. The first scenes started with just painting the picture of what the world was like and how the main character interacted with that world.
After that the disruption would happen.
The painting of the basic situation could last half a chapter or just a couple pages.

In the story that my publisher has, my character is leaving work, planning on going on vacation. That he is going on vacation would be the disruption of his life, but part of the first bunch of pages involves showing that this is not a normal here and now.

BTW, this is the first time I ever ran across the word agonist I have seen antagonist but never agonist.I thought it was a misspelling of against until it was used by someone else.

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Member # 8019

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"Agonist" is a contestant clashing with competing interests in the drama sense, may be a protagonist, antagonist, deuteragonist, triagonist. The one commonality is that each is influential to the action and changes and changed by the action: agency.

The emotional cluster often associated with science fiction; that is, awe and wonder, fits opening's dramatic action criteria. The cluster fits fantasy and horror too. Other genres less so, and appeals more easily to younger readers because older persons are more savvy about awesome and wonderous events, settings, characters. Not exclusively young readers, though the surprises of awesome and wonderous sensations come less often to older readers.

Touching upon awe and wonder for older readers might, theoretically, involve mystical wants of older persons--like a want to be part of belonging to a larger reality's awe and wonder, say the glories of social acclaims resulting from large and daring doings for the common good involving mystical forces. Exciting possibilities for any genre. Magical Realism goes there, for example.

The other point you raise, rstegman, about showing early on a fantastical fiction's fantastical nature--one writing principle almost a rule for the fantastical genres--is conflicted by showing the milieu or setting is fantastical though routine for the milieu. A man waking with a hangover and fantastical creatures playing outside--though a waking-up opening scene--artfully spans that challenge.

I've yet to locate or read a single conventionally published narrative that doesn't introduce a routine that is agonizingly and antagonizingly interrupted or subject to interruption soon. Another related writing principle is more generalized though equally essential to dramatic action; that is, emotional equlibrium upset for an agonist and through that upset readers emotionally disequlibriated. A dragon and a unicorn playing, waking up a hungover man--routine interrupted and emotional equilbrium upset. The neighbors slamming doors and thumping, thundering, stomping overhead on the stairs this morning--taking the dogs out for the morning constitutionals. The hangover I'm suffering is a proofreading hangover. Busy work day yesterday.

Grumpy old guy:
I would contend that the introductory event by its very nature, even your example of 'Karoly', is pregnant with untold back-story, implied by, in your example, the prison break; why was he in prison?

Astute observation. Also, raising a dramatic question in readers' minds serves to raise tension's suspense quotient, an ideal scenario when opening in medias res that accompanies a start of the action, implies a routine, its interruption, upsets emotional equilibrium: dramatic movement progressively forward, without untimely or injudiciously circling back in time too soon to a "history" report that stalls or delays dramatic action or, worse, stops or reverses action. Backstory can be leavened in later on when it matters to the agonist, the action, and, therefore, to readers; perhaps no less progressively forward in action movement and part of antagonism escalation.
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Kathleen Dalton Woodbury
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If I remember correctly, Damon Knight recommended that you should start with whatever incident made the main story "agonist" decide to become involved in the problem/situation of the story. (heavily paraphrased, by the way)
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I write stories in the speculative genres. For me, this type of story involves change. I come up with an idea that I find interesting, and then I think about my audience.

Imagine waving someone over and whispering, "Hey, I have this great story to tell you." The opening must make good on that promise. I introduce the element of change, whether internal or external, that the MC must deal with, and I try to make it interesting or exciting.

Change is action; routine interrupted. The opening sequence should capture an aspect of the inception of change, whether the character decides against routine or an external event alters routine. Often, I will begin writing the routine for a character and once I am comfortable with the character as defined by the narrative, I will write the inception moment.

Writing this way allows me to create a character that will adhere to my idea of the story before I begin the conflict. In my opinion, conflict is story; it is the metaphorical wall that the character must deal with during the narrative. [In speculative fiction, the conflict must center on genre.]

After I have introduced change and conflict (the beginning of the story) I usually have to cut a page or two and then re-incorporate elements of setting and characterization. With the reader in mind (interest, interest, interest), I will often rework an opening twenty times and tweak it another thirty. I believe that when I simultaneously create change in the narrative and a desire for that change in the mind of the reader, that I will have created a good opening. Communicating change to the reader is the action that I seek.

I have not yet been satisfied.

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Damon Knight's Creating Short Fiction does indeed say start with an event incident that a main agonist becomes involved with; re: "the problem/situation of the story," which I know as the dramatic complication.


The term conflict is much bandied about in writing programs and by writing workshop professors and students generally. For me, "conflict" took on another dimension related to though distinct from dramatic complication. That epiphany was an eye opener that led to, eventually, "satisfaction" of my writing intents and goals.

Conflict for me in literary terms is a diameteric opposition of forces in contention, contesting, related to stakes and outcomes, life or death, for example, acceptance or rejection, success or failure, damnation or salvation, riches or rags, fame or obscurity, ad infinitum. While dramatic complication's want and problem are in conflict, they are neither necessarily in opposition nor directly related to stakes and outcomes; they can be parallel or congruent, for examples.

In conflict's stead, of more broad, deep, and constant influence is dramatic complication. Took me a few years to work that one out after discovering it in The Poetics of Aristotle and the dictionary definitions of denouement. Dramatic complication: antagonizing wants and problems wanting satisfaction. Wants of sufficient magnitude for whatever length narrative are problems wanting satisfaction and, in turn, vice versa: problems are wants wanting satisfaction.

An alien invasion, for example, is a problem, perhaps, wanting satisfaction. A lack of money is a want wanting satisfaction. Conflict then comes into play as stakes and outcomes; for the alien invasion, say, life or death, freedom or bondage, peace or war, etc. Conflict certainly belongs development-wise early on, for tension's sake, for readers' emotional sakes, at least a fear and pity emotional cluster for empathy or sympathy development and curiosity's suspense factor.

Tension is a reader effect: empathy or sympathy and curiosity's suspense factor. Readers feel tension when conflict and complication work together. Anyway, those are for me essential features of narrative. Challenging their development is whether essential knowledge is artlessly withheld or overburdensome, too soon or too late, too much or too little; in other words artfully timely and judicious. When a detail matters to the action, to the agonist, it matters to readers, for development of the reality imitation and its inherent reading spell of close immersion.

Writing "laws" two and three: a writer writes the story, readers read; and though shalt not disturb the reading spell. After law one: facilitate appealing reading and comprehension ease.

[ September 01, 2014, 06:12 PM: Message edited by: extrinsic ]

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Grumpy old guy
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To paraphrase the original question: Just what criteria does the writer use in choosing the most propitious moment to begin their narrative?

To use extrinsic's original example:
Left, the crossroads led toward town; right, toward the dark swamp; ahead, onto an interstate on-ramp. Rubble rattled from the jailhouse wall behind Karoly.
Why begin the narrative at this particular moment in the story? What separates this moment from all those that precede it, or follow on from it? Why not begin with the circumstances that led to the gaolbreak, or with the realisation of the consequences of Karoly's choice to take the right turn at the crossroads?

For me, it is all about determining the moment in time, and the specific setting, where I can show the reader the moment of personal crisis an agonist is about to be confronted with that will set them on a path of no return.

It need not be a momentous crisis, nor a moment filled with portent or of dire consequence; it could in fact be a moment of quiet dialogue in an otherwise apparently mundane cocktail party. The point is that it provides me with a setting and moment where I can, with a few carefully and artfully chosen words and sentences, educate the reader in the fundamental elements of milieu, character and looming dramatic complication they need to know in order to understand what is happening as they read on. It is about choosing (or rather, creating) a moment that will eliminate the need for monologue or back-story.

For one of my novels it took eighteen attempts and, for another, I got it in the first draft.


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Originally posted by Grumpy old guy:
[T]he moment of personal crisis an agonist is about to be confronted with that will set them on a path of no return.

This, yes: personal crisis.

The Karoly at the crossroads example is possibly symbolic, intended symbolism anyway that would ideally develop further soon thereafter, maybe as a thought reaction at the moment. Crossroads are liminal spaces--transformative transition places. The thought could be a common supernatural belief fear a demon waits at the crossroads to purchase souls: Faustian bargains.

Further motifs are needed too, such that the one liminal motif is not mere incidental coincidence--once is a coincidence, it takes two to tango, three's a party--and repeated in other iterations, and use of substitution and amplification for them. Such a motif might be, for example, a descent under ground--below an overpass--an encounter with an oddball, maybe a demon, or another surprise though natural for the circumstances crisis decision, say a choice on the interstate whether to hitch a ride from a passing auto or force the issue, liminal in the sense form outdoors to indoors, maybe both decision and encounter with an oddball, say an evangelical minister picks Karoly up on the on-ramp with the intention of "saving his soul," while Karoly is mid-decision. The meanings of his imprisonment and jail break become quickly apparent, though implied, and the action barrels along in robust motion.

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The Old Man and the Sea is a great example--or counter-example, maybe--of an all-time great opening. It doesn't start in media res, but it does start but summarizing in a sentence the normal swing of the pendulum and immediately foreshadowing that the swing is about to be dramatically disrupted.

I try to follow the advice of the King from "Through the Looking Glass":

"Begin at the beginning,", the King said, very gravely, "and go on till you come to the end: then stop”

In a sentence, the most generally powerful and specifically useless piece of advice a writer can be given.

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