The Slam-Bang Opening

Recently, a reader who is also a writer trying to get published wrote me lamenting the fact that her writing is similar to much of mine, in that it doesn’t begin with an immediate crisis, killing, or an action forcing everything into a literary hundred yard dash. Or, put another way, she doesn’t write slam-bang action openings, and it appears to her – and to me – that there’s more and more emphasis in F&SF for just such openings.

Now, I have nothing against openings with action. Fall of Angels begins with a violent battle scene, followed by a failing ship, and an emergency abandon-ship scene. Of Tangible Ghosts opens with a murder. An assassination by explosives sets the stage in Imager’s Intrigue. But frankly, most of my books open more prosaically with the killings, battles, explosions, treason, wars, etc., coming a bit later. And that’s usually the way real life is.

The problem with beginning with lots of action is that anything that comes after that seems like a let-down, especially to those readers who read only for the action. Those are the readers, of course, who usually won’t enjoy my books anyway because they’re “toooo slooow,” to quote one of them. But an action-packed opening can be a trap because it tends to imply that more and more action will follow, and if the action level doesn’t increase, that lets down “action-oriented” readers, and even if the level of action stays the same, then it’s just “more of the same,” and to avoid that an author needs to ratchet up the levels of violence, and often, sex and gore.

I’ve been reading F&SF for about sixty years, and it appears to me, especially in the last fifteen to twenty years, that the violence, speed, action, and shock-value quotients, so to speak, have all accelerated and become ever more prevalent. I’m certainly not against action, or even violence, and my characters, have, upon occasion, done some terrible deeds – and I’m talking about the protagonists, not about the villains – but I have the feeling that more and more authors are relying far too heavily on action and violence and shock value for the sake of shock value, rather than on plot, character, and, frankly, the technical strength of writing, in order to reach and hold readers.

Recently, say, over the past ten years, I’ve seen an increase in letters and emails to me that say that I’m one of a handful of authors that the writer can still enjoy reading because too many authors focus on action, sex, and violence. In the first twenty-five to thirty years of my professional career, I doubt that I got even a handful of such communications. Obviously, many of these writers are older and more traditional readers, but some clearly are not.

Given this reaction, limited as it may be, and my own continuing ability to sell books, I do have the suspicion that there’s still a market for a less violent approach to writing F&SF, but, as in many things, only time will tell, but I will say to any aspiring writer that the story should trump the marketing appeal of the slam-bang opening.

9 thoughts on “The Slam-Bang Opening”

  1. John Prigent says:

    Good points there, Mr M! I’ve been reading F&SF for nearly 70 years myself, and I have to agree that the slam-bang opening seems to be more frequent nowadays than I remember years ago. But my favourite authors – including you, I hasten to add – rely far more on having interesting characters than on ‘exciting’ ones. Yes, there may be an action opening, but it’s often more of a hook that makes me want to know ‘how did he/she/they get into this situation and how will ‘they’ get out of it in the end? So, the hook draws me in to see what happens and then I get engrossed by the characters – which make me stay with the story even with little further ‘slam-bang’ involved.

  2. Andreas says:

    I would also like to say thank you for the moral values you include in your books. Slam-bang action opening tend to put me off as it generally seems to me, that the rest of the book wil be either too gory, too explicit and it often means there won’t be much character development or true romance.

    On a side note I like the quotes you put into many of your books by Exton Land, would you ever consider publishing a book that contains Exton Land’s writings?

    1. At some point I might consider a short work by “Exton Land,” but certainly not any time soon.

  3. darcherd says:

    One other aspect of a book that’s all action and no character-development: While I may read such a book once, I’ll not be tempted to re-read it. LEM’s books, on the other hand, are a joy to re-read, and I find I get so much more out of them the 2nd or 3rd time around. (Just finishing re-reading the entire “Quareyt” Imager series.)

  4. Tim says:

    Like @darcherd and for the same reasons I tend to re-read the Imager series, as I do Zelazny’s Amber series (& Lord of Light)and several cherished Vance novels. When I decided to get rid of my paper SF library amassed over decades, I was surprised to find I kept less than 10% of them – and those were the ones I had re-read at least once.

    I also realised I like to enjoy novels, not be shocked by them. I get enough of that in the news channels.

  5. invah says:

    I made it all of two chapters in to “Game of Thrones” before I gave up on it. It took me until partway through the third book in the Sword of Truth series, I think.

    I found them morally exhausting, if that makes sense.

    There’s a scene in Robert Heinlein’s “Job: A Comedy of Justice” where the Satan character demands re-writes from the protagonist:

    >Talent shmalent. You should see the stuff that gets published. But you must hike up those sex scenes; today’s cash customers demand such scenes wet.

    This is what comes to mind whenever I read lurid interludes in stories designed to shock and/or titillate. (And, yes, Heinlein is problematic in his own way.) I also, personally, don’t understand wanting to create stories earnestly populated by morally bankrupt characters.

    Your approach to sex and relationships actually reminds me of Asimov’s.

  6. Frank says:

    OK. I think I represent more of the Joe six-pack consuming public, in that I don’t tend to over rationalize my choices for pleasure reading. I’ve been reading F&SF for about 55 years, and I have absolutely no problem with violence, tawdry sex and (in visual media) special effects. That said, I really enjoy your books, have read almost all of them (I try to wait until the price comes down, at first…doesn’t always work, as I have a decent collection of your hardbacks).

    I think it is character development that is the key. The characters in your books seem to have depth, texture, and feel “real” to me. I can’t comment on the technique you used, only that it works for me. I really like and consume a broad spectrum of books and movies, and can truthfully say that your books are a joy to me. Thanks for continuing to write so well, it brings me hours of interest and pleasure.

  7. RM says:

    I think I blame Barnes and Noble for the trend you describe. Back before the arrival of that store and the bookstore/coffeehouse clones it spawned, if you were caught reading a book in a bookstore (Waldenbooks, B. Dalton) you would be politely asked if you were planning on buying that book, as the store was not a library.

    However, Barnes & Noble encourages leisurely reading of the first few chapters, perhaps while drinking coffee and having a pastry, and that model appears to have directed the casual book browser to expect something in the first few chapters to pull them vigorously into the story, or search for another book that does so.

    It used to be that the title, cover, and jacket text were the only real insight one could get unless you did go to a library. But now, prospective buyers can peruse chapters at stores, on Google Books, etc. and I think this leads to a sort of anxious expectation that the “good parts” of the book will come sooner rather than later, for those disposed to like that sort of action.

  8. Alan says:

    I must say you’ve described my wife very well, as a reader. She is not nearly so voracious a reader as I am, but she does manage about a book a month. (Something that very sadly puts her well above the average for reading in this country.) When she reads she wants some one dead in the first page or few paragraphs.

    The books I re-read, and I do tend to do that often, are ones that have the better stories and character development. Not the ones where the protagonist reels from sex scene to sex scene, or spends the whole book engaged in violence. I want to be engaged with the character and their development, not their sex life. One of the flaws in Laurel K. Hamilton’s Anita Blake series is that around the 10th or so book the main character just tumbles from bed to bed, gaining power and with no growth of the character. The plot advances glacially slow, until about book 20. I haven’t re-read those books because of that.

    I sympathize with with those who have problems with ‘wordy’ books, like Terry Brooks and George Martin. Reading about every bush and tree while the characters are walking along a path is very dull. A story needs to move along at some minimal pace, and jacking up the word count with descriptions isn’t the way to make a book better. I did finish the Sword of Truth series though the last few books were ones I had to work to get through. The first three or four books were better paced.

    We recently discussed this phenomena in my advanced writing class. There was no clear consensus on the cause(s), but one thing we did agree on was that the quality of general writing has tended to suffer.

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