How to start an action story. Opening scene analysis of The Stone Speaker by Owen Garner

How do you start your novel? Today on the blog, an editorial analysis of the opening scene of The Stone Speaker a work-in-progress by Owen Garner. We'll look at what's awesome in the current draft that the author can build on, discuss scene requirements for action stories, and see how two popular published fantasy action novels meet those requirements in their opening scenes. 

Background to today's scene

Many thanks to Owen Garner for sharing his scene for critique on the blog. It takes courage to get public feedback. Let's give him the props he deserves.

 Here's how Garner describes The Stone Speaker:

A girl born with powers she does not understand or want. A hero bound by a curse he sought out himself. And a zealot willing to spill any innocent blood for peace.

Read the entire 2,143 word scene we're analyzing today here. Here's a synopsis.

A young shepherdess named Akilina is bored and dreams of the city. We meet her just as she realizes two of her sheep are missing. As she finds the first of her lost sheep, she hears the sounds of weapons clanging in the distance. She climbs a tree to get a better view and sees a battle between two armies - one of which has a giant. The cries of her second sheep being chased and attacked by a crag-dog pull her away. Akilina is too late to save this second sheep and she gets scraped up trying to save it. As she goes to lead her first sheep back home she hears a cry and experiences an odd inner pain. Meanwhile, the battle is ending, the giant has become a stone statue again, and the invading army enters the city.

What's awesome: It's got a relatable protagonist

Did you ever have a moment as a kid where you resented your parents' rules? Yeah, me too. It's easy to relate to the teenage Akilina who detests chores and wants to escape to a big city someday. I like how Garner captures both Akilina’s boredom and her desire for excitement in this paragraph:

By her count only two sheep were missing. It always amazed her how such dim animals could make such regular escapes. Her father was more upset than impressed. Despite the chore she allowed herself the smallest smile, the air filling her lungs and her legs burning with effort. At least here there was something new to see; maybe even a little danger, if the crag-dogs came out of hiding. Little chance of that in daylight, but a lamb would be a tasty temptation for them all the same.

And her ironic conversations with the sheep are funny and sassy:

“You don’t even have the decency to be ashamed of yourself, do you?” she said, crouched with her staff across her knees. The animal snapped its head up, stared at Akilina a moment, then returned to grazing.

At the bottom of the trail, still tied up and content as ever, her other wayward sheep still stood. “Too lucky to die,” she said, pulling the makeshift leash from the tree.

What's awesome: Vivid descriptions

I really enjoyed the specificity of Garner’s line-by-line writing. He gives such vivid, specific visual details - the folded up flag covered with blood, the noise that coughs instead of singing, the valley covered in a green cloth. As you read, it's impossible not to imagine this world.

Wind caught her robe and flapped it about like a flag keeping watch over some great city tower, proud and strong and far away from here. She imagined the sight of the first new city she might visit some day. Would visit some day, she corrected. The only flag father had was folded up and stuffed in a corner. Akilina snuck looks at it from time to time. She didn’t recognize the pattern, and she didn’t ask about the blood.

A heavy clang carried on the winds. Instead of a bell, the noise was flat and ugly, a dense metal that coughed instead of sang.
The valley swept out before her, a green cloth anchored by a river at one end and a city at the other.

What's awesome: A little bit of mystery

I love that Garner establishes that this is a magical world where stone statues come to life, that the magic used to be celebrated, but not anymore. Sentences like these leave me curious to find out what is happening.

She dared to hope for a glance of the living Eikona for the first time. The reawakening of stone giants turned to flesh used to be celebrated by everyone. But times had changed.

What's awesome: The scene works

In every story, for a scene to work, it must have an obvious shift in life or death circumstances, or a more subtle change in circumstances. This scene has a shift, so it works. There’s a subtle shift in how Akilina relates to herself. She starts off the scene bored and ends the scene in anticipation.

This scene also has a battle, and in that battle soldiers die. All action stories start with an attack or battle. But in this scene, the battle is more like a background. We don’t get a single fighter’s name or know anything about how they view the world, so it doesn’t matter to the reader when some of the soldiers die.

Question: Is this shift the right shift?

My big question is, what kind of a story does the author want to tell? Right now, as the scene is written, Akilina’s shift from boredom to anticipation is the most prominent. This is the kind of shift we’d expect in an opening scene from a quiet story about a girl coming of age, not from an action story. 

Based on the author’s description of the story:

A girl born with powers she does not understand or want. A hero bound by a curse he sought out himself. And a zealot willing to spill any innocent blood for peace.

...and from the fact that at the end of the scene, he writes “War was coming....” , I’m gonna infer that Garner's intention is to write an action story.  It might be a military story set in a magical world. It might be the story of a rebellion or a conspiracy, but it’s an action story where life and death are on the line.

In action stories, what gives us a sense of those life and death stakes is that in every scene there is a hero, a victim (or victims), and a villain. In this scene, we know that soldiers die, but we don’t know who those soldiers are. Are they soldiers defending the city or minions of the villain? There’s no clear hero, because the one character whose name we do know–Akilina–is not directly involved in the action.

How do other similar novels start their stories?

Let’s look at two other examples of opening scenes from action stories set in magical worlds with tough, young female protagonists for comparison. We’ll look at Brandon Sanderson’s The Final Empire and Suzanne Collins’s The Hunger Games and see whether the protagonist is involved in the action as well as who plays the hero, victim, and villain.

In the first chapter of The Final Empire, Vin, the protagonist, is central to the action. She uses her magical powers to help her thieving crew scam one of the high priests of the land. In this scene, Vin is both the hero–she knows she can do something special, and helps the scam succeed- and the victim. Her boss Camon beats her and threatens to sell her to a brothel. The boss Camon serves as the villain. The hero-victim-villain delineation helps us see that even though Vin has special powers, she’s also trapped in a situation where her performance as a thief has life and death consequences.

The opening scene of The Hunger Games, like this scene, has the protagonist, removed from the action. This works because the second scene kicks off action that is truly surprising. It’s in the second scene that Katniss’s sister, Prim, is chosen for the Hunger Games, and certain death.

In the first scene, Katniss goes hunting and gathering with her friend Gale. The shift in that scene is in Katniss and Gale’s relationship. He asks her to run away with him. She says no. He then acts out. In the course of their conversation, Katniss and Gale clearly establish that they are the heroes who provide for their families despite the danger. They’re also victims. They’ve both entered their names extra times in the reaping so that they can help feed their families. They’re much more likely than to have their names called to represent their District in the Hunger Games. A government that forces children to fight in a death match for entertainment is an obvious villain.

What does this mean for the author?

I see three general directions that Garner could go in with this scene.

First, he could leave the scene pretty close to what it is with the reader seeing Akilina’s point of view as she chases down lost sheep and watches the battle in the distance. Just like in The Hunger Games, the author could use dialogue to establish the hero, victim, and villain. The dialogue could be Akilina’s inner dialogue, her conversations with the sheep, or a conversation with a new character. (Maybe a neighbor, a cousin on leave from military service, or servant.)

Second, Akilina could be directly involved in the action. Just like in The Final Empire, he could establish the hero, victim, and villain through character action. Perhaps one of Akilina’s sheep strays into the battlefield, or maybe the invaders ransack Akilina’s house while she’s out, or maybe she gets captured or threatened from getting too close to the fighting.

Third, a hybrid option. Akilina could still be a spectator of the attack, and we could stick with her point of view, but someone she cares about is involved in the fighting. The person that she cares about would either be the hero, the victim, or both a hero and a victim.

Which option should the author choose?

That really depends on which one appeals to him and how this scene fits into his overall story. There are infinite possibilities of how to write this scene. Ultimately, the writer gets to decide which of those possibilities to pursue. Here's the question to ask in determining the best choice.

Where should the protagonist be in another 8-12 scenes? Does Akilina need to be in some kind of training to learn how to use her magical powers by that time? Is that when she starts to go on smaller missions that prepare her for the big battle at the end? Does she become a spy and need to get behind enemy lines? The first 25% of any action story sets up the protagonist so she is ready for some jaw-dropping action sequences from the middle to the end of the book. The first 25% of The Hunger Games gets Katniss to the arena. The first 25% of The Final Empire gets Vin to the point where she learns what her magical power is and she starts her training under a mentor.

Want to hear another writer talk through how to start his action story in a magical world? Here's a podcast episode where writer Tim Grahl talks with veteran editor and creator of the Story Grid, Shawn Coyne about how to start his novel. 

Where to find more of Owen Garner's work

Join the writing community and critique site Scribophile, to follow Owen Garner and see more of his writing. If you're already a Scribophile member, you can find Garner's profile here. If you're interested in being a beta reader for The Stone Speaker, you can send an email to Owen Garner (a.k.a. Joel Schmidt) at jschmidtdpt@gmail.com

Are you writing an action story? What are you doing to determine your hero, victim, and villain?  Share your experience in the comments.