Writing Action: Act First, Explain Later

You may have heard the common writing craft advice: Act first, explain later.

This doesn't work out when you're pouring your fifth glass of wine and drunk-texting a confession to BFF about eating the last bag of cheetos your husband had been pining for (I would never!).

But it's great if you're giving a story beginning or a scene instant momentum, engaging readers to follow something exciting, and showing how a character reacts or makes decisions under pressure. 

This cuts through that propensity to start a scene with telling and backstory and that slow setup that's hard to shake off. And if you're struggling to start a scene, sometimes jumping right into the action helps to get the writing gears oiled, too.

But the common pitfall with this common advice is: confusing the heck out of readers.

Suppose we have a bank robbery that bursts off of page one, ninjas in black masks yelling and shooting the ceiling, customers and employees screaming. Then one baddie ninja drags a pale, trembling employee to unlock the big safe, his gun barrel jutting painfully into the woman’s back. She sobs and obeys his orders. Once he has the cash, police arrive outside the bank, their car lights flashing wildly, increasing the stress of the moment. While police and Baddie Ninja Leader end up in a hostage negotiation, a wizard floats down into the bank and the ninjas fight him. Then, a news helicopter hovering near the rooftop explodes, a tumbling cloud of scrap metal, fire, and ash snowball into the heart of the city.

After pages and pages of this scene unfolding, we have no idea what’s going on or who to care about.

We're getting thrown into another world and trying to make sense of our surroundings. But it’s not as pleasant as a thumped landing in a TARDIS from a Doctor Who episode. It’s more like utter confusion and impatience in that example I just sneezed out, where we're trying to anchor ourselves to something but can't.

Sooner (rather than later), readers need to...

  • understand what's happening in context
  • connect with a character

This is where we trip. And if you're like me, crash without grace.

We can choose not to reveal certain story details yet (that's the "explain later" part), but we need to make sense of what we do share and introduce a character that readers want to follow, whether it's caring about them or hating them.

One example I love is from 1987, the very first lines of Nora Robert’s Hot Ice:

He was running for his life. And it wasn’t the first time. As he raced by Tiffany’s elegant window display he hoped it wouldn’t be his last. The night was cool with April rain slick on the streets and sidewalk. There was a breeze that even in Manhattan tasted pleasantly of spring. He was sweating. They were too damn close. Fifth Avenue was quiet, even sedate at this time of night. Streetlights intermittently broke the darkness; traffic was light. It wasn’t the place to lose yourself in a crowd. As he ran by Fifty-third, he considered ducking down into the subway below the Tishman Building—but if they saw him go in, he might not come back out.

The main character is deep in action while Roberts describes the setting and why the character needs to run—he’s afraid for his life. We just don’t know yet what the baddie wants from him. But we’re starting to get curious and to care what happens to this protagonist as his options for escape narrow.

Suddenly, act first, explain later becomes an umbrella for including other writing rules:

Anchoring the fictional world: details that establish the setting and orient readers. This includes the rules of the world.

"Fifth Avenue was quiet, even sedate at this time of night. Streetlights intermittently broke the darkness; traffic was light. It wasn’t the place to lose yourself in a crowd."

Character sympathy and goals: the character is trying to get something or, in this case, get away from something that threatens his world.

"He was running for his life.” 

Bites of info: creating context—embedding background info or explaining the relevance—between the action. In this case, hinting that this protagonist isn't the perfect citizen.

"And it wasn’t the first time."

After that thrilling action, we can slow down to give readers more insight: why he's being chased, why she doesn't trust men, why he doesn't talk to his father anymore, etc.

It's all about orchestrating a particular experience for readers—from action that's exciting and makes sense so readers get hooked, to explaining the truth later so readers stick around until The End.

Only you, the author, can do this. And if you need a little help, I’m here for you.