At the conference, writers attended a two-minutes, two-pages workshop in which we read our first two pages aloud to a panel of agents. The agents listened as though they were reading the pages on submission, and would say, “Stop,” whenever they would normally have lost interest in the writing. Then they explained why.
The number-one reason agents lost interest in writers’ first pages was a lack of action. (Agent Kristin Nelson blogs about her take on the problem here.) They often said the first pages contained too much description, either of the setting or of the character, and then offered the standard advice to begin in media res, in the middle of the action. But I believe it was agent Matthew Mahoney who made a telling point–a point which no one picked up on in the discussion.
He compared opening pages to the opening minutes of a film, and said that you need someone to root for, or the action is boring. Battle scenes, for instance, are a meaningless barrage if you don’t know who to worry about.
When I think about writing, I usually think about it in terms of the hale Aristotelian triad of pathos-logos-ethos (I blogged about this over on Greenkeys a while ago). In other words, writing that works well appeals to your audience’s hearts, minds, and sensibility. When we care about a character, that means the writer has done a good job with writing pathos into the scene. Which means that the most exciting battle scene in the world will never be a good one if every character in it remains anonymous.
This also means that the most important element in the opening pages of a novel is not really action, then, but character. A character gives meaning to the actions on the page. For instance, how much do we care about a child throwing a tantrum in the cereal aisle? How much more do we care if that scene is told from the mother’s point of view, when the tantrum is interspersed with someone telling her that she’s a crappy mom? As always, it depends on the writing, but the second situation would compel me to read on at least a bit further. I’d want to know how the mother responded, both to the tantrum and the criticism.
This is why good action scenes begin with attention to people–to point of view, character, and the who-what-how-and-why of a given person’s response to a situation. So I guess you could say that good writing is pathethic writing.