The story I am aiming to write has someone thrown into action. However, that is not how they start off at the beginning. I definitely want to show someone whose bitten off more than they can chew, but prevails anyway.

I have some good idea for foreshadowing themes, or what characters are like, but I'm struggling to figure out how to indicate that this book will end up fast paced from about the midway to 3/4 point?

My concern is that, based on Brandon Sanderson's advice (paraphrased here), I should promise some amount of action so the end of the book has some payoff:

You make promises to your reader of what they should expect and progress those promises in such a way that there is a payoff from them. You pull readers in with your promises but if you don't follow up with progress and payoff then they won't be satisfied.

I'd like to promise action, without needing to make the first part of the book action filled. How do I do this?

  • Is it really accurate to say it's an action story if there isn't action in 3/4 of the story? That's more action for a climax. A lot of readers won't wait that long for the action if that's what they're waiting for. Prologs are rather controversial; it's a strike against you. What form is the action in? Rescue? Gun battle? Chase scene (car/monster)? I had a precognitive antagonist, who foresaw the precipitating event in the story, but that's tricky to justify. Can you have small action (competitions, accidents, muggings) to build up to the big action?
    – DWKraus
    Jul 5, 2021 at 13:39
  • @DWKraus by my intent it's not an action story, but it will be a story with action. The action would be in a heist that leads to an escape plot, and big finale space battle possibly. I've not pinned down the ending so much, but I'd like to plan action, almost to help contrast the beginning. Jul 5, 2021 at 14:07
  • 1
    Then I suspect you don't need as much buildup, since the action is just the whipped topping on top of your climax. Emphasize the story, if it's a story-based work, and emphasize characters if it's character-based. Don't get too distracted from where the core of your work lies.
    – DWKraus
    Jul 5, 2021 at 14:12

2 Answers 2


There's a few different options here, but I'll cover a couple of the more commonly-used ones:

In media res

Start the book in the middle of the action - show a small snippet and then wind the clock back to the time where the story itself starts. It has it's drawbacks - the audience gets something of a spoiler (for want of a better word) as to where the story is heading, and it's been heavily used over the centuries and some readers will find it a bit passe, but in a way it's almost the most explicit form of the "promise" of later action.

Action Prologue

For characters for whom action is commonplace you can open with them finishing up their previous action-filled escapade - this is the tried and tested method used in James Bond films for example.

Since your character appears to be more of a "civilian" thrown in action circumstances you can achieve the same effect by showing some other character(s) having an action filled moment. This doesn't have to be the main action of the story and can even be linked to it only tenuously. Of course you're going to need some characters and events who are in a position to be in action at this point but you can draw pretty widely for this - look to examples such as the opening for Game of Thrones, while the White Walkers are a big deal later on the individual characters from that opening and even the events depicted have very little direct bearing on the rest of the first book.

Since you mentioned Brandon Sanderson I'll point out that his opener for the Stormlight Archive also does this, and serves as a good example of the sort of thing he's talking about in "promises" - more specifically for making his "promise" to the reader of an innovative magic-based combat style. The story requires substantial time and build up before any of the main characters are in a position to use surgebinding, but it doesn't for Szeth so Sanderson can go to town with it in the prologue. The reader has their appetite whetted but he can still take his time to slowly build the story and main characters.

It's worth noting that both of the above can be done with relatively short sections if required. As Sanderson states it's really just giving a "promise" to the reader, letting them know early on that they are in for some action in the book.


The purpose of "The Promise of <Insert Quality Here: action, baking, mystery, romance>" is to set the reader's expectations of what is to come. To make that promise, you have several options available to you.

The first is to just lay it out. Like if your story involves around baking, then you could have a tense bake off between two characters that sets the stage for baking, demonstrates the consequences for losing at baking, and uses baking as a jump off to other promises of X your story needs to make, such as swashbuckling. A scene on a pirate ship where a captured baker will walk the plank if they don't make better scones from weevilly flour than the ship's cook can make. Baking and swashing buckling action is sure to follow. It's direct and obviously communicates what reading your story is going to be like.

But, a subtler approach is to allude to that baking is going to be forthcoming. It can be a casual mention in a newspaper or court gossip about a dreadful bake off held by The Dread Pirate Roberts. Or, it can be even more oblique as someone complaining about the quality of this morning's scones and asking what can be so hard about baking a satisfactory scone. And, if it is spoken by a pirate, you've made both promises without the need for baking or swashing buckling in the opening of your novel.

Other ideas in this same vane, is to have characters react to events that suggest the promise: a whodunit -- morning paper talks about a series of unsolved crimes, a romance -- characters discussed disappointment at last night's date (how could anyone so handsome be so dull), and so on.

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