But most important of all is the structure of the incidents. For tragedy is an imitation, not of humans, but of action ... life consists of action, and its aim is a mode of action, not a quality. Character may determine men’s qualities, but it is by their actions that they are happy or the reverse.
~ The Poetics, Aristotle
Oh, yeah. I went there. Talkin bout our man Aristotle now. Today we're going to examine the conventional wisdom for openings and maybe come to understand why it became the convention.
There are six narrative elements, and the most important of these is action. Action is the foundation upon which the rest of the narrative builds. You might believe that character is the lynchpin of good storytelling -- and it is, undisputably; never doubt the importance of character -- but character is revealed best through action.
A dramatist is one who believes that the pure event, an action involving human beings, is more arresting than any comment that can be made upon it.
~ Thornton Wilder, as interviewed in Writers at Work, First Series
Characters are not about their thoughts and feelings, but about the expression of their thoughts and feelings. A man alone in a room may think great thoughts, but what of it? Good or bad, thrilling or stultifying, inane or dangerous -- these ideas are made meaningful through action. The great thinker must rise from his chair and do something in furtherance of his ideas. Otherwise, the reader is looking at an essay rather than a story.
Our lives are made up of moments, one following another from cradle to coffin. And so are stories. What happens in these moments? Characters may ponder and think great thoughts, but this isn't what the reader of fiction will remember after they close the cover and set the book aside. What the reader will remember is the action.
A thought which does not result in an action is nothing much, and an action which does not proceed from a thought is nothing at all.
~ Georges Bernanos, France Before the World of Tomorrow
This is why we say to start with action, in the middle of a scene, with an event underway. A character thinking thoughts ("setting up" the story) is boring. Give us action which is based in the opinions and qualities and emotions of the main character, and you will be more likely to engage the reader from the outset. Avoid trivial action that isn't reflective of these characters and the problems they must encounter.
Action is character.
~ F. Scott Fitzgerald, Notes for The Last Tycoon
Think about who your characters are before the conflict erupts. What is important to them? What is problematic? Scarlett O'Hara is super-pissed that Mammy makes her eat pancakes before the barbeque at Twelve Oaks. It's a minor problem, especially compared to war and lost romance which will become big problems before those pancakes are fully digested. But the pancake issue is meaningful to Scarlett and it's made meaningful to the reader because it dramatizes Scarlett's character through action. She is stubborn, rebellious, superficial. And these are the very qualities which are tested and pummeled and reshaped over the course of the story.
Character is action, and starting with action -- bodies in meaningful motion -- will draw the reader into the lives of your characters more swiftly than any other form of opening.