I say this because I have read a number of books this past year by independent authors who, l like me, are trying to carve out a small niche for themselves in this crowded marketplace. So many of them seem to follow too literally the adage that a story has to “grab” the reader within its first few pages or the reader will turn elsewhere. So, without any attempt at context or character development, they rush headlong into scenes of action or terror, hoping the strength of such an opening scene will interest the reader enough that he or she will buy the book.
Often, though, once these writers start a book in this manner, they can’t, or won’t, ever bother trying to make their characters in any way real or more than two-dimensional cut-outs. It’s as if the momentum of the story precludes any need to make the reader actually care about the people he or she is reading about. All that matters is that cars crash, murders are committed and young girls’ lives are imperilled by the supernatural flavour of the week.
The problem with the above-mentioned adage, as anyone who has read extensively can attest, is that it’s simply NOT TRUE. The first scene of a book doesn’t have to reach out and grab the reader by the throat. Sometimes, even for thrillers, or horror novels, or spy novels, it is important to catch the readers’ imagination, to seduce them, to make them wonder “who are these people that all sorts of terrible things are going to happen to?”
A James Bond movie can begin with a mind-blowing car chase, or some sort of impossible stunt, because everybody going into the movie already knows who James Bond is. His character has already been developed over decades’ worth of films, so nobody is going to say to themselves, “but just who is this handsome hero and why is he always in danger?”
However in the very first James Bond novel, Casino Royale, written for an audience who had no idea who this eventually iconic character was, Ian Fleming takes the time he needs to establish who Bond is, what he’s doing at the casino, how he got this assignment, why they are after Le Chiffre. And, again, this is NOT boring.
And by the way, this applies to epic-length books as well as shorter thrillers. Casino Royale, despite taking the time to set up the characters and the context, comes in at less than 150 pages! So what I’m talking about can be done well without dragging on endlessly. Maybe this is a challenge in itself.
Writers, both old and new, need to have the confidence in themselves, in their ability to write well, to create interesting characters, to imagine fascinating worlds, so that they don’t worry that a potential reader will put their book down if “nothing happens” in the first few pages. Lots of stuff “happens” in those early pages of Casino Royale, even though there are no gunfights, and no glamourous women are seduced. Just like lots of stuff “happens” in the opening pages of Sweet Tooth.
Writers who don’t take the time to create a realistic world and three-dimensional characters, are short-changing both the story as well as the reader. They are offering cotton candy when a more substantial, and more memorable, meal could have been served. It is as if they are too afraid of being left behind, too much in a hurry to serve food when it isn’t fully cooked. As for readers who rush for the cotton candy, afraid to sit down and take the time to enjoy a three-course meal, they are also doing a disservice to themselves, as well as to the many great stories out there.
I think if every novel was written in the same style of a headlong-rush into the fray, then this is all readers would know and expect. However I suspect that if a reader comes across a book that takes its time in developing its story, but is well-written, and tantalizes with the promise of a fascinating fictional world to explore, then the reader will take the time to sit down, tuck in and commit him or herself to the time it takes to read a novel of quality. All it takes is for writers to take the time and make the effort to write what they will know in their hearts will be a better book.