I want it, and I want it NOW!

We’re told these days how important it is to hook the reader right from that first line of a novel – indeed I blogged this very topic myself just a couple of days ago. But it wasn’t always like this.

In our quick-fire, instant message, SnapChat, 140-character world, readers are all supposed to be so impatient and intolerant. They can’t be bothered to read their way through a leisurely build-up; they’re not interested in scene-setting or description. We’re told if you want to amount to anything as an author, you have to begin your story in the middle of the action, or you’ll lose easily bored readers in droves. You can’t waste time waking your characters up in the morning; you shouldn’t squander words setting up the mood or describing your characters.

I’m quite prepared to believe that some readers (maybe even most readers, or some readers some of the time, or most readers most of the time…) want to be thrown into the action; rather like the beginning of a James Bond film where we join the fun, slap-bang in the middle of a massive car chase, all guns blazing; heart-stopping, chaotic tension.

But then… I’ve always seen reading as a leisurely pursuit. It’s something I enjoy most at certain very relaxing times – like whilst I’m lazing around on holiday, or curled up in an armchair on a Sunday afternoon. I think there’s room in life for the slow-burn novel – and I’m not just talking about your up-market literary fiction, all contemplatioAlan Bates as Farmer Gabriel Oakn and no action. I’m talking actual general fiction, complete with plotting, inciting incidents and conflict – and all the other good stuff – but just at a more unruffled pace.

One of my all-time favourite novels breaks all the modern-day rules. That’s probably because it’s 140 years old. Far From the Madding Crowd by Thomas Hardy opens with a magnificent character description. I’ve not found one I prefer anywhere. There’s no action for several pages. We’re not thrown into a moment of crisis/tension. The story begins with a rambling but utterly exquisite character portrait of one Farmer Gabriel Oak.

Here’s the first sentence:

“When Farmer Oak smiled, the corners of his mouth spread till they were within an unimportant distance of his ears, his eyes were reduced to chinks, and diverging wrinkles appeared round them, extending upon his countenance like the rays in a rudimentary sketch of the rising sun.”

That’s hardly a hook, now, is it? But it is beautiful. And read on here and you might be as captivated as I was by the unfolding picture of this steadfast, ordinary man.

When Thomas Hardy eventually moves on to some kind of action, a languid 868 words in, it is with nothing more exciting than the image of a wagon trundling over the brow of a hill.

Reading has its place in every part of life. I’m thrilled by the fact that people can download novels at the click of a button and read them whilst they wait for a train (would that they will download mine on Sunday, for next week’s commute). I love being able to ‘read’ an audiobook whilst I’m doing other things. But I also cherish those moments where I’m doing nothing but reading. That’s when I can immerse myself in a book and give free rein to my own imagination, to pull me into the world carefully crafted by another author.

That’s when I not only tolerate, but warmly welcome those slow-burn, descriptive narratives, where I can be moved by the beauty of the prose, before I get caught up in the action.

What do you think? Do you need instant gratification? Or are you happy for the storyteller to pace your pleasure?

52 thoughts on “I want it, and I want it NOW!

      1. You’re very welcome Julie, it asks great questions.
        Personally, I was raised reading Dickens, Conan Doyle, and all the old master storytellers, and they are still preferred reading if I want to relax rather than enter the fray from the get go 😀

        1. There’s a time and a place for every kind of story. But with the world speeding up and demanding ever more clipped and abbreviated communication, I fear the lost of these more languid reading experiences. Master storytellers indeed – and well worth the time.

  1. I think it depends on my mood. I love a good hook when I’m looking for a cerebral quickie — draw me right in, keep me there, have your way with me, and let me go. You know? But I also love words, love the way words can be put together to build the story well past my expectations. Those are my slow reads. I want them to last, and so I save those for breaks when I can read without dashing and love every minute of it. If that makes any sense. 🙂

    1. I like the sound of that… a cerebral quickie! I too love words and the way writers can engage all the senses, taking their time to captivate the reader and pull them in. There’s always a time and a place for a quickie, but the slow-burn reads are the ones to savour. 😉

  2. Thomas Hardy could write an image well. Worth every inch of space on the page. We can hope that readers may start out with sharp brief first lines in stories and will eventually grow to love the words of longer descriptions in other tales

    1. Stories which build more slowly deliver a richer experience, but you have to give them time. You don’t get a cliff-hanger on every page (although Dickens and Hardy, with their episodic approaches, did pretty well for cliff-hangers), but you will be rewarded by imagery and prose which reaches into your soul. I’m happy for whatever brings people to reading, but I hope they will grow to love the more languid stories alongside the high-octane ones.

  3. It often feels trite to me when a novel opens with a sentence obviously designed to ‘hook’ the reader. I greatly prefer it when the story, you know, opens instead of abruptly starts. It allows me to get to know the feel and characters in a more genuine and enjoyable way.

    Of course, this is me talking out of both sides of my mouth though, since I recently started a novel and have been agonizing over the opening for fear that it’s ‘too boring.’

    1. Yes, I agree, ‘Hooky’ opening lines can look a bit contrived – and manipulative. I had one or two runs at my opening line too! Check out my post on opening lines here.

  4. I deliberately gave my first book a slower start to draw readers in because I knew the story would be more suited to a reader who was prepared to work a little, rather than have everything spoon fed. I did this knowing I was limiting my audience but I have faith in the intelligence of readers.
    That said, there are times when a great action-packed opening can set a book up nicely. It’s all about what suits a story best.

    1. I love your books, and I’m certainly prepared to work a little for my pleasure! Singled Out is also more of a slow-burn. It’s tricky walloping the reader about the head with fast-paced action (not to say a little out-of-place) when you’ve set your novel on a summer holiday! I just hope readers will feel themselves well rewarded as the story plays out. But I too, like the instant gratification hit-the-ground-running stories every now and again. There’s a time and a place, as they say.

  5. There are different kinds of readers, some like action, some like the slow build-up. No two readers are the same, I think. For me, it really depends. If it’s well written, beautiful prose, I will devour it regardless of the pace.

    1. I agree entirely. I appreciate well-written, beautiful prose, and I do find that sometimes the beauty of the words ends up sacrificed on the alter of pace and tension. You can lose a sense of place and mood without some elementary description at least. But then I’m one kind of reader, and many will appreciate a pared-down narrative which draws them rapidly into the action.

  6. It totally depends on the book for me. If the back blurb advertised the book as an action packed thriller, then I expect to be thrust into the thick of it fairly quickly. If it is a story that is more about a character’s development or personal relationships rather than, say, a chosen one saving the world from a megalomaniac hell bent on destruction then I don’t mind the softer start.

    1. That’s a great point, Allie. It’s all about expectation. We choose a certain type/genre of book and we expect it to deliver certain things. The trick is, not to lead readers to expect something they’re not going to get.

      I have a small dilemma over my forthcoming slow-burn psychological novel, Singled Out. It is a psychological story, but the word that often gets associated with psychological is… thriller. I prefer psychological on its own, or if necessary, psychological suspense. But not thriller – because that would misdirect those expectations.

        1. That seemed to be the best-fit, once I’d managed to find some guidance on the characteristics of certain genres on the internet. The whole issue of genre classification is a bit of a double-edged sword though. It helps readers to find you, but it does run the risk of fencing you in a bit too tightly.

  7. I love ‘Far From the Madding Crowd…..I feel a quote coming on:
    ‘I shall do one thing in this life, one thing certain-this is, love you and long of you and keep wanting you till I die’

  8. A very good post, Jools. As a novelist I too want readers to read all of my novel and I don’t like the fact that the ‘first 10 pages’ are make or break with many readers. If you are well known then it isn’t so important to grab the reader from the start, but lesser known writers need this hook to keep the reader–in my opinion. I also think that the genre of the novel has much to do with the expectations of readers.

    I really enjoyed your thoughts.

    1. Thank you! You hit the nail on the head – if you’re well-known, readers will cut you some slack. The challenge is for those of us unknowns/novices, who want to gain some traction with an audience, but don’t want to feel we are writing to a formula, simply to hook an audience.

  9. Thank you for writing this. The original set up for my novel was a gradual build up. However, after receiving multiple suggestions that it needs a hook right at the beginning, I reluctantly changed it. It’s not an action hook, but it does point to the central crisis of the story (that I wanted to build to) right away. Your post helps vindicate me that I had it right the first time.

    1. Your comment highlights a very interesting point, that ‘formula’ dictates there should be a hook.

      I understand only too well the dilemma you faced. I received the same advice, on an early draft so I created a prologue. But then I found out that prologues are frowned upon, so I lost the prologue. I eventually rewrote the opening pages of my novel in a way which, I hope, achieves a certain degree of ‘hook’, but within a simmering, slow- burn context.

      My biggest problem was working out what I wanted for MY book, balancing all the valued critique and good advice and knowledge of ‘the rules’ with the story I wanted to write – ultimately a compromise, but one which I’m not at all unhappy with.

  10. I love stories that paint glorious pictures of places and characters, warts and all. I love stories that build slowly. That said, I don’t particularly enjoy books that take so long to get moving or to a point that I have completely lost where we were trying to get to to begin with. There is a balance. And I think finding that balance may be the hardest thing an author must deal with other than having a killer story to tell.

    1. You’re right – it is all about finding a balance. I too enjoy stories that ‘stop and smell the roses’. One thing I tried to do with my story, which is set in Turkey, was to evoke a sense of place. But all this cannot be at the expense of plot and pace. The challenge is to find a balance, but that isn’t always easy, particularly in a debut when one is still very much in learning mode.

  11. Thanks for the post and food for thought. I’m ambivalent about all the “musts” that push on writers and stories. There’s part of me that believes a story is organic, it’s a being with an identity and life that we shouldn’t force to conform to our current plethora of rules. I like to learn the rules and then thoughtfully break them.

    1. One of the beautiful things about self-publishing is that one can choose which of those ‘musts’ or rules, that one follows. It’s obviously good sense to take note of the experience of generations of writers and editors, to understand what makes a book sell and how to build the compelling elements into a story. But there is a certain freedom as an indie author, to choose to break those rules. The risk is that fewer people will enjoy your book – but it IS a choice. As an indie, you have the freedom to experiment, because nobody else’s dollar but your own is at stake.

  12. I LOVED this post. When someone reviewed my book and said the story could have been told in half the pages I laughed. My favorite books work up slowly. I want background and setting and all of the old things that made me fall in love with reading as a child and young adult. Middlemarch is my all time favorite book for a reason–well, many reasons. I want to miss characters I’ve spent more than an afternoon with.

    1. Thank you! You make an excellent point – it takes time to evolve a character. If you want to leave the reader with a sense that they’ve fallen in love with that character, that they’re going to miss them, or perhaps look forward to meeting them again in another novel, you need to craft a portrait, not scribble a stick-person. There is a time and a place for every kind of book, but I too enjoy those books which slow the pace in the interests of spending a little time with the main characters.

      1. I don’t mind racing through a book sometimes, but no matter how well-written I probably won’t have a ton of affection for it later. I want to feel devastatingly lonesome at the end of a book.

        1. Me too, and that doesn’t happen when the pace is so fast you haven’t had a chance to immerse in the setting or characters. But to each their own, I guess – happen there’s room in the world for all the books!

  13. I suspect that many of the Rules of Writing were created by editors and others ploughing through the infamous “slush piles” of submissions. You had to “hook” those folks immediately or fail. But not all readers need to be hooked; some are happy to be serenaded.

    1. You’re right indeed. Agents and editors must have had a big role to play in those ‘rules of writing’. However… that doesn’t make them bad. They’re meant to be helpful, after all, even if they can seem a bit formulaic. And when you’re focused on marketability and the profit motive alone, you have to promote what sells most easily. But not everyone needs the same kind of book, and even those who enjoy the fast-paced narrative will take time to enjoy the odd seranade. There has to be room for the slow-burn story, just as there has to be time for the hand-written letter in a world of texts and Tweets.

  14. For me, it’s not about the instant gratification of an action hook, it’s about good writing from the start. Hardy creates a character that I want to know more about. (In fact now I want to read that book, just from the lines you included.) On the other hand, too many authors spend page after page exposing boring character traits that don’t compell me to know more. So for me there has to be a hook, but it doesn’t have to be an action scene, or a dramatic moment. Just something that makes me want to know more.

    1. I you haven’t read Far From The Madding Crowd, I warmly commend it to you. There is a wonderful cast of characters… the feisty, headstrong Bathsheba Everdene, feckless but charming Sergeant Troy, rigid pillar-of-the-establishment Farmer Boldwood and, of course, the solid, dependable rock of those exquisite opening lines, Gabriel Oak.

      I guess whether it drops you right into the action or simply foreshadows the story/crisis to come, there should be something in those opening few pages which signals what sort of a story it will be. In my first draft of Singled Out there was little in those first few pages which pointed to the psychological dimension in the story. Now, after several edits and – I think – some much-needed improvements, my first couple of pages points to what is to come. But it’s still not quite the high-impact opener that formula dictates. I think it’s sufficient, but others may disagree. I guess I’ll find out in the next few days and weeks, once a few readers take a chance with it.

    1. Emily, as I commented over on your blog, thank you so much for the reblog of this post! It’s turned out to be a lively debate, with plenty of commenting and much food for thought. It’s so kind of you to promote it to your readers. 🙂

  15. I long for the time to read and appreciate a slow book… It is wonderful to have those long lazy holidays in which to read deeper, atmospheric books. I wish there were more of them!… I must admit that when I am tired and busy, the shorter, easier reads are what I turn to for escape. But I love the broad canvas and subtlety of Far from the Madding Crowd and the like. Love it. I guess it depends very much on mood and time/energy/attention span available. Great post!

    1. Thank you! There’s a time and a place for every kind of book, but holidays in particular, give one the space to enjoy a deeper, more languid narrative. I wonder what you would make of mine. Singled Out is set on a singles holiday in Turkey, so there is a simmering, sultry aspect to it. But at its heart, there’s a dark and even sinister psychological story, which should keep readers turning those pages. I hope!

  16. It depends on my mood and how many books I need to get reviewed. I agree that most people today, especially younger people, are so accustomed to instant gratification that they aren’t willing to read take the time to let a book really soak in. I love to soak in a long, slow story, but I rarely have the time for that enjoyment.

    1. You’re right. Time is in very short supply for many people these days. So many of us read on-the-run, and I can quite understand that an ‘instant gratification’ story has a place here. But whatever happened to reading as a leisure activity, something to ‘treat yourself’ to… an hour with a cuppa and a good book? Surely here, there should be time to allow the words to play upon your mind and take their time to arouse your senses?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s