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 contemplation 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?