Monday, August 26, 2013

Long beginnings for great stories

Worn binding, yellowed pages... I'd say
30 pages until the story actually begins.
(Public domain image, found here)
Books today start a little differently than books written twenty, thirty, fifty years ago. 

It used to be that writers would pour a few chapters into a book that described the scenery, the background of the main characters, the slow and gradual rise of the villain into power.

These days books seem to start right in the action, or have short setups. Backstory? It's provided in tidbits, here and there, as needed.

Some people call this tragic; others call it progress. Me? I call it a change in writing styles.

One of my all-time favorite books is The Blue Sword, by Robin McKinley. Published in 1982, it's one of the fantasy classics. But it takes a good two chapters before the story really begins, and only in my post-college years did I learn to love those first two chapters. The gradual story building wouldn't fly with most readers today.

On the other hand, Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell well exceeds that. If you ever pick up this book, be prepared to spend 100 pages being bored... and the next 800 pinned to your chair with one of the most enchanting adventures you've ever read.Yet it was published in the recent 2004.

The Blue Sword get a special license for a slow beginning. It was published in a decade where that was the norm, and readers expect a slow beginning. But Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell proves that people are still willing to read through books with a slow start, are still willing to work to get to the meat of a story worth reading. On the whole, reader tastes have changed towards a shorter opening, but yet here's a book that proves the stereotype that today's readers won't read long beginnings wrong.

The most important detail is to write a great story. But if someone hadn't strongly recommended Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell to me, if a teacher hadn't required me to pick up The Hero and the Crown (the prequel to The Blue Sword), I'd have never gotten through them. I'm very glad I did, but the slow beginning does make an impact when readers have literally millions of books to choose from (if not more...)

So maybe it's best practice to have a rapid beginning to your story, and get right to the action. It's certainly easier to become traditionally published via this method. But maybe it's just another shift in writing styles, and maybe it's less a shift of readers' tastes as it is publishing trends. I'll be curious to see in fifteen years if the majority of the best-selling books have slow beginnings or quick ones, if prologues make a comeback, if styles change wildly without gatekeepers to say who is and is not allowed on the shelves.

Do you think slower beginnings and other classic structures of classic books will make a comeback with the rise of self-publishing? Or are the days of the two-chapter world setup gone? I was never a fan of them (I skipped more prologues than I read!), yet I know others like them.

Do you mind a slow beginning to a book? Do you think they'll be become more popular in the next ten to fifteen years, or are the days of best-selling books with slow beginnings gone for good?


  1. I enjoy prologues. As far as I'm concerned, the definition of "prologue" is "background info you should know to get you off the ground and put the world in context".
    I don't enjoy long, slow beginnings that I'm unprepared for. If I've been told going in that there's a slow beginning which picks up and makes it all worthwhile, I'm willing to sit back and wait. Otherwise I go in expecting story and could theoretically choose not to finish a book because I don't have enough time on my hands to waste reading what I would assume to be a book completely filled with slow, boring stuff.

    1. Same here on slow beginnings: If I'm forewarned, I don't mind them, but on the whole I'm less likely to keep reading if I'm not expecting it, and for exactly the same reason: who's got time for it?