A while ago, I wrote a guest post at Guide to Literary Agents on seven reasons agents stop reading your first chapter. Reason number 2 was "slow beginnings." Some manuscripts start with too much pedestrian detail and unnecessary background information, losing the reader.
Upon reading the article, my husband (astronomer and literary snob J. Blackburne) asked me, “But what about all the old classics that begin really slowly?” I told him that many classics would not be published in today's market. He said that was dumb. I said he was dumb. And we continued with dinner preparations.*
That discussion didn't bother me that much. While I do enjoy some classics, and while I appreciate the literary value of all of them in principle, when I actually sit down and try to slog my way through 30+ introductory pages about a clergyman who isn't even a main character**, I get impatient and reach for
It wasn't until I started thinking about Graceling for my blog that the conversation came back to mind. Graceling’s beginning is well done in the modern sense. It begins with action at a point of change, grabbing the reader and engaging them right away.
The book is about Katsa, a girl graced with an ability to kill, who grew up as a thug for the King because of her deadly talent. The narrative opens at a point of change, as Katsa begins to realize she doesn’t have to be under her uncle’s control. A major character arc involves her gradual realization that she’s not the savage she always thought, but someone who can choose to do good.
While I appreciated this change in Katsa, I don’t think I experienced it to its full potential. Why? Because the story started with Katsa at the point of change. When I met Katsa, she was already making her first steps of rebellion against her uncle. With the exception of a few flashbacks, I never saw those years when she was doing his dirty work, torturing and killing people. Therefore, when she wondered whether her past crimes made her a monster, my reaction was, “What are you talking about? I’ve only seen you perform good and heroic acts.”
Would my experience as a reader have been different if Graceling had been written under a different set of expectations for plotting and pace? What if it had been written in an era where it was okay to just spend time with the character without advancing the plot? Could I have met her earlier, and thus appreciated her transformation more?
What do you think? Are we losing out on parts of the story because of the fast paced modern novel?
*As you can tell, we're madly in love.
**I know, I know, it's really good. I'll try again to read it at some point...
*** Don't judge me.