Is Fast Paced Always Good?

First, let me emphasize that I liked the beginning of Graceling.  In fact, I wrote an entire entry explaining why I liked it. So this is not about what Graceling did right or wrong,  but rather the tradeoffs we make when going from one set of storytelling conventions to the other.

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 I told him that many classics would not be published in today's market.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 Stephenie Meyer Harry Potter the latest Newbury winner***.

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.


  1. While I understand the need for hooking the reader from the beginning, I believe that there is often a way to do that without plunging us immediately into the action. Some narrative, particularly internal thought leading up to the introductory action, can be a good thing. I don't think anyone in today's market will go for 30 pages of that, though. LOL. But perhaps a writer, if the writing is strong enough, could get away with a page or two of it. Just a thought.

  2. This is something that my crit group often discusses - jumping in in the middle of a fight doesn't let you get to know or care about the characters before they face a life or death crisis.

    I found it difficult to get into Graceling for that reason - I didn't "get" why she was having so much trouble. If she didn't want to kill this guy, don't kill him.

    What if her change started a little earlier? Her uncle praising her for killing someone and she realizes that she doesn't agree with him - she should be ashamed, not proud. That would give us background and still be at that turning point.

    The best bit of opening advice I'd ever gotten was "Start the story the day the world changes." To me, that doesn't mean the moment it changes, but it changes not much beyond the opening.

  3. The answer, as in everything artistic, is "it depends." You're reading YA with an adult eye and a writer's critical faculties (and a neuroscientist's... well, whatever neuroscientists have that other people don't--small white brains used as bookmarks?). The teens who make up Graceling's target audience won't care about that kind of stuff. It's only when you compare the book across genres that a lack might be perceived.

    It could be that your feeling might be mitigated by a mere one or two flashbacks, or perhaps a bit more tortured angst on the part of Katsa as a result of her past. Often it doesn't take much to add that extra depth to a novel.

  4. Excellent point, indeed. But I wonder, though if it applies as well to YA literature. This is actually something that has cursed my efforts with YA. I often hesitate to begin with the point of change because it seems to lose impact when that point is not preceeded by some background that engages the readers, forcing the readers to invest themselves emotionally in the protagonist first. But a YA audience can be difficult to hook unless you begin with that point of change (possibly because that is the point where they are in their lives?) It's quite the conundrum, and I'm sure I will continue to struggle with it. But I'm glad to know that you enjoyed Graceling despite this setback (which may or may not be attributed to the genre itself). I do wonder what might have helped to alleviate this sense that something was lacking. I wish I knew as I'm dealing with this now, trying to decide whether to cut the first chapter of my ms so that it begins with the point of change (well, that's one of the debates, anyway). I'm intrigued that I should have come across your post today of all days.

  5. Simon and Carolina - you both bring up the good point that storytelling conventions reflect the target audience. There's a reason stories have to be fast paced now -- I blame TV and the internets. I find the tradeoff between tension and "reflection time" to be interesting (or perhaps it doesn't have to be the tradeoff?)

  6. I don't necessarily think we're losing part of the story. Just because you start before the main conflict doesn't mean you have to be boring. The real question is whether that material adds to the overall arc and themes of the story, or whether it's just filler.

    In fact a good story should allow room to escalate the tension. Start high, but not at the top, then go up a notch, then you can take a breather. End with a bang. Like a good rock concert.

    But that doesn't mean you have to leave out necessary and relevant details, nor to go on for 30 pages about padding that doesn't even matter to the story.


  7. I've long been an advocate of starting a story at the earlier, no later. It's tough to find that place, especially as "grab them by the throat and pull em' in" has become increasingly insisted upon. Too often it seems that stories have to start where the first act ends--any details we need will be filled in with necessary exposition and flashbacks later.

    Maybe I'm just ancient-school. I appreciate an economical set-up. I like the writer letting me know about the ordinary world before we turn it upside down. (I do appreciate that it's focused on a main character or plot line instead of something tangential, but that's a matter of taste.)

  8. I always enjoy reading your thoughts... I'm not sure what the right answer is, but I'm fairly confident that you could have a gripping opening but still start quite a way before the main change in the character. There are other ways to pull people in.

  9. I love a lot of older books with slower beginnings. I usually give a book 50 pages to decide if I like it, so I don't mind slow as long as I'm in the mood for it :)

  10. Good post. I'm debating myself over this in my current WIP. I start with a quick prologue that's full of mayhem...but ignoring that, the story "starts" when my FMC has made a decision. A decision that is not popular. I don't get into why she made that decision, because I figure the reader would be hooked with wanting to know the reasons. So I don't bore the reader with the agonizing over the decision, and the reader is left to figure it out themselves or guess.
    So I agree with what Graceling did (tho I haven't read it). Start at a moment of irreversible change, but not at the Inciting Incident, which is essentially the real, important consequences of the initial change.

  11. There are a lot of questions here.

    Would my experience as a reader have been different if Graceling had been written under a different set of expectations for plotting and pace?

    Yes. Any change to a novel results in a different reading experience, though it's not necessarily a big one. It's a bit like choosing an egg salad sandwich instead of a roasted eggplant one - they're both lunch, they both have protein, they both sate hunger, but they taste completely different.

    That said, there are many popular modern slice-of-life novels. Character-driven books aren't necessarily fast-paced, but they can be just as satisfying. Good examples are issues books (Dreamland, Sarah Dessen, Thirteen Reasons Why, Jay Asher) or belonging books (Dark Dude, Oscar Hijuelos, Looking for Alibrandi, Melina Marchetta and, of course, Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye.).

    Character-driven books and fast-pacing aren’t mutually exclusive - there's a fair bit of action in Kaimira: Sky Village, but I still think of it as character-driven. We spend a fair chunk of page-time learning about the characters’ backgrounds (though not the world’s history) before the moment of transformation. Of course, it helps that in KSV, the transformations are physical but gradual. S.E. Hinton’s The Outsiders is an excellent example of a novel that burns the candle at both ends.

    What do you think? Are we losing out on parts of the story because of the fast paced modern novel?

    I’m not sure about this. I am a fan of slower novels - I don’t mind investing time in a character, especially a likeable one. This is part of the reason I prefer books to television; I like getting to know a character piecemeal.

    Graceling could have been started at an earlier point in Katsa’s story, but it would be a vastly different book (Fire is a more thoughtful book, perhaps too much so). I think the key is not so much that teens are unwilling to read the lead up to a transformation as they are less likely to relate to it. A teenager’s whole life has been spent leading up to the penultimate transformation--the shift from child to young adult. While most teens aren’t dealing with a Grace, they know what it’s like to not fit in, to feel used or unappreciated &c. - it’s part of the adolescent condition. Asking them to read Katsa’s backstory is almost like asking them to watch home movies, or listen (again) to a story about the time they did x,y, and z.

    Fairy tales also do this - we, the reader, are often told little about the main character. Sure, we know she’s a princess, or he’s a woodcutter’s son with an evil stepmother. Sure, we know they’re rich/poor, happy/unhappy. We’re rarely told about the years leading up to the story; many fairy tales don’t have character names. Why? Because this is extraneous information--the change, the journey, is the important part. Fairy tales are for the every man, the every woman. I am always the princess/woodcutter’s son/dwarf with a chip on his shoulder. Names and details are distracting.

    What about books with a clear evolution of character, a book that begins before transformation? For me, the easiest, most accessible example Pride & Prejudice (Austen always comes to mind--she is a force all her own). It’s true that we spend time with Lizzie before her transformation, but, more importantly, we spend time learning how to put her (and Darcy’s) transformation into context. Without a grounding in social mores, Lizzie’s character growth falls flat and the book lacks purpose. This is also true of Wilde plays, even Shelley’s Frankenstein. These authors, however, are skilled enough to give us all the information we need in an unobtrusive way. Reading about the Bennets feels much like chatting to a friend over coffee; following Frankenstein’s monster is almost like being lost ourselves.

  12. Sorry for the length of the above! I didn't realize how long it was until I posted!

  13. Haha, you've got an essay here, Peta. Nice thoughts. :-)

    Interesting that you think of Sky Village as character driven. I thought of Breaker's story as plot driven (getting Riley back), and Mei's as either plot driven or discovery driven (yes, my own category -- finding out about the balloon village). But perhaps the reason I was frustrated with the Mei story is that it was supposed to be character driven, and I didn't find the character evolution convincing.

    Graceling would definitely have been different if it had started earlier. I think it would have been difficult, because you would be asking the reader to invest and identify in a somewhat weak character, who's doing horrible things because her uncle tells you to. It can probably be done, but would be harder to pull off, and would probably turn some readers off.

  14. This is such an interesting question, and one I've been struggling with as my current WIP could start in 10 different places. I tried starting with the first point of no return but no matter how I wrote it it was too confusing. So I'm setting up a tantalising mystery beforehand, and now it's got somewhere to go. Great post - am off to tweet!

  15. I think one thing we have to admit is that while, yes, many readers and agents prefer and expect the fast-paced beginning you describe, and they will toss a manuscript that has a slower beginning, this toss is not always a function of the beginning itself but the author's name on the manuscript. Le'ts be honest here: a lot of these Forbidden things only apply to those who have not sold a book before. Published authors, at least some of them, have the luxury to write the beginning they think their book needs. Would if that were true for all writers. Books would be better for it. I think agents and readers can afford to be a little less snippy, a lot less despotic, and far more willing to find out what the story is the book is telling and why it's told that way before simply giving up on it. Just because the author's name is not familiar is no reason to assume the author doesn't know what he or she is doing.

  16. Essay makes it sound coherent! I just wrote a blog post based on this -

    I see Breaker's story as a direct result of character issues - his attitudes toward his father, and his wanting to protect Riley are what push the events forward. KSV straddles the line between the two, but I still file it on the character side.

    I think Mei's issues are that the authors depend too much on the physicality of everything - it's easy, and it's easier for the audience.

    I'm not sure that Katsa would be a weaker character if Graceling started earlier. I think she'd be more "normal" - most teens are following orders, really--and that's potentially boring. Thinking about it, I wonder if a longer beginning etc. would make the book more like Gail Carson Levine's "Fairest". It's been quite a while since I read that (and I didn't really like it), but I remember there being a lot of time spent on set up.

  17. Novelists of past eras--when the slushpile was smaller and writers didn't understand HOW to write novels as well, something I wrote about on my blog some while back: --did, as you say, often open WAAAAAY before the story really starts.

    Nobody puts up with that anymore, and IMHO, with good reason. I'm right with you; I can't slog my way through the openings of Les Mis, Moby Dick, the Cranford Chronicles, or any of that stuff long enough to get to where anything happens. Once in a while I try, but I always regret it.

    That said, I don't think this is so much about the conventions of a different age.

    The problems with writers in bygone eras was that they didn't understand how to create a compelling opening scene. They didn't know how to write a hook at all. And their readers didn't know to expect one.

    The problem with a book like Graceling isn't that the author decided to open with the character at a moment of change. The problem is that the author opened the story too late. As you say, there wasn't time to know the character well enough to _appreciate_ what she was going through at that moment of change.

    The challenge in today's world of novel writing is not to open at a moment of change, but rather, to open with a compelling hook.

    There's a million ways to do that, moments of change being merely one such.

    The author could very well have opened earlier, at a moment of _conflict_ or _challenge_, rather than one of change. We could, for example, have first seen Katsa during a scene where she does bump someone off, then goes home proud of a job well done to receive praise from her uncle. There could have been some sort of complications along the way such that she almost gets caught, the mark almost gets away, whatever.

    One could just as well spin an opening hook out of that as from the moment of change. The challenge--and my off the cuff guess is that this is why the author DIDN'T open this way--is that it's harder to get the reader to be sympathetic with a main character who is an (as yet) unrepentant killer.

    Not impossible, just harder. Had the author found a way to make us care about Katsa despite her repugnant job, then we could have had a great hook as well as the opportunity to later appreciate that critical moment of change more fully.

    Ah well. What might have been. The point is, these days you have to have a hook. Only, there's lots of different bait you can put on it.

  18. Jason --
    Thanks for your thoughts. I'll still have to disagree with you on the societal conventions thing. I've just seen too much evidence of culture affecting how people think to believe that one style of storytelling is objectively better for people of all cultures and backgrounds. Even in the 21st century you can find individuals from the same culture who differ wildly in their preferences.

    I do agree with you that the reason Graceling probably doesn't start earlier is because of the character sympathy aspect. I touched on that in my other post about Graceling's beginning but didn't here.

    Graceling's an imperfect example and it may have been a bad idea to write this post with only one book as an example, because you can always find a way to fix one book. I'm interested, though, in general trends, and whether or not there is a generalizable effect of pacing and where the story begins.

  19. Guess I always say this, but as long as the writer convinces me, I'm along for the ride, whatever it is and how ever it is presented . .. :)