After reading the start of a few books quite recently I rejected them, but it was only after I rejected them that I started to realise that the reason I rejected them was because they weren’t conforming to the pattern. Therefore I wasn’t prepared to carry on reading them. Which was most unfair on the authors who had invested so much time in writing them.
So, what is the pattern?
It’s the habit many authors now have of hitting the reader between the eyes on page one of the book, with some sort of action scene, before dialling down the action to properly introduce the characters and develop the plot. They then pick up where the action left off and continue the story in a more linear fashion. I have to plead guilty with regards to my own books.
It doesn’t just apply to books that are action focused. Romances, too, sometimes start in the middle before returning to the beginning. So, has this always been the way books were written?
This allowed the author to develop their characters before launching them into their adventures. Who could imagine “Pride and Prejudice” being a success if we didn’t know all about Elizabeth Bennet’s personality from the very start?
If you think about the fairy stories of childhood, they always conformed to the beginning, middle and end pattern. We don’t first encounter Snow White breaking into the Seven Dwarves’ house,
Of course those stories are for children and a child’s unsophisticated mind couldn’t follow a story told any other way. But what we learn as children tends to stay with us for life. As we grow up the stories still follow the beginning, middle and end paradigm until we reach adulthood. Then mayhem ensues.
The problem with this sort of storytelling, of course, is that it takes time to introduce characters, explain who they are and what they are doing. I remember having been bored silly by “The Warden”, a novel by Anthony Trollope and considered to be a classic. The reason I was trying to read it was because it was a set book for my English Literature exams and I was supposed to be learning how to use language and how to tell a story properly.
Today Trollope’s book might never find a publisher, because it takes so long to get going (no great loss if you ask me). The same could be said of many other books that are regarded as classics.
Well, literary agents are partly to blame (or are they?). When an author wishes to submit a book to an agent in order to try to get a publishing deal, the first thing they do is go onto the agent’s website and read the submission guidelines. These are invariably the same. Submit no more than the first 10,000 words or the first 3 chapters. If the agent likes what they read they will ask for more. If not, they won’t. Even when it comes to publishers who accept submissions direct from authors, usually the word limit is still applied.
So that’s it guys and gals. If you can’t grab the agent’s attention in those 10,000 or so words your book will be rejected. So, in order to deal with that the author tries to inject some action into the first thousand words in the hope that the agent reads on. The result is that the middle of the book, or at least part of it, gets stuck in before the beginning.
However, is it really the agent’s fault? After all, isn’t the author making a rather big assumption about what the agent wants to read, and is tailoring their book on the basis of that assumption. Maybe the agent actually wants to see how the characters are developed and how the plot unfolds. Maybe that is why so many authors receive rejection letters. Maybe we are making our submissions based on a false assumption.
If you are an agent or publisher reading this, perhaps you’d like to comment.
But again are we, the authors, usurping the process by making the assumption that the reader won’t borrow or buy our book if we don’t hit them between the eyes on the very first page. It is said that the first line of a book must be an attention grabber. That’s fair enough, but that doesn’t mean that the author then has to launch into climactic action before the reader even knows who the characters are.
So, is it therefore not the reader’s fault that the whole nature of storytelling has changed? We expect instant gratification. We want the action to start on Page One, and if it doesn’t we put the book down and move on.
Thinking about this made me think about films and the way they now tell their stories. We are used to James Bond films, for example, where Bond is always in mortal combat with an enemy in the opening scenes of the film, well before the title music starts up. Other films also use this technique. So, maybe, in our minds, we have started to think that is how our stories should be told. We authors, too, are putting the action in before the metaphorical title music.
So, when an author goes back to the traditional beginning, middle and end format for writing, we think it a little bit odd. Is this what guided my decisions to reject certain books? Or is it just me?
I may have been rejecting masterpieces, simply because I didn’t have the patience to let the author tell the story properly.
I have had the same conversation with my wife when new TV dramas start up. It’s a bit boring, she’ll say, and my reply will be that we have to establish who everyone is first and how they connect together. Again, thinking of TV crime shows in particular, they often open up with a murder or a just a dead body and it takes the rest of the story to find out who the dead person really was, and all their little quirks and foibles which led them to being bumped off. Along the way we also find out about the police officers who are investigating the story, but not until after the body is found. Would I still watch the programme if it unfolded any other way?
I can hardly complain that a character is under developed if I won’t give the author time to develop him. I can’t complain about the plot being difficult to follow if I don’t give the author time to explain what is happening. This is particularly so when it comes to back story. It is like trying to tell the story of World War II without telling the reader who the Nazis were.
Will I be changing the way I write my own stories as a result of what I have deduced? I don’t know. I rather like hitting the reader between the eyes on Page One. I don’t do it in every book I have written, but I have to admit to doing it in the majority of them.
Judge for yourselves whether it is the right technique. Just click on the “books” tab at the top of this page to find out more.
And just to give you the opportunity to make that judgement, you can donwload this book for free up until midnight on 25th September 2016. http://tinyurl.com/hanpr2t