You hear it a lot in writing circles: “You have to start with an action scene or you won’t hook your audience,” “today’s reader has a short attention span so you have to keep your plot high-paced,” or how about “this generation is used to TV and movies – if your writing doesn’t compare you’ll lose them.”
I think what people want in a story depends on the individual reader, honestly, and I don’t think you can whitewash readers with a common “generation” paintbrush. I don’t believe it is necessary to open your story with Hollywood-esque explosions, a ridiculously fast car chase or a battle involving detailed and highly-precise martial arts moves. I grew up with TV and movies (I’m not *that* old) and despite my supposedly shortened attention-span I would much prefer to get to know characters before they are thrown into a big action scene. I mean, whatever happened to introductions? I will get much more out of an action event if I feel I know the characters and can relate to them. Otherwise it is all a lot of rather frivolous “flash” “whiz” “bang!” without much meaning or purpose. Who are these people and why should I care?
That being said, I still think action is a very important part of genre fiction, as is pacing, but just as with most writing advice out there, suggestions about action and pacing are seized up by the masses and in some cases taken to some pretty silly extremes. The true significance of the advice is lost on those who absorb it on a very superficial level and then regurgitate it by rote at every prompting. Yes, action and pacing are essential to the standard fantasy plot. The go-nowhere, do-nothing storyline might work for literary fiction but it doesn’t sit well with the typical genre reader. We want fireworks.
This doesn’t mean it has to be something constant, something blatant or something larger-than-life. People need time to learn, to absorb, to appreciate. And it doesn’t have to mean you need to jar me out of my seat from word one either. A good story-teller will offer events at various points in the story that notably drive the plot, things that will motivate the characters in some manner, be they obvious or subtle, and occurrences that will move readers in a powerful way – that is true. But when you watch a fireworks display, do they start with their biggest “booms!” or do they start small and build-up to the crescendo at the end?
There’s a reason for that. It’s a matter of psychology and expectations.
I can honestly say I’ve been disappointed with a surprising number of novels from larger publishers lately, and in particular, with their endings. It seems backwards to me when all of these books start with a powerful thrust, going for that “hook” effect, and end with what can best be described as a fizzle. They often fail to build suspense and they often prove to be anti-climactic. I don’t remember running into nearly as many books like that in my younger years, nor do I see that problem as much in indie books, where writers have more freedom to write things their own way, rather than adhere to industry-accepted norms.
My son, who is autistic, loves fireworks. We were watching some the other night and just the first few little pops and flashes were enough to rev up his excitement. Normally, he keeps to himself on many levels, but as soon as he knows something is coming, something bigger and better as the display progresses, he is so filled with anticipation that without prompting he’ll turn to me and say “it’s pretty” or “beautiful flowers” (his own personal description of fireworks since he was four.) He doesn’t talk a lot and usually what he says involves requests rather than sharing observations, so when he is inspired to communicate this way, it must really mean something to him – even if the intro isn’t some massive, brilliant hook.
When the show is done, he seems pretty satisfied because the display built up to something special. That’s pretty impressive when it comes from someone who runs on impulse and who doesn’t cope well with transitions. He knows it is over – it feels over – and he gets to walk away with the best of it still lingering in his memories.
So what do I want as a fantasy reader? Give me a story with substance, clarity and an ending that takes my breath away and stop focussing on some grandiose opening to “hook” me. I’m not a fish and I don’t get hooked by some flashy beginning bait. I run deeper than that.
Show me fireworks.