Beginning Against the Grain

It seems like so many authors are striving to make their novel read like a television episode these days.

There was once a time when novels were made into shortened versions for television or movies that hit on the highlights of the book. Now books seem so tightened that they read like a television episode. Editors are queuing books to read like every other book.

Call me a rebel, but I am not sure if I like this change in literature. There seems to be so much lost in it.

Classics were often written with vast amounts of exposition that made us reflect over politics and the nature of humankind. Now there are forced action scenes and dialog on every page.

I have heard some editors tell authors that we must cater to an ADD/ADHD society that has a short attention span. Probably the result of copious amounts of television.

Rising action, climax, falling, and a resolution…over and over again take precedence over having any exposition at all. Start it moving and keep it moving. We have loped off the beginning of our books trying to be like all the other books.

plot

“Jane Eyre”, “The Grapes of Wrath”, “To Kill a Mockingbird”, “A Tale of Two Cities”…just a few of my favorites. There are things the authors did that you don’t see often in popular fiction.

I have read a few quick crime novels and romance novels in the past few months. I honestly did not like them well enough to offer a review. Important elements in the initial situations were missing. The action started before I could care about the characters or their life situations.

Initial Situation

i: Characters: Who are the central characters?  What do they aspire to?
ii. Setting: Where/when do the characters live? Does the setting contribute to the narrative?
iii. Conflicts: What are the challenges facing the protagonist(s)? What are the conflict(s) that he or she (or they) will have to overcome?

The beginning is often called the introduction or exposition. By establishing the characters, setting and initial conflicts, the beginning “sets the scene” for the rest of the narrative. Dickens’ famous opening line in A Tale of Two Cities, “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times,” is a classic piece of exposition that helps establish the social and political background of the novel.

Dicken’s set the theme with one sentence. I am not asking for three chapters (though sometimes that is actually nice IMHO), but at least give me that much.

I don’t like the direction contemporary literature seems to be going. It is the vast quantity that sells. The mass marketing television episodes of genre fiction.

I watch very little television for a reason. Give me something interesting to read, not a carbon copy of every other novel out there.

46 thoughts on “Beginning Against the Grain

  1. I wonder if it’s not so much television, but the ease at how people can get anything. You no longer have to wait for your favorite show because you can DVR it or stream it. Fast food is everywhere. Email has replaced snail mail. Cellular phones have replaced home phones with answering machines. The world has really become one where you don’t have to worry about missing something because everything is at your fingertips. So people don’t have the level of patience that they used to. Heck, even ketchup bottles are squeezable, so you don’t have to wait for it to drip out of the bottle.

    • Great analogies. Our rushed world. The expectation of a quick fix. It is like going to the doctor and expecting a pill that will instantly cure all.

      I have always enjoyed leisurely reading most. I want some deep and thought provoking substance to a read. Everything popular just seems so superficial. Our society has become that way as well. Quick to act, slow to think.

    • I don’t expect the sloppy rambling diatribe that I had in my first chapter…honestly…that whole thing could have been deleted had I had a good editor to start. I do think many editors overdo the tightening trying to achieve conciseness and clarity. Sometimes to the point of eliminating the marrow of structure.

  2. I’m with you, and have blogged about it once or twice. I need to get to know the character before I root for them. They need to move around in something that isn’t a white room. Then I can cheer for them.

    Do you think the self publishing wave will change some of this? In other words the readers only got what the big publishers sent out and nothing else. Now that there are options do you think it will change on a larger scale? We’ve already seen that short stories are finding a market once more.

    • The white room syndrome, yes, that’s a good way to describe it.

      I am not certain if if self publishing is resolving the issue or making it worse. It is more a popular way of editing. Many are following the writer/editor blogger’s fast hard rules for writing and that is part of where the dribble is coming from.

      I do think self-publishing offers the opportunity for us to see more creative work out there besides the formulaic template novels. Whether that opportunity is utilized or not remains to be seen. Often, writers are following suit on formulaic styles because that is the (pardon me) crap that seems to sell.

  3. The Grapes of Wrath is a great example for this post. You have to establish the antagonistic setting before you can understand the catalyst behind the move across the nation. Without that lengthy description in the beginning, you lose the depth of the conflict.

    • Exactly. I was reading a contemporary romance novel. It is not my genre of choice. There is a romance in the book I am writing and I wanted to get a feel for how contemporary writers are doing this.

      The book started off in the midst of two people breaking up. They were in an argument through dialog. There was no reason for me to care one way or the other about either character. Frankly, I never had enough information about the protagonist to care about her throughout the whole drama of the entire book.

      I picked up another one that had many stellar reviews. There was so much angst from drinking escapades that it seemed a book about an alcoholic woman out of control more than a romance. She was drinking something or crying about the places drinking took her on almost every page. Never could get into that. I also never knew what city she was in…even which country. The setting was an office and it seemed a lot of office gossip and cat fighting. The romance seemed more like sexual harassment in a work setting. People were into each other’s business. Again, there was just no reason to care, except hope she got help, which never happened.

  4. I was in a writing workshop last Friday and your diagram above is almost verbatim what we were told – the first few pages had to grab the readers attention, or the majority of them would put down the book. I agree with you – I just finished a book where I never really connected with the MC because I didn’t feel like I knew her.

    • I agree with the first few pages being the hook, something in it has to compel us to read further, but does it have to be a shoot out, a bombing, a fight? I would like to know the who, when and where before all this other stuff goes down and there is a current trend not to give you that, but to slowly fill in the history and back story…which many forget to do. Then I am left bewildered as to why all this action was going on in the first place. I don’t want an information dump, but would like a few clues.

      • If you want to see an information dump at the beginning of a novel, read Louisa May Alcott’s “Little Men.” So unlike “Little Women.”

        • I’ll pass. I enjoyed “Little Women”.

          I have rewritten my first chapter to lose some of the back story and history, but I can’t see cutting it all out. I presented it to my writers’ group with it all cut and they said the same thing I thought. There was a scene where the characters faced a conflict but no reason to care what happened. I did not like that so I put some of it back.

          I just read a couple of romances. One started in the midst of an argument between two people, and I could have cared less. Throughout the book, there was tension and angst between the protagonist, another woman, and her lover. There had never really been any reason to care about any of them. At the end of the book, I still had no reason to care.

  5. I’m one of those readers who prefers action and dialogue. Too much introspection, and my mind starts to wander. That being said, I need to care about the characters first and foremost, and I do want the author to invest some time developing them. But I think characters can be developed even in the absence of long bits of exposition.

    If you read some of Stephen King’s earlier work, it’s amazing how much time he was allowed by his editors to build up the story. “The Shining” actually takes several chapters before the reader gets to the goods. This is mostly character development, and by the time King dumps us in the scary hotel, we are wholly invested in the characters. Sadly, a newbie author who tried to do this today would likely be met with an agent’s rejection. We have to hook the reader from the get-go and work in our character development as we go.

    Wonderful topic!

    • Love what you shared here. Now I did love The Shining, but it wasn’t my favorite work by King (Pet Semetary got me).I want to see the action and dialog, but I need the other content as well. At least tell me who, what, when, where. Then tell me how, and what else.

  6. I’m with you all the way, Susan. Especially when it comes to my favorite genre, historical fiction, I don’t believe we can rely on the reader’s being so familiar with the social, cultural and political situation as to not need at least some introduction and exposition to set the stage. But even for fantasy, one needs to portray the actual world the characters inhabit for us to understand how they relate to it and each other within it.

    • So true. I loved Ursula K. Le Guin in my teens. I don’t recall her books starting in the midst of an action scene, but she did world building first.

      Presently, I am reading a beautiful romance set in Sydney, Australia. The author started off with a very complex dream that inspires her protagonist’s artwork, her paintings. The protagonist has met a writer who is married, and not unhappy, but not happy. I needed all of that. The language in this work is archaically artistic, which drives the character development. It is complex, and I am having to read it slowly to savor the prose. The author is contemporary and self-published. I am loving this, but I wonder if she would have found a traditional publisher in today’s climate.

  7. A balance really needs to be made between introducing ‘normal’ and getting to the jumping off point. Most films begin with an ‘establishing shot’, a panorama of a setting or space, introducing the mood of the overall story, and hinting at the history of the main character. A book can pull this off, if there is an underlying tension in the description.

    • I can appreciate that. I have read some some really good books that do start with some immediacy to the action, and caught the reader up later. But I have not fallen in love with them.

  8. I wholeheartedly agree. I have heard the same things said and I discuss it with my husband who is a screenwriter all the time. I have even cited Dickens in some discussions and have heard the response that Dickens would never make it in today’s world. I have heard words like “episodic” and “exposition’ used with such scorn and have been a little scared to say in certain company that sometimes I like those things in my reading…and my writing. There…I felt safe to whisper it here. Thanks 🙂

    • Ha! You can whisper here any time. We don’t bite. I keep hearing the classic writers would never make it in today’s world. I guess not depending on the market. There are a significant number of baby boomers out there beginning to retire and they complain that there is nothing fit to read on the market. Now they have the time to read. When they are hooked up with ereaders, which they are fast becoming. This market trend could change.

  9. I haven’t noticed the trend you mentioned, but I can see where it is probably true in some of the strict genre books you mention. I, too, like to savor the prose. I think it really depends on the book–it can begin with action or exposition–as long as it’s interesting, I don’t care. 🙂 I agree though that I have to care about the characters–and that is true for TV and movies, too. In the show, Call the Midwife, for example, in every episode there is probably some crisis, there are births, and there are good and bad things–the way things happen in life. (The exposition–maybe from the actual memoir?– is done through voice overs at the beginning and end.) But none of it would matter, if you didn’t care about the characters, who are portrayed with such fine acting.

    • I whoeheartedly agree about caring for the characters. I have not watched that show. In reading. I can find the gems, I just really have to look for them. Much historical fiction and literary fiction is written like I enjoy, but a lot of the best sellers are not.

  10. Interesting article and good points. I can understand why books are moving the way they are, people have less time to read with hectic schedules, and people have just grown used to being able to get through something quicker and instant 🙂

    • OOps! Your comment got caught in spam! I really was not ignoring you.

      I agree. It seems popular readers want it fast and short. Even the novella is making a comeback because of this. Not having to go through a traditional publisher makes it easier to get those out there also. Lucky for us!

  11. I started writing novels for the very reason you talk about. I was tired of short, well-written books that didn’t leave me feeling anything for the characters. Despite all of the new rules I like back story and even flashbacks. I want to be totally in a character’s world and stay there for a while. I don’t like cheap thrills–I guess that’s why I’m writing a series.

    • That’s good to know. Despite the new rules. Two of my favorite reads this past year were Sarah Cradit’s St. Charles at Dusk and Patrick O’Bryon’s Corridor of Darkness. Both are indies that used analepsis, or flashbacks, very well.

      I am not rushing my writing. I tried that without any success. If it turns into a series, I won’t publish one until all of them are ready.

      • I had no plans to do a series. My first book is a stand alone–but then the supporting cast of characters intrigued me and the next four (so far) are mainly about the same people–Buck Crenshaw being the glue.

        I’m doing it for fun–I’m obsessed with Buck’s life and his sister is now really coming into her own as a very flawed woman. I know basically where I want it all to end but I’m not sure how we’ll end up there 🙂

        I love the idea of designing the covers for a series.

        • Fun! See…that’s the ONLY reason to write. 🙂

          Designing covers for a series would be way cool, I think. I do know I want all the books written before the first is published, so I can put them out one after another. As a reader, I really hate to read book one and have to wait for the subsequent books.

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