Slow Beginnings …

by K C Maguire

My nine year old son said to me the other day that while he loves reading (and I know he reads well above his age level so he’s serious about reading), he finds it difficult to start reading a new book. He hates the way that he has to focus on how the characters and story develop before he can immerse himself in it as a reader. I suppose this is the impetus for all those children’s writing workshop sessions where the instructor tells the wannabe writers to always start with a bang (although perhaps not literally an explosion). It’s certainly true that in order to grab the attention of agents and editors the first paragraph, heck even the first line, has to be so arresting the reader can’t put it down. Agents and editors are working their way through digital slush piles that are larger than ever because of the ease of submitting digitally and the fact that so many people want to write. In fact, I managed to enroll myself in an entire 10 week course in crafting strong beginnings in children’s fiction.

But my son’s words started me thinking about the demographics of the readers and their interests. It may be true that it’s not only agents and editors who need a snappy and engaging opening. It might be that the younger readers too want stuff happening really quickly in order to engage with the book. The generation that spends its time on computers and watches endless videos, movies and immersive video games may be so used to the instant gratification of total and immediate immersion in the world of the movie or game that they require the same in a book. While generations who were not so acclimated to immediate immersion in the story might have been willing to spend more time getting to know the characters and their situations, today’s readers may be too impatient for that.

I’m wondering how books like “To Kill A Mockingbird” would fare (or actually do fare) in the hands of today’s younger readers? I’m also interested in what opportunities are lost when readers want stuff to happen so quickly in books to the detriment of intricate settings and slow character development? Is there anything intrinsically better about books that are faster paced or has it simply become a cultural expectation? Of course, I can think of plenty examples of short books where the action is immediate and the pace is fast, but there is also intricate plotting and character development. A recent (horrific) fave in this respect is “House of Stairs” by William Sleator. And there are many popular books for grown-ups that still have slow starts and intricate plot and character development. Did I mention the “Game of Thrones” books for example? But it may be telling that high fantasy is not so popular amongst younger readers because it relies on slower paced and more intricate plot and character development, although of course there are exceptions to every rule: for example, Cinda Williams Chima’s “Seven Realms” series and Morgan Rhodes’ “Falling Kingdoms” series.

I’m really interested in folks’ thoughts on what we gain and what we lose with our obsession on fast paced children’s narratives with snappy openings, and whether there are some genres that lose out more than others.

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