I read a column not long ago in which a couple of authors suggested they would be willing to change their approach to how they begin their stories in order to more effectively cater to today’s reader. That is, one with the attention span of a goldfish. Or a teenager. I found this intriguing. As I understand it, people have so little time and so many ways to kill their brain cells, erm, entertain themselves (Real Housewives! Candy Crush! Thursday Night Football!) that writers should thusly grab their attention by the short hairs in the first few paragraphs. No matter what. Otherwise, your readers will switch over to watching Seinfield reruns on Hulu or go back to raiding villages in Clash of Clans. Or something. I understand the point. On a tablet or smart phone, that’s just a couple of screen touches and swipes. (With an actual book, of course, it’s harder to calculate the actual number of touches and swipes.)
If a reader says, “It took me 73 pages to get into it, but once I did, it was really good,” is that a bad thing? (And why 73 pages, Blair?)
When I first read War and Peace, it took me about 100 pages just to sort out the Count Rostovs from the Count Choculas. One reason is because it was an older (okay, “free”) translation. Also, I was probably eating a lot of cereal around that time. Of course, War and Peace is an epic work. I mean that in the literary sense. Actually, it’s kind of epic in the vernacular as well: “Duuuuude, that book is totally epiiiiiiic.” At the crux of this is the question of who you are writing for. (Yes, I left that preposition stranded. We need to stop coddling prepositions. Just because they tend to be short doesn’t mean they can’t fend for themselves. Leave them on their own once in a while. Or awhile. I should really get a copy editor. ) You or your audience. And if your audience, who is your audience? And what do they want?
Do you need smash bang in media res opening paragraphs that propel your readers through the entire story before they can remember to check their Facebook status or answer Susie’s text? And if you don’t, have you lost them forever?
My audience, if there ever is one, is going to have to wait sometimes to become immersed in my novel. Because not all stories have to punch you in the face in the first few paragraphs.
I think it’s probably smart to keep an audience in mind when writing. If you’re authoring a children’s book, it’s probably best to leave out graphic violence, the sex, and the profanity. (Just saying.) If you’re writing a romance novel, it should probably have some content that your readers will find, um, well, romantic. And of course, some stories should grab you by the collar from the first sentence and never let go until the final exclamation point.
As for consciously starting every book with an action shot? That I can’t do. My audience, if there ever is one, is going to have to wait sometimes to become immersed in my novel. Because not all stories have to punch you in the face in the first few paragraphs. Some stories are better when they woo you—teasing and whispering and hinting at things to come. Other stories need time to breathe. And some just need to sneak up on you and smack you in the head when you least expect it.
That approach could reduce a writer’s potential readership. That’s okay by me. I would rather have a small audience that trusts me enough to go along for the ride than a giant audience that only likes me because I give them what I think they want.