Thursday, March 31, 2011

Instant Gratification: The Current Trend in Introduction

My kids and I were eight chapters into reading To Kill A Mockingbird (so we can see the OSF production of it this spring), when sixth-grade Daney groaned, "What is this book about, anyway? There is no plot, there is no conflict."

She was right.

Harper Lee took her sweet Southern time aquainting her readers with Scout's tiny life in Maycomb County: her admiration for her older brother, Jem; her relationships with summer visitor, Dill; the ladyfolk; the ghostly man-child, Boo Radley; her father.

We get the hot, dry dust, the simple-minded, struggling townspeople.

But it's not until page 85 when conflict rips us from the slow days of Scout's scounting about, and throws us into the political upheaval that becomes the essence of the book.

"This is like Dracula," Dominic (13) agreed. (He's reading the 500-word tome for his spring book report.) "It didn't get good until page 300, when stuff started happening."

"What did Bram Stoker write in the 300 pages of 'nothing?'" I'd asked.

"Setting," Dominic said. "And setting. And setting. He took a long time setting it up."

So right now, my kids are seeped in two worlds: in 1930s Alabama, and 19th Century Transylvania. And though they're finally capitivated, it cost a lot of hearing them complain in getting them here.

We writers could never do this today. We could never "waste" a third of our stories on establishing setting. The present trend is to drop blood, or mystery, or vengance, or some kind of conflict right on page one.

What does that mean?

What are we missing out on?

3 comments:

Ru said...

While I agree it would basically be impossible for most American writers today to spend so much time laying the scene, it's kind of a shame, since we can generally agree books like To Kill a Mockingbird and Dracula remain classics and even impatient modern readers tend to love them once they're done. It's almost like modern publishing is denying a formula that for the most part still works.

That being said, some writers still do it successfully - for one example, I don't think The Corrections really gets going until 50 or so pages in, Franzen just spends all that time introducing you to the characters in the family.

Mary said...

Yeah, it makes me sad that there's no allowance for setup these days. If it's not exciting from the first sentence, most people (agents, publishers, other writers AND the readers) toss it to the side. Which is sad to me since set up allows you to connect on a deeper level with the characters and with the setting, getting you even more involved in the story itself.

Cheree said...

I totally agree. Times do change and at the moment it's all action, no real set up. So, it's really harder to get the reader to relate to the character from the get go because they meet them right in the middle of the action.