Some stories draw me in right away. From the first page I’m plunged into a high-stakes adventure or an intense drama. They’re the books I pick up to fill an hour and end up staying for two, then three, then four hours. I tell myself I’ll read only a few more pages…then a few more…and a few more…until I realize it’s two in the morning and I’ve just spent the whole day in a chair instead of doing other somewhat important things.*
Other stories start out slow. They seem to drag on, taking their own sweet time to set up for the real action. It gets to the point where I’m only continuing to read because I have this point of pride where I finish every book I start.**
Then, suddenly—BAM. I can’t put it down.
It could be something a character says. Or a message the protagonist receives. Or the protagonist is interrupted during an important event for even more important affairs. There are different possible triggers a story could have, but they all have the same outcome: they suck you in. If you weren’t already pulled into the world of the story, you are now, and there’s nothing that can stop you from finishing.
Sometimes it takes a while for that to happen. I slogged through well over a hundred pages of The Curse of Chalion before I finally had The Moment.*** At page 92 I was still wondering when the action was going to start. But then there was this plot point and suddenly I understood why there had been so much setup, and what it all meant, and I was really, really glad I was on a long car trip because I wasn’t going to be putting that book down any time soon.
It’s still one of my favorite books.
But what if I had put it down? I almost did. Not only would Bujold have lost a reader, she would have missed out on a sale of a copy of Chalion’s sequel, Paladin of Souls—with which I also had the same problem of a super-slow first hundred or so pages before being interested in what was going on. While Bujold has a long track record and people read her novels knowing that they’ll be good,**** not all of us can afford slow starts to novels. Especially when we’re new writers.
So when you’re writing a story with a lot of setup, make sure the setup part is engaging. Readers get impatient. Too often they put a book down before it gets good.
And when that happens, they miss out on a great story.
Your great story.
*The Hunger Games is one of the more well-known examples of this, but I’d like to also point out some other great books that I usually go through in one sitting: Will Grayson, Will Grayson, by John Green and David Levithan; The Art of Forgetting, by Camille Noe Pagán; Nineteen Minutes, by Jodi Picoult; anything by Tamora Pierce; anything by Patricia C. Wrede…okay, I’ll just stop now before I start listing everything in my bookcase.
**I’ve made a few exceptions.
***Larry Brooks calls this the “First Plot Point.” I’ll be linking to more of his articles in the very near future.
****Well, I pretend that The Sharing Knife series doesn’t exist. Which it doesn’t, mind you. Really. It doesn’t.