First, go here to find out about a new paperback edition and the author who is too sick to promote it.
Back? All right. At the risk of sounding carmudgerly, I've got a beef with the bad influence of The Hook.
There are a lot of good arguments for The Hook. It helps author and reader know the premise. It creates focus and forward drive. To be clear, I'm all for starting the story when the story starts. I'm all for plot structure that provides for the propelling event to appear on the first page.
But, I think it's pandemic in our society--and no small fault of Hollywood--that we require our entertainment to be not only entertaining, but NOW. The leisurely start is all but dead. We must be thrust into immediate action and carried forward on a tidal wave of tension. And hense, the author, and the reader holding his proverbial hand as they step onto a bus about to explode, must absorb an entire plot concept, and setting and character, in a matter of paragraphs, rather than pages or even chapters. Unfortunately, the plot that follows is often just as simple.
But what follows are uncomplicated stories. The George RR Martin and Robin Hobb plotting styles are a rarity in these days of crisis starts, 75K word vampire novels, and a 1.37 billion dollar romance book industry.* Every sentence must forward the plot. But it often leaves me wanting more. I've turned the last page on these quick books barely knowing the character at all. Yeah, it's all a surprise, because I've no time to ponder what the protag would do in any given instance. By the time it occurs to me to wonder, he's already done it.
While reading the start to Robin Hobb's THE TAWNY MAN series I did wonder, When is something going to happen? FitzChivalry gets a couple of visitors and his adopted son leaves to make a life of his own, but really, I'm several chapters in and he's still resisting the change, which is going back to being an assassin for his king. Yet, we meander on. His life as he knows it slowly disinigrates, some from his own dissatisfaction, and some from learning about the outside world. Some of it is backstory told through dialogue, and some of the events display who Fitz has become because 15 years have passed since the finish of the last series. I admit to impatience. Things happen, but 100 pages in, we're still in set-up mode.
Fact is, Fitz has every reason to resist the change coming over his life and no reason to pursue it. Think about what that means. Think about the difference in set-up and character as compared to your basic vampire novel: tough, kick-ass women actually make great vampires.** There's one major problem solved, even if they do miss eating and tanning and are conflicted over the yummy taste of blood. When I thought about it like that, I chided myself for feeling impatient. A drawn-out beginning should signal a complicated, intriguing plot.
Fitz will go back to court, no question: back to the people who hate him, to a new king who will ask him to do things he does not want to do, to hiding who he is and to beliefs that endanger his life, back to the world that already destroyed him once. He must re-enter a world that forever keeps him on the sidelines, by virtue of his being a bastard and an assassin. Only a crisis of epidemic proportions might make him even consider going back to all that, but Robin Hobb takes the time to establish his character and the coersion of other characters. She takes the time to make his return convincing, based in characterization and plot. So I read on. I trust her to carry me forward into plots and characters that make me think and delve. I trust her to equip me with the knowledge I need.
Think about the last book you read or the book you're writing. Is your hero reluctant by virtue of youth or inexperience or unlikelyhood--my least favorite reason--or because his reluctance stems from solid, complicated, believable reasons? And, based on that, how soon is your hero dragged kicking and screaming into the fray? Does it happen in a matter of pages, by virtue of some quick, irretrievable crisis, or does it also develop from his character, so that he remains in charge of the story? Do the character and plot and world have interlocking depth? True depth cannot be achieved in bits and bytes in novels. True depth requires time and pages to unfold.
I admit there is a place in the world, and a definite market, for quick reads, simplicity, and directness. But I also wonder what is lost in the process, because the deeper we probe into the characters we read, the greater opportunity for our own character to deepen.
*RWA 2006 figures
**apologies for picking on vampire novels. hopefully I'm not offending any writer-friends. :)