Wednesday, October 19, 2011

The Pages of the Ages

Times have changed, and with it, the people.  Nowadays, we live in an age of instant-gratification, where we expect the things we want in the smallest amount of time possible.  Fast food, the internet, the new best super lose your weight in two days diets, etc.  As Queen said, we want it all and we want it now.

With this change in attention span, writers had to adapt to stay alive.  Where in the olden days we were allowed to start with backstory, it is now recommended that we start with a hook and action.

To illustrate, I’m going to quote the first paragraph or so of four books.  Dracula, by Bram Stoker, first published in 1897.  Dune, by Frank Herbert, first published in 1965.  Ender’s Game, by Orson Scott Card, first published in 1985.  And finally, The Hunger Games, by Suzanne Collins, first published in 2008. (Publication dates via Wikipedia)

            3 May. Bistritz.—Left Munich at 8:35 P.M., on 1st May, arriving at Vienna early next morning; should have arrived at 6:46, but train was an hour late. Buda-Pesth seems a wonderful place, from the glimpse which I got of it from the train and the little I could walk through the streets. I feared to go very far from the station, as we had arrived late and would start as near the correct time as possible. 
The story is told through a series of journal entries.  The opening paragraph gives us a summary of where Harker had gone, and a little trivia (i.e. the train that was late).  In fact, there is little to no hook.  The only question that could arise from that paragraph is where Harker is going.

          In the week before their departure to Arrakis, when all the final scurrying about had reached a nearly unbearable frenzy, the old crone came to visit the mother of the boy, Paul.
          It was a warm night at Castle Caladan, and the ancient pile of stone that had served the Artreides family as home for twenty-six generations bore that cooled-sweat feeling it acquired before a change in the weather.

(There is a quoted paragraph from a scripture of the Dune world before this paragraph, but it is not really a part of the story, so I left it out.)  We are given a place and an action (going to Arrakis) like in Dracula, but in the very first paragraph, there is already a question.  Why is an old crone coming to visit Paul’s mother?  And who is she that she can visit someone in the castle?

Ender’s Game
          “I’ve watched through his eyes, I’ve listened through his ears, and I tell you he’s the one.  Or at least as close as we’re going to get.”
          “That’s what you said about the brother.”
          “The brother tested out impossible.  For other reasons.  Nothing to do with his ability.”
          “Same with the sister.  And there are doubts about him.  He’s too malleable.  Too willing to submerge himself in someone else’s will.”

We start off with detached dialogue.  We don’t know who’s speaking (note that this is something writers are usually warned not to do).  There is no place described, but numerous questions raised.  What will the “he” do, for which he is the one?  How did the speaker listen through his ears and see through his eyes?  Why was the brother rejected?  Why was the sister rejected?

The Hunger Games
          When I wake up, the other side of the bed is cold.  My fingers stretch out, seeking Prim’s warmth but finding only the rough canvas cover of the mattress.  She must have had bad dreams and climbed in with our mother.  Of course, she did.  This was the day of the reaping.

We begin with Katniss waking up (another alleged no-no) and looking for her sister Prim.  We get a feeling of poverty (“rough canvas” and the fact that they have to share a bed).  Then at a quick pace, we get a huge question.  What is the reaping?  More so, we get a feeling of tension because the reaping would give Prim nightmares.

As you see, in progression from 1897 to 2008, the questions start to rise earlier and involve bigger things.  In the first few paragraphs, Dracula has no real questions, Dune raises one mildly interesting one, Ender’s Game raises a few mildly interesting ones (though Card quickly throws in a big one a few lines later), and then The Hunger Games give us a tension-filled question.

Since there are many instant-gratification sources in this age, (i.e. television, internet) we need to convince readers to keep reading.  In 1897, reading was probably the easy entertainment (except maybe for super-literary pieces), so they didn’t need so much constant tension.  Today, the written word has to contend with moving pictures, and tension (i.e. questions) is the only way to achieve that.

The point of this overly long post is that you have to keep your audience in mind when writing (and taking writing advice).  If Bram Stoker gave you advice about putting in backstory to ground the readers or something, you have to remember that you’re not living in 1897.  So unless you write for time-travellers from the late eighteen hundreds, you have to pile on tension and keep it going ‘til the end.


  1. For me, the Dune opening was the most effective. It had some tension, as you described, but it didn't feel overly forced. It wasn't trying too hard. Chekhov works in a similar manner, in my opinion. My goals when writing an opening is to get the reader to go from the first paragraph to the next. That requires at least a little bit of tension, but I don't feel the pressure to totally hook someone right from the start.

  2. I think I recently read Donald Maass say something similar. You just need enough tension to get the reader to the next paragraph. Rinse and repeat a lot of times, and then you have a novel.