One of my Christmas holiday pleasures is new books. Whenever I’m asked what I want for Christmas I answer, “books.” I never specify a particular book or even a genre. It’s lovely to be surprised by what others choose. I’ve read away out of my comfort zone as a result and have discovered some authors who are now favourites. This year I received book one in a family saga (in translation), a biography, a pastoral series and a book of short stories. The weather has been foul, windy and wet and cold, so I happy snuggled down with my books by the fire. I’ve finished the translation, hopped about in the book of short stories, read three chapters of the biography and two of the series book. I usually read only one book at a time, but one of the privileges of holidays is permission to do as the mood strikes and not to do in an orderly, organized fashion.
My books are all very different, but one thing that has surprised me, in all but the short stories, is the first line. As writers we’re told over and over again that we must “hook” the reader in the first line, present her with a story question, introduce the hero/heroine, and establish the conflict – all in the first sentence! A daunting task, but necessary since it has recently been established that the average adult has an attention span of eight seconds. By contrast, a goldfish can concentrate for nine seconds. Yet, despite that evidence, all of my books took a very leisurely approach to introducing the story.
Another holiday indulgence was to watch old movies. I love old movies, but it seems I can’t turn off my internal critic, ever. Changes in culture and arts come gradually over time, so when a viewer jumps back thirty or fifty years, the contrast between then and now is magnified. We’re used to starting movies with a car chase, or a gun fight. Award-winning movies from a bygone era often start slowly, pulling the viewer into a setting or a household with long camera shots, mood-setting music and an invitation to relax and let real time slip away. “West Side Story,” the movie, (1961) begins with a lengthy overture. There is nothing on screen but a few black lines on an orange background. As the music moves from jazz to ballad, the background turns pink. That’s it. For several minutes, theatre-goers stared at a brightly coloured screen and listened to music. Not even the credits rolled during that opening. Then the orange fades and a long, aerial view of New York City takes its place. Again, long minutes pass as the camera zooms over uptown, downtown and the east side before coming to rest on the West Side. The movie has been playing for nearly ten minutes before the first characters appear on screen. Can you imagine making a move like that today? The audience would all be on their cell-phones. A lovely, heart-wrenching tale would be mere background noise to the incessant checking of e-mails, posts on facebook and texts to friends.
No one can argue that the technological revolution heralded by smart-phones hasn’t changed our world. We live at a faster pace. We demand fast food, instant communication, a world-wide market and immediate gratification. I saw a sign in a coffee shop the other day saying “fresh food, not fast food. Please be patient.” No doubt about it, the world’s in a hurry. It makes sense to expect author’s to tell their stories at breakneck pace, to grab the reader in the first line or risk losing her altogether. But, my unexpected delights under the Christmas tree confirm that there is an audience for a slower tempo. The trick for writers who want to colour outside the lines of conventional wisdom, is to find that audience. Once writer and readers have come together in mutual enjoyment, the story unfolds as it should.
So, if you’re a writer who needs time to set up the story, space to entice the reader to enter your world and mood-setting paragraphs to build the tension in your story, take heart. There is more than one way to fill a blank page.