Like many folks, my partner Jen and I exchange books, magazines, and DVDs with our friends. When we get together, the plastic goodie bags are passed around and everyone goes home with new authors and TV shows to try. We were turned on to Downton Abbey when friends lent us the first three seasons.
Alison, one of our friends, kept telling us about the TV series Call the Midwife and promised to lend it to us. Unfortunately, she broke her ankle when she slipped on some ice during the long, harsh winter we just had. Taking public transit was a real PITA for her, so Jen drove her to the CNIB every Saturday morning, where Alison records books for the blind.
One Saturday, Jen returned home with the goodie bag we’d been expecting. I eagerly dug in and pulled out the first couple of seasons of Call the Midwife, but there was more: five seasons of The Wire. We’d never heard of it. When I read the description on the Season 1 box, I knew it wouldn’t be Jen’s thing. I was right, so I was on my own.
After I’d watched the first two episodes, I said to Jen, “It hasn’t really grabbed me, but I’ll watch a couple more shows.” By the fourth show, I was hooked. I quickly blew through Seasons 1 and 2, and I recently finished Season 3. I’m glad I didn’t give up on it after the first show or two, because I would have missed a brilliant story and characters. If you haven’t watched it, I’d recommend giving it a try. Warning: the dialogue is filled with f-bombs and motherf-bombs, and there’s other offensive language and situations. Definitely a show for adults.
Writers are always told to hook the reader on the first page. I get it, I really do, but I’ve read many great stories that started slowly and gained momentum as I turned the pages. Some took a chapter or two to grab me, but then there was no looking back. I’ve also read stories that started with a bang and then fizzled into a snooze fest that I didn’t finish, or forced myself to read to the end–when I was younger. I no longer force myself to finish stories I’m not enjoying. Life’s too short.
Of course, there are fantastic stories that start with a bang, but it’s not a requirement. I sometimes wonder if this oft-repeated advice stems from the submissions process, when it’s important to grab an agent or publisher’s interest from the word go. In other words, it’s more an artifact of “how to get published” than an indication of what constitutes good writing and a decent story.
My recent experience with The Wire made me think about other times when something didn’t start with a bang, but turned out to be fantastic:
- The best book I read last year (and it still hasn’t been beaten this year) was The Hiding Place by Corrie Ten Boom. The Ten Booms, a devout Christian family, hid Jews during WWII and paid dearly for doing so. The beginning of the book is slow, in the sense that there’s no tension or conflict. The chapters describe the time before the war, and they’re there to illustrate how drastically life changed for the Ten Booms during the war. Thank god I didn’t put the book down, because I would have missed one of the most memorable and transformational stories I’ve ever read.
- Jen and I like to say that when we first met, it was indifference at first sight. A mutual friend thought we’d be perfect for each other, but ended up scratching her head. We couldn’t have cared less about each other if we’d tried. It took six months of throwing us together before we had a conversation about anything beyond the weather, and another five months before we went on a date. We’ll celebrate our fourteenth anniversary in a few weeks.
- I’ve taken several courses that started out with dry introductory material that put me to sleep, and only then got to the good stuff that blew my mind. If I’d dropped those courses…
Don’t get me wrong. Not everything with a slow start ends up being brilliant. Sometimes a dud is a dud. I recently violated my “read the damn sample before buying!” rule, though I’m not sure it would have helped in this case. Online friends kept recommending an author, and it sounded like she writes the type of stories I like, so I bought one of her books. I read chapter one and then chapter two, waiting for something, anything, to happen. But everyone was still skipping through fields singing songs and having banal conversations, with nary a hint of rain–not even a cloud in the sky. I put the book down.
Not starting with a bang doesn’t mean not hooking the reader at all. There has to be something to pique the reader’s interest, but it doesn’t have to be presented at the speed of light and with a sledgehammer. There can be subtle questions, a quiet foreboding, or hints that there’s more going on than meets the eye.
In our fast-paced society, it’s easy to be impatient, but try giving a story more than one page, a person more than one chance, a TV series more than one show. You won’t always pan gold, but when you do, it’ll be glorious.
What have you experienced that didn’t immediately grab you, but turned out to be wonderful?