A common piece of advice when writing is to hook or grab your reader’s attention immediately in your first chapter, or first page. Many writers interpret this as intense action or life-changing event. As a result, you get a lot of novels starting with explosions, chases, and death. All can be very effective and engaging, but it can get a little old and cliche – like having a character dreaming or waking up.
While reading Maureen Johnson’s The Shades of London series, (The Name of the Star and The Madness Underneath – read them – they’re great), I was struck by how she doesn’t do this – or more accurately, she does it, but in a much different way. Johnson creates a slow build of anticipation. The series focuses on Rory, an American from Louisiana who attends a boarding school in London just as someone starts recreating the Jack the Ripper murders. After a near death experience, she begins to see ghosts. This new ability then exposes her to many other dangers and events that unfold over the two books.
Johnson paces her plots like a boulder rolling down a gentle slope. It keeps moving, slowly at first, then it gains speed until it hits the bottom where it rolls to a gentle stop. This type of plot pacing increases the tension while giving the reader time to savor careful world-building and character development. By the time we hit the bottom of the hill, we KNOW these characters. Too often, quality development gets neglected for a frantic pace.
In The Name of the Star, we have time to learn about Rory, her family, and school before turning her world upside down. While the event that triggers her new ability happens early in the book, Rory doesn’t realize the ramifications until almost midway through the novel. To her, life is the same. As readers we see little clues, but there aren’t life or death scenes. She’s just a girl trying to figure out the people and events around her.
Johnson keeps us interested by dropping subtle hints and developing characters as the plot picks up speed. Outside Rory’s safe world, the anticipation and fear of the Ripper murders grows, but it is secondary to her. She’s trying to understand her new crazy roommate, keep up with schoolwork, and get out of field hockey before she incurs permanent damage.
In the second book, The Madness Underneath, Johnson starts out the first chapter with Rory in therapy telling an entertaining story. While it reveals a lot about the current state of the characters, it isn’t action packed. Again, she eases us into the story, setting up all the building blocks with a slow steady pace. It never feels rushed or too slow. Action isn’t forced and tension isn’t unnecessarily created.
So, dear reader, while the frantic pace of non-stop action may be fun sometimes, taking the time to develop characters and setting will win my heart every time.
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