Nathan Bransford, Author


Tuesday, September 27, 2011

The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo and Using Contradictions to Develop Character

As I was (finally) starting to read The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, which I had been warned gets off to a notoriously slow start, I was pondering whether I would have agreed to represent it if I had read it as a manuscript.

And, you know, if I were actually still an agent. Which I'm not. (Please, no more query letters!!).

And... honestly? I don't know that I would have sent it out in its present form. That first chapter (note: the actual 1st chapter, not the prologue) is one of the slowest chapters I can recall reading in a book that's extremely popular. It's almost as if The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo became such a success precisely because everyone has at least a few friends urging them on with "No, I swear it gets better!!"

It does get better. And that banal, antiseptic chapter ends up serving useful purposes. But wow. Had this book not traveled its own unique path, for better or worse I can't imagine it being published first in the United States with that chapter intact.

It's About the Characters

Now, I'm writing this having read only about fifty pages, which I think may actually be a benefit for the purposes of writing this post. I don't know what's to come in the plot and I have only had the briefest of introductions to the characters.

But already I feel like I have a sense of what would have kept me reading as an agent had I made it past that first chapter.

And it's simple: These are extremely interesting characters.

But it's complicated: The reason these are interesting characters is difficult to pull off.

Contradictions

What makes these characters interesting is that they are seeming contradictions. Lisbeth has all the outward appearances of a surly, irresponsible youth, and yet she's wildly competent at her job. Armansky is simultaneously attracted to, vaguely repulsed by, and paternal toward Lisbeth. Blomkvist is buttoned up and seemingly honest, and yet he lives a cavalier private life and he seems to have been improbably set up in a conspiracy.

(Again, I've only read 50 pages, none of this may turn out to be true. What's important here are first impressions)

And why that's difficult to pull off is that it's rarely believable when characters behave in ways that appear inconsistent, especially when we don't know them very well. When someone we know to be buttoned up is taken in for a scam, we'll say, "Wait, that doesn't seem right, I thought that guy was too cautious for that." When someone who seems irresponsible and surly turns out to be wildly intelligent and competent, it feels like the author is trying to force something that can't be real.

But I haven't felt that way so far. These characters are immediately compelling because of the contradictions, not despite them.

The Clinic

And, circling back to the beginning of this blog post, I actually think this is a case where the cold, detached, clinical prose, the same prose that nearly bored me to tears in Chapter 1, works to Larsson's benefit.

Precision has an oddly reassuring effect on the reader because it completely hides the hand of the author. There aren't literary flourishes in The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, there aren't artful similes, there aren't moments that remind you that there was an actual author who chose the words you're reading. It's just facts, rendered straightforwardly. (At least, it should be noted, as it's translated)

So ultimately: It's believable. The prose doesn't leave room for questioning because it's so authoritative and airtight. It's not the only way to make contradictory characters believable, but Larsson uses it for all it's worth.

Not only that, but when you can pull off making contradictions believable the reader is prompted to ask questions that pull them through the book - Why is Lisbeth so focused and driven? Why was Blomkvist blinded?

We want to know which of the contradictory qualities we've seen in the characters will win out, we want to know how the characters ended up that way, and it makes for an incredibly engaging reading experience.

That's where I'm at now, at least. I have to say there may be some genius in that tortuous First Chapter and the banality of the prose and descriptions. I believe what this author tells me, and these characters are more interesting because of it.






67 comments:

Mr. D said...

I got that book as a Christmas present from my niece. Still haven't opened it. Don't plan on it. Too busy with other books.

CourtLoveLeigh said...

I trudged through the first book. I don't really know why. I think I wanted to finish it before the Swedish movie came out? Maybe? Started the second one but put the series away for good when Lisbeth got fake boobs.

Good luck!

L. Shanna said...

I had the same thoughts reading the first 100 or so pages of Dragon Tattoo. It does get better, but doesn't live up to the hype as far as I'm concerned. Maybe I would have felt differently if I had pictured Daniel Craig as the main character while reading...

Matthew MacNish said...

I'm not going to say too much, because I don't want to give anything away, but for me these books (I've only read the first two) are all about the plot.

There are some good characters, but it's the plot that rules.

The writing is kind of like Swedish architecture and design: austere, yet functional.

Kate said...

I never finished the first chapter because of the boredom factor. I assumed it was one of those books that didn't live up to all the hype.

Leigh said...

Great post. I haven't read this book yet but, of course, have had it recommended to me. I might give it a go some day. Loved the character analysis. Some stuff to think about.

Josin L. McQuein said...

Not I book I'll be attempting again anytime soon. I prefer to keep down the food I've eaten, and this one tripped my "ick" sensors.

spytower said...

Was this book translated from Swedish? I found the writing to be unmusical. In fairness to Larsson I haven’t read many translated books that are.

As for the rest of the book, I think Larsson lost track of his story’s boundaries and because of this the book feels overwritten.

D.G. Hudson said...

I like Matt's description relating this type of writing to Swedish architecture.

Haven't read this book yet, but I agree that characters are what attaches me to a story. If I like the characters, I'll read a couple of chapters to give the story a chance. I do like some hint of the plot near the beginning of the story.

Aren't we all contradictory in some ways? We want this or that, but we know we shouldn't; duty calls, but temptation lures.

It makes writing enjoyable when we give these conflicting traits to our characters.

Rumer said...

I never got to finish the first chapter because I got bored. I remember I kept asking myself why the heck it's so popular. I watched the movies and loved them! I guess it's one of those very rare instances where you say the movie is better than the book. I wish I had the patience to wait until the book got better.

Anonymous said...

This is why a lot of people couldn't get through the first chapter of FREEDOM.

I did and loved it...I love Dragon Tattoo as well. But it's love/hate with most people.

Now, WATER FOR ELEPHANTS depressed the hell out of me and I stopped reading that one. I want to read about old people in old age homes?

Cathy Yardley said...

I enjoyed the movie, as well. Didn't even want to tackle the book after hearing so many reports re: pace drag, but now I'm curious. I think that there's a difference between deliberately constructed contradiction, and an author not knowing his characters and consequently being inconsistent as hell, then saying "well, people are conflicted in real life" as an excuse.

Mira said...

Loved your analysis, Nathan! You may have almost tempted me to read this - even though it sounds suspiciously like literary fiction - which I tend to avoid, because it makes me THINK.

Your post made me think in a good way, though. It sounds like the author was able to capture fascinating characters. Making internal contradictions believable - that is real skill. And I also loved your description of his authoritative style - confident to the point of invisibility. That's also exceptional skill.

Love reading posts from Nathan the editor. :)

Heather Hawke said...

I plowed through it because a friend pressed it into my hands. It seemed to me a book bookended by another book. The middle was great, the bookends dull. The same friend claims the next one is better. I doubt I'll read it, although Lisbeth is one of the best characters around.

Robena Grant said...

I read this one, but had no desire to read any of the others. I didn't get the hype, and just felt maybe something had been lost in its translation. If it hadn't been for book club, I never would have finished the book.

Thinking back on it now, It was plot driven, the pacing often times racing once you got past the middle. The characters were hard to follow. And the names...oy!There were a couple of threads dropped, so it didn't truly stand alone. Also, there were one or two eye-rolling coincidences. Then it got all squicky. Yuck.

In truth, it felt to me like this was one of those suitcase jobs where the author packed everything, including the kitchen sink.

Laurel said...

@spytower: I actually think a lot of the Latin authors translate well. Isabel Allende is breathtaking, for example.

But I know what you mean. I've read translations that seemed flat and wooden. I always wondered if it was a stylistic difference between cultures.

Anne-Marie said...

@Anonymous 8:31- they don't stay in the nursing home for long and it's a great story, again, because of the character and their drama/tension. Plus, once you meet the elephant, she is quite the character herself.

I was warned also about what a long intro the book had before it got meaty, and have to say, it didn't seem that way at all to me because I was drawn in by the characters immediately. The writing didn't bother me because I am quite used to reading translations of the Swedish and Icelandic mysteries that became so popular in the last few years. It is the last book of the trilogy that I found hard, but I won't say why because it might be a spoiler for those of you still planning the whole thing.

S.P. Bowers said...

I got about 2/3 of the way through the book. Still wasn't motivated to finish it. I could see how it could have been a great story and I hear the dry, clinical tone is common in that genre in that country. Didn't do it for me though.

Cynthia Lee said...

I don't remember the first chapter of Dragon Tattoo being boring.

The first book held my attention all the way through. It's different for everyone.

I was just so happy to finally have a really different female main character, someone who is damaged and not always pleasant.

spytower said...

Laurel, I think you’re correct. I read the Jarvis translation of Don Quixote and it’s fabulous. Certain languages, German comes to mind, are structured differently than English (Long sentences with the verb at the end). Because of this, works in those languages don’t translate well. This can contribute to a story in unintended ways. Kafka reads as strange and, in an unusual way, beautiful in translation with its long, uninterrupted blocks of text. More often than not, for me at least, it makes the writing ponderous or dull. Maybe that’s why The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo feels lethargic at it’s beginning. Maybe in it’s native language it has better rhythm and flow and thus feel “faster”.

As for slow buildups, Steven King has more than one book that takes its time getting off of the ground and, as far as I can tell, he’s been mildly successful. Is mildly the correct adverb here?

101 Writing Books said...

When I first started writing, I had a steamy love affair with similes and metaphors until I realized it wasn't really going anywhere. My engorged writing was like a huge public display of affection (ahem - I apologize for yet another simile). Now I realize that it is much more difficult to get together with tightly driven plots and intriguing story questions. Lucky Steig has adroitly pulled this feat off in this book. I give him full props!

Kathryn said...

Very interesting you mention how you might not have sent this book out in its present form. I read this in my book club earlier this year, and I thought the same thing, which made me wonder if the conventions in contemporary writing differ depending on the region/country. Do you think that's likely? I haven't read any other books from Sweden or Northern Europe, but I wonder if they all begin in the same sort of fashion--a slow start and build up--and the readers from that area have come to expect that. Perhaps they (or some) might find western books to be too, well, fast, or too immediate? Just a thought. I could be completely off the mark, but that's what we discussed in our book club. :)

Rick Daley said...

To be as spoiler-free as possible, I thought the way the investigation unfolded was quite clever, and the end has it's payoff in regard to shock / thrill value (and ick factor, which it has in gross abundance, pun totally intended).

The main detractor for me was the back-and-forth between the story and back-story. It seemed as each new character was introduced, he/she entered the scene with 2-3 pages of back-story, and in most cases, that back-story had nothing to do with the actual story.

I think about 150 pages could have been edited out without sacrificing anything.

But I did finish it and I did read the second in the series, so that must count for something...

SBJones said...

No matter how much people urged me to continue, I could not get past the start of Lord of the Rings. 100 pages into it and all they did was walk to the end of the road and stop to eat for the fifth time I was done.

I will have to implement a contradiction or two into my current work in progress.

Laurel said...

@spytower: HA! I was thinking primarily of germanic language translations, myself, when I referenced the ones that seemed dry. Almost bleak.

And this King fellow...name sounds familiar ;)

Stephsco said...

I'm also surprised at how popular these books are. The beginning of Tattoo is definitely a drag, but it picks up. I found the tone appropriate and personally loved all the mentions of Swedish cities and specific locations, but I wondered if a lot of people would get bored with it.

The second book is definitely my favorite, and the only one of the 3I felt wasn't overly long. I think Tattoo could be tightened considerably and it would be a great read.

Gehayi said...

I bought it in June. I trudged through about 75 pages before realizing that, although I'd heard good things about how suspenseful the book was, I didn't care about the characters.

So I stopped reading it, and I haven't felt any impetus to start again.

Since then, I've spoken to three other people who read the book. Their reaction: "I wish I'd stopped at the beginning rather than trying to slog through it!"

I think that we have to remember that books don't become best-sellers because they're good books. They become best-sellers because people buy them, not because people finish reading them afterwards.

Doug said...

I'm with Heather that this is two books in one. There's a boring story about the libel suit, and stuck in the middle of it is a strong but gory mystery-thriller. Were I an agent, I would've passed after seeing the partial because it'd all be the boring libel suit.

Funny, though... I thought the translation was excellent. I didn't find anything that made me even slightly aware that it'd originally been written in Swedish.

For the third book, they even moved the apostrophe in the title of the American edition so that it was misplaced just like Americans would do. ;) [UK: Hornets' Nest; US: Hornet's Nest]

I didn't care for the book, but I have to admit that Lisbeth Salander is one of the most memorable characters I've come across in a long time.

Adele Richards said...

You've absolutely nailed exactly what I loved about the books. The characters are compelling.

Marilyn Peake said...

Kudos to you, Nathan, for praising a book you would have turned down as an agent, I’m guessing because U.S. publishers wouldn't have bought the book, even though it went on to huge success. This is why self-publishing is such a wonderful opportunity for writers...or, in the case of THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO, it was published outside the United States first. (I have a writer friend in a similar situation. He has an agent, is published and receiving top literary awards outside the U.S., but can’t even get an agent inside the U.S.) There are lots of simply amazing self-published books available right now, readers can find out-of-the-box novels that are going on to receive fantastic professional reviews and awards. Agents have passed on so many amazing books because the query letter didn't read well, the book didn't grab them in the first chapter...or, in many cases, the first paragraph, it broke too many rules, and so on. It's wonderful, I think, to have many different writing styles available to readers. In the past few weeks, I’ve discovered quite a few self-published books by Hugo and Nebula Award winners, an Aurealis Award finalist, authors published in Asimov’s Magazine, etc.. It pays, I think, to keep an open mind about books because, otherwise, every book you read fits the same old pattern.

Simon Hay Soul Healer said...

It took me 60 pages to like it, but i also think it says something about the book that I continued reading. I wonder if somethings been lost in the translation to English. It seemed a bit bland. Once my head was tuned to bland translation I was away. I too loved the characters.

Taylor Napolsky said...

I thought all three books kicked ass. I liked that first chapter, when he just got out of court and he's been beaten.

But overall, the theme of those books is so strong. The whole feminist theme really stuck with me. Those have got to be some of the most powerful books I've ever read.

Also, Marilyn Peake's comment was really good!

Diana said...

Ah, but you're only on page 50. I would love to hear what you think of the book IF you finish reading it. I won't spoil the book for you, so I won't comment on either the characters or plot.

I will tell you that when I got to Chapter 11, page 221 of the book, I felt like I had been reading backstory since page 1. So I stopped reading, flipped to the end and read enough to determine that it wasn't worth my time to plow through to the end.

Hurry up and finish reading as much as you're going to, so we can discuss the characters and the plot. :)

Darley said...

Haven't read the book but I know I've read books where the narration is transparent like you describe. It's a style of writing that doesn't to draw attention at all to the writing. I wonder if that was intentional on the part of the author or just his particular voice.

Amy said...

It's a snoozer in the beginning. But it gets good, and yes, the characters are fascinating. I ended up loving it and appreciating how stylistically different it was from most books I read.

Therese said...

I agree with you about the beneficial effects of the clinical prose style. I actually really liked it (at least as translated). I've heard many people refer to it disparagingly, but to me it was kind of like Ikea-style prose - spare, streamlined, and functional, giving you the essentials at a fair price.

Jen P said...

Interesting, not least because I am about to embark on reading the book (in Swedish) having first seen the (two of three) film(s). The films don't drag in the least but are very hard work in the nasty violence area, albeit, for brief episodes. Will be interested to see if the films and book match up - and after reading this I will do an English first 50 pages to compare with the original. But I think to be fair, he did die before these were published right? So he may have planned to edit the opener some more. Who knows!

Lem Thomas said...

I happened to read this series while taking some novel writing courses at my local university (focusing on commercial fiction), and I remember thinking, "These books break every rule I'm learning about how to write a salable novel!" I do think the entire series could have used a strong edit--there is much that is overwritten. It seems doubtful the books could have made it in the American publishing climate (at least the traditional industry). But the story and (especially) the characters are compelling. So I guess it's good for the Larsson estate and the series' thousands of fans that the books started out in Europe. Otherwise they'd likely be mouldering in a trunk or withering on Amazon.

Livia said...

ZOMG you're an agent? Can I send you a query? (j/k) :-)

I wasn't planning on reading it due to my friends not liking it, but maybe I'll pick it up. I need help w/ character development.

Anonymous said...

Your 'inconsistencies' aren't though

I know a number of people who are 'irresponsible and surly turns out to be wildly intelligent and competent' - in fact surly almost *goes* with intelligent like chips and ketchup. There are exceptions, but the smartest people I know are the grumpiest, with very rare exceptions.

Buttoned up =/= equal 'impervious to scams' - anyone can get taken by the right scam,


Sorry, I love your posts, but this one doesn't make any sense.

(BTW I have not read these books, so I am only going by what you say. Intelligent people are often irresponsible - see the fine line between genius and madness.

Just because some one is irresponsible and surly doesn't mean they aren't damn good at their job or thicker than pig shit. Gandalf is surly, and not stupid. Captain Jack Sparrow is irresponsible and not stupid. Both are damn good at what they do,

Sorry - while I haven't read the books, your description shows no obvious inconsistencies. That would come in the writing. Your issue is with the characterisation and the handling perhaps. Not that these things cannot exist in one person. Because they can and do.

Nathan Bransford said...

Anon-

People are like that, conveying that on the page and making it believable isn't easy. We don't walk around thinking, "Yeah, I don't believe that you're actually a real person," we do think that a lot while we're reading.

Anonymous said...

Exactly - so the problem is not with inconsistencies, but with the writing/handling of the characters!

Anonymous said...

Because a great writer can make you believe ANYTHING!

McKenzie McCann said...

I could not, for the life of me, make it through the first ten pages. I started falling asleep. I couldn't take it. It drove me crazy.

Kristy Marie Feltenberger Gillespie said...

I read the first and second but could not finish the third. By that point- I had enough of the sexually irresistible Blomkvist and all of the female characters that dove into his bed! The only character I cared about was Lisbeth. I was really hoping that she'd resist Blomkvist's advances but of course she didn't. Although the plot is interesting, the writing was a bit dry and slooooow. I was disappointed.

Darlene Underdahl said...

I am an American Scandinavian. We really are that complicated, and I suspect most folks in the world are as well.

What has happened to Americans that they need a gun fight or auto chase every other chaper? Sheesh!!

www.VermillionRoadPress.com

Anonymous said...

Three years ago I found that book next to the mailboxes in the mobile home park I live in. I'd never heard of it and it looked unread. The title was intriguing and so I gave it a shot. Five pages later I was ready to give it away. Then six months later when I saw something about it in a mag, or online or somewhere, I gave it another shot. Still haven't gotten to the end of chapter one and probably never will. Like so many others, just can't get into it...which makes me think I should write like that since it became a hit! Geez.

traceybaptiste said...

Funny, I just started it today. I just finished the 1st chapter, but was ready to put it down several times. Let's see what happens tomorrow.

Anonymous said...

I haven't read the entire post, but already feel compelled to chime in. Perhaps you address this later, but the remarkable (in a bad way) about TGWDT is that the writing is so dreadful. Yes, perhaps it's the translation, but the idea of such a dreadfully written - on a granular level - novel being published in the U.S. seems slim. I made it through the first book, and quit the second not even halfway through. The wooden prose was about 99% of that. I couldn't help but wonder if Steig was given a pass because the expectations for the writing were less ("Oh, he's Swedish"), or because the story does (grudging admiration here) become, eventually, totally involving?

stacy said...

I read all three novels and I had trouble putting each one down. They were rip-roaring reads for me. In addition to the translation issue, I think Larsson was a journalist (and an expert on the neo-Nazi right-wing movement in Europe) which could account for the authoritative tone.

Matthew J. Beier said...

@Anonymous -- Nathan definitely did address the "wooden prose" near the end of the blog post. He made some very worthwhile observations about Larsson's (translated) style. Take a look! I really loved this style of writing and the way it served the characters and story. It didn't need flowering up at all, and it sometimes it was so literal and straightforward that it felt as though Larsson was winking at the reader. (Think the detailed paragraphs about how Lisbeth "did this, this, and that, then immediately feel asleep for eight hours without waking up once." Or her Ikea shopping trips...)

It's just a style thing, which obviously isn't for everyone. After page 85, I could not put these books down, all the way until the end of "Hornet's Nest." The plot is so expertly crafted, and Lisbeth was extremely fascinating to me.

Similar to what Marilyn said above, it will be very interesting to see what comes out of this new publishing frontier, now that a select few are no longer the world's literary gatekeepers. I consider the Millennium Trilogy to be one of my best reading experiences (for a number of reasons) in the past few years. Funny to think that it easily could have been left on the slush pile floor.

S.P. Bowers said...

Darlene Underdahl
It wasn't because it was "slow" that I, personally, stopped reading. I read a lot of books that most people would consider slow. I stopped becuase there were so many unnecessary side trips that went nowhere and because I couldn't care about the characters.

If all americans cared only about the car chase and explosion type reading I think the rapes and sexual content would have kept them enthralled. As it is we just couldn't get through the extraneous stuff to get to the characters and story.

I say this speaking for myself and not having finished the book. If I've made wrong assumptions I apologize.

Neurotic Workaholic said...

I like characters that are multi-dimensional. I've read books where certain characters didn't change at all from page 1 to the end, and they were less interesting because of that. I think that people in real life are full of contradictions, so it's nice when authors can show that in their books.

Terin Tashi Miller said...

I think you've hit on a few things here.

1) Scratching "Bransford" off the list of agents I intend to send my latest project to.

Seriously. I'm wondering if it's even the tone, more than the characters, that carry the book. The authoritative tone. The airtight, here's what happened and I know because I was there sort of indisputable voice.

As an example: The beginning of "Lord Jim," by Joseph Conrad, isn't particularly capitvating, until he abandons his first ship only to have it saved by its Malaysian crew (the embarrassment is the key, of course).

Conrad in a few sentences shows us the expectation of the character--his own, and those who judge his actions based on what actions he was expected to take.

I'll never forget someone telling me at a party how much fun I appeared to be (uninhibited), confessing "I always thought you were so buttoned-down!" (A description, by the way, that had my wife and close friends in stitches for years).

Perhaps--just perhaps--today's agents are in too much of a hurry, wanting to be wowed immediately, by "high concept" and "blockbuster" and "exciting" openings, and not actually erudite or patient enough to read, truly read, let the words and tone and story sink in, before judging the saleable, as opposed to literary, merits of some works?

I confess, I've had the same problem reading David Eggers, and even Annie Proulx. Not to mention agreeing largely with B.D. Myers' "A Readers Manifesto" that "Snow Falling on Cedars" should have been named "Sleep Falling on Readers."

I still laugh reading about what some thought of "The Sun Also Rises" before Max Perkins took the risk and got Ernest Hemingway to break his contract with Boni & Liverite by agreeing to publish both it and the abominable, purile "Torrents of Spring."

"A bunch of people going around Paris and Spain and not really doing anything."

Fair criticism, for that, essentially, is true. Yet, the characters are memorable--perhaps because the revelation of Brett Ashley's true self as actually a caring individual contradicts her initial appearance; or, perhaps, just perhaps, because in that novel, as with his short stories, Hemingway wrote as if all of it were airtight, indisputable truth.

And maybe it was...:)

I love Conrad, by the way, because his 'slow' beginnings--Marlowe sitting in a chair on a veranda on a tropical night, lighting a match--are exactly what draw me in, like a moth to the flame interrupting the darkness above his smoke, to the words that follow...
Best,
T

Terin Tashi Miller said...

But I haven't read Larsson's series, and thanks to your endorsement--I don't have time or the need to read books just to say I have--I'm unlikely to, unless your post intrigues me enough to double-check your usually excellent analysis.

The discussion brings me to another question, though: so, what agent read it, in Swedish or English, and, based on its sales in Sweden? decided it would be big here?

And why WAS it so big here (it was), so well-hyped, that EVERYONE who was ANYONE HAD to read it and pronounce it of such greatness that nothing written in English since Dashiell Hammett's "The Dane Curse" could possibly compare?

It obviously made a lot of money, for somebody (since Larsson was dead when it came out).

Another example of "literary" taste being defined by sales figures and ancillary rights profits? Who and how figured they could make a mint with it, and why, after having to push through the first 50 pages? Aren't we actually saying that publicity and marketing, more than characters or tone, were responsible for the series' "popularity," not to mention sales? And how many other less than stellar works have been paid for by a similarly swayed public?

Don't worry, Mira, I'm unlikely to insist you read my novels, or any other for that matter. But I must say, your honesty is most refreshing!

Alexander said...

For my shame, I have not heard of this author, but seems very interesting! I will look for his books!

Philip Martin said...

I'm a big fan of novels that open with eccentricity. (It's one of the main things I emphasize in How To Write Your Best Story). Eccentricity is naturally intriguing; normality is not. It's what makes a story worth telling . . . "something interesting happened today that was odd." Or in this case . . . "here are some truly eccentric characters. Want to hear more?" Then, once you're pulled in, the plot can develop. But story comes first, and is what (as Nathan points out) tends to appeal to literary agents and attract readers. As an acquisitions editor, I agree; it's why we can read a chapter and already want to publish the book, long before we discover where the plot goes.

James said...

I thought I was crazy.

Page 63.

That's where I made it before I shut the book over a few years ago. I've looked at it on the shelf, wondering if I'd ever open it again. Wanting to open it, just to read what's spawned two films and a book trilogy.

I made it to page 63, largely because I realized there was probably something lost in the translation.

Something about Larrson's work reminded me a lot of Henrick Ibsen. Painfully slow setup, giving us a great full depth of character, and setting up the problem -- but man, pick up the pace some.

So maybe it was the language barrier.

And I wholeheartedly agree -- Lizbeth is the type of character I want to read about. I was sold a few pages in. But the more I read, I more I begged the book (no shit, actually begged the book) to get started.

I've read through my stack of new books. Haven't picked up anything in awhile. And there it is, staring back at me from the shelf.

This review couldn't be more aptly timed, as I've found myself wrestling over whether or not I can torment myself by re-reading those 63 pages, and marching on through to the end.

I'm not sure I can do it.

I'll just watch the movies instead -- (David Fincher's version looks like it got Lizbeth's character wrong. She looks soft in a way the foreign version doesn't. She looks absolutely badass in the foreign version).

Anonymous said...

Great post, Nathan.

Anonymous said...

Also, I read this book. I found the characters compelling and the plot as well. What threw me out of reading the sequel was the gratuitous violence. That seems a dark ingredient often used in the Swedish writing (i.e., "Let the Right One In"), like they must include such, at least in those Swedish novels I have seen published that I have read or started reading.

Linda Sandifer said...

Thanks for this post. I'm glad to know I wasn't the only one feeling as if the opening was pure torture to read. I gave up, actually, deciding to just watch the movie (which I haven't done yet either). My daughter told me I should stick with it, that it gets better. As a writer, it goes against everything I have ever learned about engaging your reader in those early pages.

Guinevere said...

I'm trying to remember the opening of the book (I read them about two years ago now) and I can't picture what it was that was so boring. It started off with Blomkvist being sentenced, and I found that compelling enough myself.

But, I also was one of three people on the planet who enjoyed the financial dealings and unravelings described in such detail, and enjoyed knowing what Blomkvist ate for lunch (all those open-faced sandwiches with unlikely ingredients!). The books were very different from how I write, but I still enjoyed them immensely. Thanks for the post disssecting what did work about the beginning for most!

AJ Mass said...

My spoiler-free review of Dragon Tattoo, for those interested...
http://ajmass.blogspot.com/2011/05/book-with-draggin-plot.html

John said...

In fairness, all 3 books could use a LOT of trimming. Book 2 has an entire beginning section full of characters with no connection to the rest of the story. The only part that was important really was that Lisbeth has gotten some bodily alterations.

I've read all 3 books and watched the Swedish movies. The movies in this case are much better than the books because they trim out all the extra stuff that weighed the books down.

If you haven't read the books, watch the Swedish movies because they're worth it.

J. Anne said...

I never read the books because I watched the original films, but now that you've written this post, I think I will check it out and see what I think. I LOVED the original movies and when I saw the English movie trailer I was in AWE - looks so great I can hardly wait. But the books would add another level to the stories. I have always loved contradiction in characters - it reveals the underlying bias in people (in real life) and sets up some surprises if done properly in fiction.

jmarierundquist said...

Page 162.
That's how long it took for me to say, "oh, now it's getting interesting" -- it was the second try for me and the book - and I picked it up again finally because of all the hype.
I think this is funny that you say: "It's almost as if THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO became such a success precisely because everyone has at least a few friends urging them on with "No, I swear it gets better!!" - because I think it's true. But really, I would never want my book to be like that, and therefore I do not actually recommend this one to anyone.

Yes, the characters really are great, authentic contradictions... but not enough so in the beginning to hold me. (Long-ish denouement, too).

Wordgot said...

I thought the Millenium trilogy was MEANT to be like that, so I read it in good faith and appreciated the way the dry prose put across Lisbeth's character.

But I'm told the books we've been buying and reading in English are not all that Larsson wrote. What we've got in English is the continuity script for the movies. I can't verify this myself, but, on the other hand, it would explain the shopping list style of the text.

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