Agents of SHIELD and the Peril of the Slow Burn

Last year around this time, all of my geek friends were buzzing about Marvel’s Agents of SHIELD. For people who live under rocks or regularly attend hermit conventions, Agents is a spinoff of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, following the deeds and misdeeds of a plucky coterie of government agents. The show had an impressive pedigree. Produced and overseen by television wunderkind Joss Whedon (of Buffy and Angel fame; I hear he also did some canceled space western show) and run by writers Jed Whedon and Maurissa Tancharoen from the brilliant-but-canceled Dollhouse, Agents of SHIELD had the benefit of Disney backing, a solid budget, and guaranteed tie-ins with Marvel’s money-making movie machine. In short, it was a guaranteed hit.

Except it wasn’t. The show merely coasted, catching the occasional creative upswing from gnawing on the bones of the Thor movie, or stringing out the mystery of its lead character’s mysterious resurrection following his death in Avengers. It wasn’t until the end of the season, when the creative staff pulled out all the stops and turned their central concept entirely on its ear, that Agents of SHIELD got interesting. By then, I was the only one of my friends still watching. Apparently, I have infinite patience. Spread the word.

Be quick about it.

My little cadre of nerdlings wasn’t the only group similarly affected. 12+ million viewers tuned in for the premiere, but less than 5.5 million were still watching by the time the season ended. If you lose more than half the people with your plotting, you’re doing something wrong.

The agony here is that the showrunners did this intentionally. They knew they had to wait for a crucial event in Captain America: The Winter Soldier to set up the collapse of the organization they’d so lovingly crafted during the course of the show. They went with a slow burn, doling out hints and plot progression in tiny doses. And because of this, they lost their viewers.

Slow burn stories aren’t always failures. Think of how little has happened over the course of five books in the A Song of Ice and Fire series. People grouse constantly about George R. R. Martin’s glacial pace (my favorite dig so far was the fan who dubbed him “The Mountain That Writes”, which I choose to believe was not a tacky weight joke) but they keep reading. Martin’s books are bestsellers, considered the tentpoles of the fantasy market. The series Game of Thrones, based on his films, is one of the most talked-about and lucrative shows on air.

So what’s George doing right? What’s SHIELD doing wrong? How does one dole out the plot slowly, but keep a reader’s interest?

The answers to these questions can’t be simple. The truth is that the slow burn is just not an easy technique to get right. If it was, I’d trust the Whedon family to pull it off. That entire clan is practically bursting at the seams with gooey, unspent genius.

So there’s an easy option:

Don’t slow burn. Just don’t. Don’t even slow burn. This is actually a legitimate option. There are plenty of great fantasy novels, especially recent ones like Brian McClellan’s Promise of Blood, that hit the ground running and don’t stop. Facts fly at you like the magically propelled bullets of McClellan’s magic users, and you’re never kept guessing about one mystery for long. There is definitely a place in fantasy for fast-paced, face value works, and McClellan’s Powder Mage Trilogy shows that these can be presented well.

But let’s be honest. There’s also a place for meaty fantasy that you can dig into, like a roast full of secrets. If this wasn’t true, we wouldn’t have meandering, beautiful works like The Wheel of Time, The Kingkiller Chronicles, or Martin’s eternal parade through Westeros. I like fast books. I love slow ones, especially those that get it right. What do those books do well?

Give the reader a reason to care. A nigh-universal truth of good slow-burn fantasy is that the author quickly gives the reader something to care about. If I’m asked to invest, I’ll only do so if I think the end result is worth it. Robert Jordan expertly demands an investment in his fourteen-book series in the prologue to The Eye of the World. He shows us Lews Therin Telamon, the Dragon, in his final moments of madness, struggling with a foe who claims that their battle has echoed throughout time. The next few chapters are a plod through a seemingly unrelated hamlet, punctuated by events of minor importance. We’re dragged on almost exclusively by the question of who Lews Therin was, and why he’s important to the series.

Pat Rothfuss’s The Name of the Wind is the one book I’ve gotten through without an immediate lure to keep reading past the first fifty pages or so. It took a lot of effort for me to get past the slow build of his introduction. In fact, I quit reading Name a good three times out of boredom before I finally forced myself over the hurdle of its beginning. I was glad I continued, because he’d crafted an incredible work of fantasy. But nothing gripped me in the beginning, so I almost lost out on the experience.

Obviously, Rothfuss is not hurting for readers: he’s one of the preeminent fantasy authors of this generation despite having only released two major volumes of his masterwork. I like to think that the beauty of his prose was ultimately what pulled me in to the tragic tale of his protagonist, Kvothe. At the same time, I don’t want to depend on suddenly becoming a prose genius in order to snag my readers. That means we have a few legitimate options left to us.

Stunning characters. Some people argue that Kvothe hits this note perfectly, but in a vacuum, he’s not much of a character before his tale begins in earnest. We know he’s a mysterious innkeeper with a dangerous past, but mysterious pasts are a dime a dozen in fantasy. No, a better example would be the fiery dynamism and toxic intensity of Sario Grijalva, the villain and centerpiece of The Golden Key, by Melanie Rawn, Jennifer Roberson, and Kate Elliott. Within the first few pages, you know that he is brilliant and he is uncontrollable. Like or hate him, getting to know Sario is reason enough to read the rest of the book.

A compelling mystery. “Prince Raoden of Arelon awoke early that morning, completely unaware that he had been damned for all eternity.” I mean, where do you go from there? To the rest of the book, that’s where. In one clever sentence, Brandon Sanderson sets up the central mystery of his debut novel Elantris. The question of how and why Raoden is damned, and what he is going to do about it, consume the rest of the book. To his credit, Sanderson gives enough hints to keep stringing us along the moment the mystery starts to grow cold. And then ending, to give nothing away, is a satisfying and brilliant answer to those questions.

One hell of a setting. This one doesn’t always work, because brilliant settings are more numerous in the genre than the aforementioned grim strangers with shrouded pasts. Every once in a while, a writer strikes gold. H.P. Lovecraft may not have been much of a success during his lifetime, but his stories have endured throughout the decades and only continue to grow in popularity. Yes, they’re dated. They’re often thin on plot and character. But we keep reading. Why? Because Lovecraft has built an enthralling setting of ancient monsters and body horror that pulls us in. He crafted a universe where every shadow and most lights conceal things that are ready to kill you, or worse, change the very foundations of who you are.

None of these are guarantors of keeping your readers’ interest. Obviously, the people behind Agents of SHIELD know the foundations of good drama, and they failed to maintain their audience. Still, the pitfall of potentially losing our readers shouldn’t stop us, as writers, from trying to craft worlds steeped in nuance and measured doses of exposition. If anything, the challenge should make success sweeter.