Tue 28 Oct 2014
by Dr. Suzanne Conboy-Hill
Some while ago Walter Giersbach (Hook Your Readers) wrote this:
Advertising copywriters insist that a good poster capture the attention of a commuter dashing to catch the 8:05 train. That’s a tough chore—almost as tough as grabbing a reader in the first 30 words of your short story. The grabber is the narrative hook, an intriguing opener that makes the story impossible to put down.It better be good, because an e-zine RSS feed may give the subscriber just that 30-word teaser to invite a click-through.
And I wrote this:
Openers tread a fine line between unselfconscious intrigue and the dangling lure crafty old pikes are going to give a wide berth. It’s probably horses for courses, but I prefer an intro that doesn’t make me feel I’m being hooked.
Silly me, should have kept my mouth shut. I’ve been challenged to expand.
Luckily, after some thought I find I still agree with myself but I have had to take apart the rationale for that and also consider what it means for people who aren’t me because it turns out there’s quite a lot of those.
If we stay with the metaphor of lures and hooks, we know that there are different kinds for different fish—what catches a trout won’t (so I imagine) snag a pike. I think that extends to opening lines or excerpts too because this is not a one-way process. It’s interactive, and we need to find the right line for the right reader.
Many stories are published in a genre context, and so we already know what kind of content is coming. When I go to Clarkesworld, for instance, my head is geared to science fiction and fantasy, and so it’s ready to deploy my stock of SF/F references. But where there is mixed content or multiple feeds, this context is missing, which makes those openers or excerpts critical to engaging the attention of a receptive reader.
I wondered then about a catch-all formula and I recall a writer (whose name escapes me but may have been Steven King) saying that the opening paragraph should a) introduce the main character, b) contain an action, and c) deliver a piece of dialogue. A handy template, which I think has merit because it at least stops you from stuffing yards of exposition and scene-setting into it, and you can ‘season to taste,’ as it were.
My concern with templates though is first that they can so easily become rules, and second that attending to them risks drawing attention away from the purpose of the exercise. In this case, the purpose is initially to alert the right reader to the right material and once there to have them ‘read ready’ very quickly by establishing the contextual references—dystopia, humour, SF, literary, are they supposed to ‘get it’ or is ‘getting it’ not part of the contract? That sort of thing.
I think if we ignore targeting and fail to give potential readers what they need in order to be ‘read ready’ for our material, we run the risk of missing the right readers and disappointing the ones we pull in. For instance, anything beginning: ‘The thing in the swamp licked the blood of its last victim from its fangs and surveyed the lone house in the distance where the last man on earth sat shivering,” is pretty much not going to be a romance, unless the author’s next paragraph goes, “Sharon put down her horrible horror book, turned on all the lights, and hugged John’s pillow – oh why did he have to be away on her birthday?” and how would we know? So while it may be a well-baited hook, it won’t be a very satisfactory one for the gore-fest aficionados who bite on it. Of course, if we knew and trusted the author, we might have followed the teaser anyway and been rewarded, but if we did not, we and everyone else looking for a romance piece would miss it.
Flash asks a great deal of the reader; it is succinct in the same way as poetry, it tends to focus on the essence rather than the detail of a story, and it is part of the deal that the reader brings something of their own into the reading of it. It may not be fully closed, more ‘openly closed’ as Elaine Chiew has it. It is also permitted to ‘start in the middle’ which I think makes the title a critical part of the lure, and I wonder how much consideration we give to this before we saddle our protégés with a clever word salad and send them off.
So the beginning is not necessarily the beginning and the ending is not necessarily the end, which means those first few words have a very big job to do. I think that job is not to draw in anyone and everyone but to engage the interest of the right reader for the piece and to prepare them, to help them find the right set of mental references, for what is to come. That done, it’s up to us whether we throw a fine gauge net, blow a circle of bubbles, cast a line with fancy dancing feathers on the end, or drop a chunk of raw meat into the water.
1. That said, all that Rowlings is not Potter, as we now know.
2. Elaine Chiew, Endings. In Short Circuit, Gebbie (Ed) Salt Publishing, 2009. P188
3. David Gaffney, Get Shorty: The micro fiction of Etgar Keret. In Gebbie, op cit. P173
Suzanne Conboy-Hill is a past psychologist, present writer with publications in Every Day Fiction, Zouch Magazine, Ether Books, and Full of Crow amongst others. Website: http://conboyhillfiction.wordpress.com/