I’ve been working on a series of articles on what constitutes a perfect story, and so far I’ve concentrated on some of the qualities that such a story would have. I could go on in that vein for another week, but suffice it to say that a perfect story will exhibit plenty of virtues that I haven’t been able to cover.
For a moment, though, I’d like to talk about what constitutes a perfect opening. I think that the answer might surprise you. I’ve spoken a few times in the past about how the opening of a story must do three vital things. Within the first few pages of a short story or a novel you should establish your setting, your protagonist, and an important conflict. But do you need to do all of those instantly?
Some editors would say, “Yes. If you’re going to write a short story and publish it in my magazine, I want all of that within the first three pages.” The editor would be perfectly within his rights to demand it. I know that Algis Budrys used to say that he wanted it within the first two pages. Yet even he didn’t always stick to his guns.
You see, you can spend five pages in a story describing the landscape in such a way that it grabs a reader and keeps him enthralled—without ever introducing a character or the major conflict. Similarly, you can introduce the wrong character—someone who isn’t a major protagonist. Or you can introduce a dozen conflicts in a page and never get to the primary conflict that will drive your story. In fact, if you look at Hitchcock’s Psycho, you have an example of a story where the primary conflict isn’t introduced until far into the tale.
Even though those elements are desirable in the opening of a tale, none of them are necessary. Do you know what is necessary?
Promise. Your story has to open with promise.
There are dozens of ways to do this. Sometimes the author makes a promise by giving the reader a hook: “Solomon Brown was shot to death on a gray Tuesday, and when he rose from the dead three days later, he was in a sour mood.” Now, as a hook goes, that’s a little heavy-handed, but that’s all right. Whatever works, works. We tell the reader that something significant will happen, and that we will explore the tale in the future. By reading that hook, you know that a man will get shot; he will rise from the dead; and when he does, he will most likely be looking for vengeance. I’ve promised quite a bit in that one sentence.
You can string hooks like that together in dozens of sentences, adding to their power, until the reader can’t keep up fast enough. Eventually though, that technique will begin to feel contrived. So you resort to a second technique for creating hooks. I call it setting “partial hooks.” You do this by telling pieces of a story, stringing it out, and leaving the reader eager to hear more. Here’s an example:
Solomon Brown was shot to death on a gray Tuesday, and when he rose from the dead three days later, he was in a sour mood. He didn’t see who’d shot him, whether it was a man, woman, or child. The gunfire came from behind, a cowardly thing. That’s what left him feeling so pissed off. The loud blast of a shotgun erupted in an empty hallway as Solomon had just finished delivering a sermon on the importance of compassion in modern society. The buckshot cut through his black leather jacket, shredded both lungs, and hurled him to the floor. He wasn’t able to draw another breath. But if someone was going to shoot him, he’d have preferred to see his attacker. It wasn’t that he wanted to know the shooter’s identity. That wasn’t what bothered him. Male or female, old or young. What did it matter who shot him? It had happened far too many times before. No, what Solomon hoped to see was a look in his killer’s eyes, an expression of conviction, the killer’s certainty that he or she was doing the right thing.
Do you see how each sentence in that paragraph is a hook? Each sentence adds details but also leaves questions unanswered. Each phrase is like a piece of a puzzle, creating something of a picture while at the same time hinting at deeper secrets to be explored.
So that’s a second way to open a story with promises. The technique works just fine in itself, and you don’t need full-sentence hooks, but there are many other ways to tease an audience along.
For example, your prose in itself can be promising. If you write beautifully—if there’s music in your words; if you express yourself in ways that are strange and exciting; if you reveal an unusually profound intellect; if you promise insights into the reader’s life—these too will promise your reader a rich experience if they continue on in your story. So you can hook your reader simply with the power of your own voice and style.
Similarly, your story can promise to arouse emotions that the reader craves. Thus, if your reader picks up your novel Love Rises Eternal, you’d better start with a scene that promises romance. Or if they pick up your book Mob Boss, you’d better have something appropriate handy.
Now, it’s important to remember precisely what you’ve promised to your reader. Hundreds of times I’ve read openings that promised one thing, only to see the remainder of the tale deliver another. For example, if you open a story with humor, but then go on to deliver a tale of adventure that becomes completely serious, your readers will feel the taint. The same thing happens any time that the parts are at odds, such as when you start with romance and then never resolve the romantic problem, or if you start with horror and move to humor, and so on. The audience might enjoy both parts of the tale—both pieces might be crafted expertly—but the audience will feel disconcerted, perhaps even cheated.
So if you’re going to write a tale that delivers a certain type of emotion, your opening scene needs to work synergistically with the rest of the story to heighten the desired effect. This means that you might need to do some soul-searching as you try to devise opening scenes that invoke what you intend to deliver.
In short, a perfect story will in some way or another promise the reader that “If you read on, you will be richly rewarded.” This is typically done by using several different techniques—through great hooks planted wisely, by stringing the reader along and offering the story in bits and pieces, through scenes crafted to heighten the tale’s controlling emotions right from the starting gate, and of course from the writer’s own sense of artistry and his or her gifts for powerful storytelling.
No matter which techniques you choose to use or leave out, a perfect story will begin with promise—perhaps many promises.
– The Kanab Writers Conference is coming up. The seminar is held at the Library in Kanab, Utah on Saturday, March 4, from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. The cost for the seminar is $40 if you register online and $50 at the door, and that includes lunch. The website for information and registration is at http://www.kanabwritersconference.com
– You can now preorder the next Writers of the Future anthology here.
– I’m in the process of setting up workshops in Montana and Texas, so watch for those.