Saturday, June 16, 2007

Make me want to read your story

Posted by Trent Walters at 10:24 AM
Whenever I enter a story, I am looking for a reason to read it. Usually, a story question--simple or profound--can do the trick. Sometimes, beautiful language works, but not the easy, knee-jerk pretty language that's trying to sentimentally tug your emotional strings by repeating gold, golden, gilded, silver, and such. Originality is the key.


"I've done a terrible thing." -- Robert J. Sawyer's Humans

This forces the reader to ask: "What terrible thing?"

"He found the flying mountain by its shadow." -- Gregory Benford's In the Ocean of Night

This is an SF sentence. The reader wants to know by what means the mountain flies--among hundreds of other questions opened up by such a simple question.

"The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel

"'It's not like I'm using,' Case heard someone say." -- Neuromancer by William Gibson

Interesting, vivid imagery and language. Plus it evokes that old-time SF awe--an entire sky like TV. Mood-wise, there's something vaguely ominous about "dead" and even watching a sky that looks like a dead channel. He could have said that the channel was off the air.

Also, we wonder what drug the overheard character might be using. It turns out, though, that this drug usage is a joke in the Sprawl, which raises questions about the society that Case lives in ("What's a Sprawl?" a reader might also ask.)

Here is another example evoking that old-time SF awe:

"It was the most majestic series of structures David Collingdale had ever seen. Steeples and dome and polygons rose out of the ice and snow. Walkways soared among the towers, or their remnants. Many had collapsed." -- Omega by Jack McDevitt

Note that this also asks the question of why the structures collapsed.

In Alastair Reynolds' Revelation Space, he pops an SF sentence and follows it up with a question that is important to the protagonist:

There was razorstorm coming in.

Sylveste stood on the edge of the excavation and wondered if any of his labors would survive the night.

Now some speculative writers want to begin more in a literary mode. We still ask questions, but they should be driven to find out more about the characters:

"They sat stiffly on his antique Eames chairs, two people who didn't want ot be here, or one person who didn't want to and one who resented the other's reluctance."--Nancy Kress' Beggars in Spain

"To get through the afternoons that wound into early evenings, driving a school bus along long country roads and driveways, Hud kept slightly drunk." --The Singing and Dancing Daughters of God by Timothy Schaffert

"Each of us has a private Austen."--Karen Joy Fowler's Jane Austen Book Club

Why are Kress' characters tense?

In Schaffert's, different readers might ask different questions: "How can such a horrible man be in charge of children's lives?" "What drove him to drink and risk other people's children?" "What will this quirky character get up to next?"

Karen Joy Fowler's is also more complex than it appears. It's a simple yet original philosophical statement that gets us to ask, how so? But there's also a narrator who is commenting on other characters, so that we end up (if we've read Austen) asking which books and what kinds of characters would define their lives by these books--apparently finding them worth living by.

In fact, the beginning of fiction is only just the beginning of getting the reader to ask questions. If you tell the reader that today is an ordinary day, that the character lives in an ordinary apartment, that the character is just like everyone else you ignore on the street, the reader will wonder why he's being asked to read this.

Keep this in mind when submitting your stories. Why are you telling this story? What's interesting about starting in this place? If you don't have something worth saying at the beginning, you can't expect the readers to want to read further.


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9/25/2009 01:38:00 AM  

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