Thursday, December 15, 2005

The Bait-and-Switch Trick

The opening scene you tease the reader with must be relevant. If your opening hooks potential readers, they buy the book. So, they hate the old Bait-and-Switch trick, which makes readers feel cheated. It can really hurt sales of future works.

In Technique in Fiction, Lanning and Macauley say that

... a writer has to discriminate wisely between the attention-getting device that soon becomes fairly irrelevant to the story and the beginning that genuinely gathers the reader into the arms of the story…. An exciting, dramatic beginning is entirely possible, but it must be justified completely by the story that follows.

So, no false advertising with a magnificent, breathtaking opening if nothing ever comes of the earth-shaking event that occurs in it. In the Bait-and-Switch trick, the principal hook is often a fascinating character we follow through this riveting scene. He is developed like a main character, and we read largely to plumb the mysteries of him. But, suddenly he vanishes on us, appearing only in the opening scene. Which proves to be an irrelevant bit of action, involving irrelevant characters, tacked on the front of a different kind of story told in a different way. Bummer. We are interested in that character and want to know his story! Indeed, the real main characters who then appear can hardly compete with him for our interest, because they seem dull and uninteresting by comparison. Gradually the reader discovers that significant story questions he has been pursuing the answers to will never be answered. In other words, he has been drawn off on a false scent by the opening. That isn't just disappointing, it's confusing and makes the reader miss, or misunderstand, a lot.

In the Bait-and-Switch trick even the quality of the prose often falls off after the opening. Gone is the captivating sensual detail that brings the story world to shimmering life and transports us into an exotic setting.

The Bait-and-Switch trick can kill your career. That's because the reader doesn't bother to taste the opening of your next novel when he comes upon it in a bookstore: he doesn't trust it to show him what the novel will be like. And he remembers feeling cheated by your first one.

A common example of the Bait-and-Switch trick is pushing sales with a steamy erotic scene tacked on the front of a novel that doesn't keep the promise this opening scene makes about what kind of story this is. That too is false advertising. Beware a publisher who recommends doing this, because that publisher knows this trick can score a fast buck on your first novel but ruin your chances of a successful career under that pen name.

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