Saturday, January 28, 2006

Teases 2

Steven Spielberg teases us in the openings of the Indiana Jones movies. Each movie opens with the end of some previous adventure. Thus the audience is immediately plunged into exciting action that poses intriguing story questions of great urgency. Will Indy get run over by that huge boulder? Will he reach the antidote in time? Will that rhinoceros neuter him? Spielberg definitely has our attention.

These little prologues aren't throw-away scenes though. They take advantage of the intense conflict to introduce us to the intriguing character of Indiana Jones, elegantly revealing its salient elements more through actions than words. Hence, as in literary fiction, the principle hook is the main character himself. These prologues also have symbolic and thematic significance relating to the story that follows and the trilogy as a whole. Each prologue ends with Indy returning to his other life as a professor of archeology, where he lands in the opening situation of the core conflict.

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Monday, January 23, 2006


Hooks hook whether they relate to the core conflict or not. So, in mainstream fiction today the emphasis is on irresistible bait rather than on rigid classical form. Such hooks are short-range story questions called teases. Teases are attention-grabbing devices to arouse curiosity with catchy story questions. To pose them the story opens with some exciting action or dialog and plunges the reader into immediate scene. That scene needn't involve a main character or action belonging to the core conflict.

For example, here is the opening of Earthly Powers by Anthony Burgess.
It was the afternoon of my eighty-first birthday, and I was in bed with my catamite when Ali announced the Archbishop had come to see me.

Yes, that means the eighty-one-year-old narrator was making love to somebody of the same sex when the Archbishop arrived. Gets your attention and poses some interesting story questions, doesn't it?

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Sunday, January 22, 2006

Vision: A Resource for Writers

Sorry for the unannounced hiatus from posting. I have been really down with the flue this past week. You can normally expect two or three tips per week.

See my article entitled Writing to the Imagination in the current issue (#31) of Vision: A Resource for Writers. And a great bimonthly resource it is, with many great articles on writing.



Friday, January 13, 2006

The Classic Hook - 3

In a first-person novel, the narrator is a character. Just plain curiosity about the narrator can serve as another hook. Mark Twain arouses this curiosity masterfully in the opening of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.
You don't know about me without you have read a book by the name of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer; but that ain't no matter.
And that brilliant stroke of reverse psychology makes us instantly curious about him.

But Huck is telling his own story. Nick (the narrator in The Great Gatsby) and Scout (the narrator in To Kill a Mockingbird) are telling other people's stories. So, you don't want Nick and Scout to steal the show. That limits what the author can do to arouse curiosity about them.

Also, it's always harder to sink your hooks in the reader with a first-person novel. This is partly because your opening must introduce a main character (the narrator) at the same time and partly because, when people tell a story, they start at the beginning — with exposition — not in the middle of some exciting action or dialog.

Unless you frame the story in it, as Anne Rice does in Interview with the Vampire.
"I see . . ." said the vampire thoughtfully, and slowly he walked across the room towards the window. For a long time he stood there against the dim light from Divisadero Street and the passing beams of traffic. The boy could see the furnishings of the room more clearly now, the round oak table, the chairs. A wash basin hung on one wall with a mirror. He set his briefcase on the table and waited.

The vampire immediately grabs our attention and makes us curious about him. Great hook. But at a heavy price. The vampire's narration of his story is framed in an interview with the boy. So, this is actually a third-person narration of a narration from the boy's viewpoint. The immediate scene is at this table in the vampire's home. Not in the story he tells. At best, during long quotes of the vampire's narration, the reader drifts into something like "immediate scene once removed." Thus the frame distances us from the story, and that's ordinarily the last thing you want (though you can make a case for imposing this distance on such off-putting subject matter as this vampire story). So, frames usually cause more story-telling problems than they solve.
Therefore, unless you have a good reason not to, stick with third-person narration and hook the reader with teases.

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Saturday, January 07, 2006

The Classic Hook - 2

Here is another example of the classic hook via long-range story questions about the core conflict — the opening of To Kill a Mockingbird (1960), literary fiction by Harper Lee.

When he was nearly thirteen, my brother Jem got his arm badly broken at the elbow. When it healed, and Jem's fears of never being able to play football were assuaged, he was seldom self-conscious about his injury. His left arm was somewhat shorter than his right; when he stood or walked, the back of his hand was at right angles to his body, his thumb parallel to his thigh. He couldn't have cared less, so long as he could pass and punt.

When enough years had gone by to enable us to look back on them, we sometimes discussed the events leading to his accident. I maintain that the Ewells started it all, but Jem, who was four years my senior, said it started long before that. He said it began the summer Dill came to us, when he first gave us the idea of making Boo Radley come out.
That opening won't set your hair on fire, either. But you can see that the craft has advanced in the thirty-five years since the publication of The Great Gatsby. This advance was partly due to Hollywood's discoveries about the art of storytelling. Lee's opening tells you what the story is about, posing the long-range story questions about the core conflict that are answered in the end. Those questions arouse your curiosity. How did Jem's arm get so badly broken that it's permanently deformed? Who are the Ewells and what did they do? The very name of a character like Boo Radley makes you curious about him. Where was he hiding? Why wouldn't he come out?

So this example of the classic hook is quite effective.

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Wednesday, January 04, 2006

The Classic Hook

The hardest part of a novel is the opening. Your opening story questions must hook the reader. You must decide whether to pose long-range story questions about the core conflict or catchy short-range story questions about exciting action or dialog in the opening scene. Which can hardly be about the core conflict, because you haven't set up the core conflict yet.

Here's an example of the classic, literary-fiction style opening with story questions about the core conflict. It's the opening of The Great Gatsby, literary fiction by F. Scott Fitzgerald:

In my younger and more vulnerable years my father gave me some advice that I've been turning over in my mind ever since.

"Whenever you feel like criticizing anyone," he told me, "just remember that all people in this world haven't had the advantages you've had."

The story questions (hooks) he thus plants are Whom is the narrator about to criticize? and What advantages does he have that they lack?

These are long-range story questions answered in the book as a whole at the end. The narrator (Nick) criticizes New England sophisticates, who lack the advantages of his upbringing in the Upper Midwest — advantages that leave people from the flyover states "deficient" in some quality necessary for "Eastern life" and therefore "subtly unadaptable" to it.

Now, that opening doesn't create gripping suspense. In fact, for a long time I didn't know how wonderful this book is, because the first time I sat down to read it, it didn't hook me. I never got past the first few pages.

Nonetheless, these opening story questions elegantly 'squeeze the universe into a ball and roll it toward the overwhelming question' posed by the story as a whole. Still, The Great Gatsby was first published in 1925, and it lives on its reputation as a classic — Fitzgerald wouldn't get it first-published today without changing the exposition in the opening pages to immediate scene and making them compelling with catchy hooks.

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Monday, January 02, 2006

Sagging Suspense

The most common problem with novels good enough to consider for publication is that they sag in the middle. The story loses momentum, suspense flags, and the reader is no longer curious about what will happen next.

You can fix this problem and improve almost any first or second draft by cutting the weakest scene. Just find the scene where your own interest flags, and eliminate it. If possible, eliminate the second-weakest scene too. As the great silent-screen writer and director Carl Theodore Dreyer said, "The essential is sufficient."

Another cure for the sagging novel is to strengthen it with architectural suspense (location hopping).

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