By Sarah Hoyt
(And yes, of course, you can go back and start the workshop now — first post last week — and send me the exercise together with this week’s. We’re very informal here.)
Who? Where? When? Why?
Okay, here’s the thing. You can have your great opening line, right? And it might draw the reader in like nobody’s business. You might even have a little bit of non-specific philosophy after that, provided it’s hooky in itself. You bought yourself a little space with that first line hook. The reader is good for a paragraph or so after, and if you want to wind them further, you can (though you don’t have to.)
So, say you hook with (and don’t pick on me, I wasn’t up to writing this last night, so it’s coming out on the spur of the moment): Only one person knows the real way to kill vampires.
You can then wind the reader further with:
Oh, sure, you’ve heard of garlic and stakes through the heart. And some creative souls among you have thought of water and of fire. Stands to reason water will break the body to molecules after a while and fire will reduce it to ashes. But like garlic or stakes, those means of killing the vampire must always be temporary. All you need is for a small number of particles to come together again, in the future, and the fanged horror will spring up anew fresh as a newborn day. Garlic and stakes are even less effective.
Okay, about that much winding up should be tolerated, but at some point you’re going to have to give the reader what he wants, to wit, story. And how you start that story makes all the difference on whether he stays hooked or swims of free, into the great world of potential reads.
So, consider what went before the camera panning at the beginning of an interesting movie, where they give you tantalizing elements that will come in first. Perhaps you don’t know that, but your hook and windup have already done yeoman work, besides hooking the reader. You’ve signaled what type of story this is, in case nothing else did, before the reader opened it. This is a story about killing vampires. And you’ve set up what will be the main problem of the story. There’s only on way to kill vampires and only one person knows.
Now, just like the cover will focus on one person, you take us to that person and to the story. Let’s try an opening and see how it works, shall we?
That person stood in the place of employment, before the broad table upon which the slayer performed such duties as fell to the job. It was an airy room, bright and clean. The open window showed a verdant expanse outside. The slayer moved and used a familiar implement. Then yawned. Then said “Curse the damned writer for making this deliberately boring. I’m going to need coffee.”
There, except perhaps for the last line which I hope will make you giggle, are you riveted? Suspended? Do you want to continue reading? Perhaps you do because the paragraph is SO careful not to give any hints that you might be curious. But most of the time this is done more casually, not on purpose, and it goes on for pages and pages and pages. And in fact, if I went on for pages and pages (yes, I could, but I’m lazy) you’d get bored, no matter how mysterious I’m being. “Get to the point already woman” might come to mind followed by “Is the slayer a guy a girl or yes? Is it even human? And what is the frigging place of employment?”
You’d be amazed truly, how many newbies do JUST this for pages and pages and pages. They USUALLY give the gender away but not much else. And the feeling reminds me of these milk-white fogs that used to fall over my region and make me completely blind to anything beyond my hand span.
So, let’s try the right way instead. And then I’ll explain the difference.
Maggie stood behind the counter, in the diner. It was early morning, but not time for the breakfast rush yet. In fact, Jason and Jane had just finished cleaning up, so the place smelled clean and nice. The broad plate glass window let in the sun. Maggie looked across the street at the broad, vast, green expense of the cemetery. It had been deeded to the city by one of the founders when they expected Damnation, Colorado to be a serious rival to Denver. Before the silver mines crashed. It went on for miles and miles – rolling laws tended with money left in trust – and fragrant pine forests. It was a great place for vampires to hide. Except that sooner or later, they came out in search of victims. And usually they came to the dinner first.
Maggie tightened her hand on the handle of her favorite cleaver. The problem was that no vampire had come out in the last week. It was all very well to know the one true way of killing a vampire. But if this went on much longer, she’d have to buy pork for the souvlaki.
What is the difference? Well, in the second example you know who you are, in whose head you are and where she is, what she is doing and what her immediate problem is. Whether you consider Maggie the vampire-skewer riveting or not is something else, but if you’re into funny vampire tales, you might. (And thankyersomuch, I’ve now been gifted with story. They multiply, I swear.)
The normal instinct of the reader is to stick with the character so long as the character is plainly, understandable, in surroundings the reader “gets” AND has a problem of some sort. (Yes, there are a hundred slips between the cup and the lips, but I’ll give you the DO NOTS in the next lesson.)
Note you don’t need a lot of description there, the mind fill in the rest. (How many of you see her having long blond hair, come on, a show of hands! It’s the slayer thing.)
Years ago, in very odd circumstances, we learned visualization exercises. A variation of these might help. Sit down. Close your eyes, take two deep breaths, then imagine you’re in the head of the character about whom this story is. Look down – what are you wearing? Look around, where are you? What time period is it? What are you doing? AND what do you need/want/must do?
Then sit down and write it. Only make sure you’re not flooding us in uneeded details. And then send it to me – firstname.lastname@example.org – and I promise to get to it before next Sunday. Please, only about two paragraphs, as I’m still digging out from under being ill, and when I see pages and pages, I keep putting off critiquing.