A few years ago, the guest editor for The Best American Short Stories (I think it was Alice Sebold) wrote that she chose the stories while sitting on a plane. If a story could hold her attention in that hectic environment, then it was a good one. If it couldn’t, then it wasn’t. It’s true that certain kinds of quiet stories might not be great reads for an airplane, but it’s also true that most of us make up our minds about a story by the end of the first page or two. So, how can we make our own stories grab the reader? I’ve written before about writing quick-starting opening paragraphs. But there are other ways as well.
David James Poissant uses the opening paragraphs of his story, “Stealing Orlando,” to develop a rapport with the reader. You can read it now at Newfound.
How the Story Works
The story begins with an intriguing premise: the narrator’s wife wants him to dress up like Orlando Bloom in Elizabethtown while they have sex. There are many ways to introduce such a premise, but Poissant uses a particular kind of informal language that draws the reader in. You can see it at work in the first sentence:
What happened was our marriage was falling apart, the way marriages do, and, in our falling, my wife Delia and I got real honest, because why not, because what did we have to lose?
Notice the phrases “the way marriages do” and “real honest” and “because why not”. This is how people talk in real life: we generalize, we’re ungrammatical, and we use flip phrases to to talk about things that could be embarrassing. There’s a kind of confessional tone at work, and it’s natural for the reader to lean in to listen. We’re naturally drawn to confessions.
In moments of honest confession, the speaker often tries to connect with the listener. Who wants to confess to something that is unimaginable to the other person? This is exactly what Poissant’s narrator does:
This was one of those nights where you both drink so much you feel closer than you are and safer than you are, and so you speak dangerously, say things that make it hard the next morning to meet eyes.
The phrase “one of those nights where” implies that we, the readers, understand what those nights are like.
Even the premise itself suggests a kind of intimacy between narrator and reader. Workshop teachers occasionally claim that stories should be universal, that they shouldn’t contain time-sensitive cultural references. Such references may or may not affect the story’s readers twenty years in the future, but they do make connects to its contemporary readers. What do we talk about most of the time? Movies and television. So, why not use those conversations in fiction? Here is how Poissant does exactly that:
This was a decade ago, after Orlando Bloom grew elf ears, but before the “Pirates” movies got so bad. Anyhow, it wasn’t elf Bloom Delia wanted, with his weirdo bow and creepy side braid, or swashbuckling Bloom with his muttonchops and creepy half goatee. No, Delia had a thing for Drew Baylor, the suicidal-but-clean-cut lead in what was—and pretty much remains—Cameron Crowe’s worst film. That was the Orlando she wanted.
This paragraph assumes that we understand its references: “before the ‘Pirates’ movies got so bad.” By giving the reader credit, the story draws us in.
Finally, the story actually addresses the reader directly:
And because this was a decade ago, my telling you this means I know how things turned out. As in, I could tell you, Did the marriage make it, yes or no?
But I’m not going to tell you, not yet, because where’s the fun in that?
And also because read, you lazy motherfucker, read.
Those lines may seem risky (and perhaps they will turn off some readers), but they’re built on a rapport that has been developed over the first page of the story. Many readers will want to know what happened to the marriage, and the rapport we feel with the narrator is a big reason why we’ll keep reading.
The Writing Exercise
Let’s develop a rapport with the reader, using “Stealing Orlando” by David James Poissant as a model:
- Use informal phrases in the first paragraph. Stories can use many different ranges of language, of course, including the very formal. However, stories also don’t have book jackets and marketing teams. Readers can’t be lured in before picking up the story, as they can with novels. So, a language that implies some connection with the reader is useful. (Novels do this, too. Read the opening page of Junot Diaz’s The Brief and Wonderous Life of Oscar Wao.) Try including phrases in the opening paragraph that generalize, are ungrammatical, or that cover up embarrassment or emotion. In other words, how can you add a few words to make the prose feel as if it’s sitting beside the readers, not lecturing to them.
- Refer to a shared understanding with the reader. You can use Poissant’s phrase as a starter: “This was one of those nights where…” This phrase can be taken in an honest direction by using an experience that truly is shared by most people. Or, you can use it to surprise the reader: “This was one of those nights where you end up shooting cats and showing up naked on your fiancé’s doorstep.” Obviously, most people have never done that, and the suggestion that we have is so ludicrous that we’re drawn in anyway.
- Use specific cultural references. A key to making this work is to suggest a shared knowledge. So, don’t just sprinkle in references. Instead, make judgments about those references that many people share (or, don’t share, if you’re trying to surprise the reader). Think about the narrative arc of a references. Poissant does this with the Pirates of the Caribbean movies: they were pretty good and then they weren’t. Pretty much any cultural reference that has staying power will have an arc: people won’t feel the same about it the entire time. If you refer to those changing opinions, you give the reader a chance to fill in the blanks with their own opinions, which draws them in.
- Address the reader directly. Again, try using Poissant’s exact phrase: “I could tell you, Did the marriage make it, yes or no.” Replace the question about the marriage with a question that is integral to the premise or plot of your story. This won’t work for every story. However, in some stories, if you develop a rapport with the reader, you can also acknowledge the artificial nature of the story itself, and that admission will actually strengthen the rapport. You’re simply admitting what the reader already knows. You’re giving the reader credit for being smart.
Good luck and have fun.