As a short story writer, one of the realities that you must accept is that your story is one of hundreds or thousands that a journal editor will read. Those editors are almost always unpaid, reading slush pile manuscripts out of a sincere devotion to short fiction—but also at night, after work, when they’re tired. When they turn to your story, they don’t rub their hands together and say, “Ah, finally, I’ve been longing to read this one.” In fact, just the opposite happens. Editors and their first readers begin to look for reasons to say no, to reject the story before finishing it because that will create time to read the many other stories in the pile.
As a writer, this is the world your story enters, and so it’s a good idea to craft your opening so that it will catch a reader’s attention—so that it will make the reader forget about all the other stories that must be read. Perhaps the best way to do this is to immediately introduce conflict. But, not all conflict is created equal. The first line, “The vampires attacked,” works only if the editor’s never read a vampire story before. The sentence contains conflict but is generic. So what if the vampires attack? Big deal, a vampire-weary editor might think. The conflict needs to become personal, and the best way to make something personal is to attach emotion to it.
This is exactly what Adam Soto does in his story, “The Box.” It appears in the most recent issue of Glimmer Train.
How the Story Works
The story is set in Guinea, Sierra Leone, and Liberia, and it follows a handcrafted box as it moves from owner to owner. As a result, each part (at least in the first half) focuses on a different character. This means that the story must hook the reader not just once but several times, each time a new character is introduced.
Here is how Soto introduces the character in the second section of the story:
The box becomes a half-Liberian, half-Belgian doctor’s laundry basket. It sits beneath her desk all winter. At night she turns on a soft paper lamp to write observational notes and letters. At some point she writes: I am sorry I came this time. I will be back before the spring. The work has always been challenging and meaningful. But now it was also selfish, she has realized. The hiccups, she writes, they will haunt me forever. In early March, she leaves. She goes to Brussels, where her husband and son are. It was not like before, she explains to a colleague over coffee, when it was only her, the work, and the long solitude of memory.
“Of course not,” he agrees, tearing open a strip of sugar, staring at the plinths of rain outside the restaurant window. “The oath to your son should be greater than the one to your patients.”
She feels put off.
Notice how many emotional indicators are in this passage: sorry, challenging, meaningful, selfish, haunt, feels put off. At this point in the story, we’re not yet clear about the nature of her work and why she finds it challenging and meaningful. But because we know how she feels about the work—about how leaving it—we’re curious to know more about it, which is the entire purpose of an opening paragraph, whether it’s at the beginning of a story or the beginning of a new section.
The character’s emotional connection to her work becomes more complex when it gets reflected back at her by the colleague she meets for coffee. He says, “The oath to your son should be greater than the one to your patients,” a statement that puts words, accurate or not, to the way the doctor is feeling. The doctor could have said, “Yes, that’s right.” But she doesn’t. She resists and “feels put off.” Now we’re curious why her emotions are mixed, why she doesn’t have a clear feeling about her actions. Again, this is a great way to hook the reader. We want to know more.
The Writing Exercise
Let’s hook the reader with a character’s emotions, using “The Box” by Adam Soto as a model:
- Find something that your character feels strongly about. Strong, of course, is a relative term. In this case, I mean that the emotion should be worth telling someone about, which is why the passage begins with the doctor writing, “I am sorry.” This doesn’t mean that your character needs to tell someone how they feel—only that the feeling needs to be close to the skin and not buried. So, look around your character’s life. What are the big things that evoke an emotional response? Think about jobs and relationships and pivotal choices the character has made. And, what are the small things that evoke a response, arguments or dilemmas that might be forgotten in a month but which are pressing in the moment?
- Put your character into that moment. Show the readers your character in the midst of the conflicting emotion. Such scenes have an inherent interest to them. Think about the times you’ve seen people in coffee shops or stores or anywhere in public having an argument or clearly feeling some emotion. You can’t help but watch them. But if they’re simply telling someone, “Yesterday, I felt…” we’re less inclined to eavesdrop because the emotional state has passed. It’s more interesting to have someone actively feeling rather than having already felt.
- Let the character attempt to grapple with the emotion. As a rule (and you’re free to disagree), I believe it’s important to make characters as smart and self-aware as possible. Of course, some characters will be less aware than others, but when we make characters who act stupidly and blindly all of the time, the reader is tempted to feel that the story is unrealistic. If fiction partly works through readers identifying with characters, it’s good for the readers to feel that the character is as smart and self-aware as them. So, let your character try to manage or cope with the emotion he or she is feeling. Give the character mechanisms for doing so, strategies to fall back upon or the ability to consider why he or she is feeling this way. Soto does this in “The Box” with the line, “But now it is also selfish, she has realized.” This shows the character being thoughtful and giving consideration to her own feelings. As a result, the readers are more likely to buy into the story and her actions.
- Let the character act on the emotion. As you well know, anytime you get the feels strongly enough, you act on them. If you can forget your feelings or act as if they aren’t present, they probably aren’t that strong to begin with. Think about the small irritations that happen every day. You get wound up—but only a little. Then you move on. Don’t let your character move on. Let the character respond to the emotion. Because Soto’s doctor feels the way she does about her work, she returns home to Brussels.
- Reflect the character’s feelings back at her. To do this, you can, like Soto, let the character discuss her feelings with someone else. That person then uses the good conversational strategy of repeating back what he hears. Or, you can use the “But you said,” strategy. If the action from the previous step impacts the actions and choices of others, you can have them report the results of their actions. If they’re unsatisfactory to your character, this other character can say, “But you said ____.” In short, you’re creating a real, tangible consequence for the character’s emotion: She feels ____, and so she does ___, which means someone else does ___, which isn’t what she expected or wanted to happen.
The goal is to quickly engage the reader by showing the emotional attachment a character has the world and conflict around her.