Tag Archives: hooking readers

How to Turn Emotions into an Existential Threat

16 May

Joseph Scapellato’s debut collection, Big Lonesome, was called “gobsmackingly original prophecy” by Claire Vaye Watkins.

Writing teachers have a lot of ways of saying basically one important thing about story beginnings: set the stakes and break the routine and put a gun on the wall and show your character’s desire. All of these instructions are trying to get you to give your story the sense, from the first lines, that something big is about to happen—the literary equivalent of basketball players setting up for an inbounds play with the game on the line, or sprinters lowering into their stances as the starting gun is raised. The audience knows something is about to happen, something intense and worth pausing everything else to watch. That’s the kind of opening a story needs. You can find plot ways to do this—putting a gun on the wall or starting in medias res during an airplane crash—but there are other methods as well.

A great example of one of them can be found in Joseph Scapellato’s story “One of the Days I Nearly Died.” It appears in his new collection Big Lonesome, and was first published in Green Mountains Review, where you can read it now.

How the Story Works

As the title indicates, the story is using the same sort of plot hook as, say, the television show Lost. Something really is about to happen. But that’s not really what draws us in—or, it’s not the only thing. Here is how the story begin:

When it was happening I was alone. I didn’t think of my wife, of how her and I suspected she was pregnant (she wasn’t, but by the time the period came we’d both said a brace of big ugly honest things that had made the other think, These big ugly honest things you’ve said are who you Really Are, when really the big ugly honest things were only who we’d clubbed each other into becoming for a one-month spell inside a six-year spell that up until then had us living on Logan Boulevard in Logan Square thinking we’d be local, organic, and happy right up until we died blissful simultaneous deaths in the final scene of the epic film of our active old age, or at least that’s how I remember it out loud when I apologize, and when I see my ring on my finger in a mirror, and when I slam dishwasher drawers and shout, Listen! You aren’t listening!), and I didn’t think of…

What the story really begins with is an argument, a bad one full of “big ugly honest things” and the word clubbed and slamming drawers. It’s an argument that gives its participants the sense that “These big ugly honest things you’ve said are who you Really Are,” which suggests that this newly discovered reality isn’t desirable. Maybe they’d be better off somewhere else, with someone else. In short, it’s an existential argument. The way that it’s resolved will determine basic, essential details about the characters’ lives. These emotions matter. This isn’t to say that some emotions don’t matter; of course they do—in life. But in stories (in narratives, no matter the genre), everything, whether it’s setting or plot or character, must be geared toward wrenching the story forward. This is why we immediately suspect happy characters of being like chickens who don’t see the farmer walking up with is axe. It’s why Tolstoy wrote his famous line about happy and unhappy families. One makes for a better story.

If you read all of “One of the Days I Nearly Died,” you’ll find that the entire story isn’t about that opening argument, at least not directly. It’s about a series of potentially life-changing moments. The opening argument sets the stage for them, telling the reader, “This is the mental space this story will inhabit.” Once that space is created, the story moves forward.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s create existential emotions using “One of the Days I Nearly Died” by Joseph Scapellato as a model:

  1.  Set up a particular moment. Scapellato’s a sophisticated writer, and so he actually does this in multiple ways. There’s the literal moment of the story (the day the character nearly died) and also the general frame of the thing he remembers (the potential pregnancy) and then the immediate moment of the argument. If that seems overwhelming to attempt, don’t. Instead, shoot for one moment. Start with a basic phrase like “It was the day that…” Or start general and move to the specific, like this: “It was those days when…and it all came to a head when…”
  2. Give the moment a particular conflict. Scapellato gives his character a potential pregnancy. It’s the reason they’re arguing. But the pregnancy isn’t actually the key issue; it’s simply the key that unlocks the door where they’ve been keeping all their troubles. So, give your characters a conflict, but the resolution of this conflict shouldn’t necessarily resolve the troubles they’re having.
  3. Move from the conflict into the bigger issue. This is what the characters are actually feeling emotional about. Notice that we don’t actually know what the characters say in this story. We only know that they say terrible things. You can keep it vague, as Scapellato does, or you can dig into the details. Either way, you’re aiming for a moment when a character is so wound up that he or she slams a drawer and says, “You know what?” and what follows is the sort of statement that is very difficult to take back, a statement that can change the course of a life. Of course, we all make these sorts of statements at some point or another and manage to recover, but there’s always a split second where you think, maybe this is it. Find the emotion—the stress, the trouble, the inner conflict—that would push your character into saying something that might be a deal breaker, whatever the deal is.

The goal is to hook your readers by showing them something that might be broken by the characters holding it.

Good luck.

How to Set Up a Story’s Hook

28 Feb
"The Key Bearer's Parents" by Siân Griffiths appeared online at American Short Fiction.

“The Key Bearer’s Parents” by Siân Griffiths appeared online at American Short Fiction.

A story must hook its readers. Everyone knows this. The problem is that a hook can sometimes feel as if it’s trying too hard. I remember once, when I was a reader for a literary journal, coming across a first line that was something like “He was walking down the freeway with a turd in a bucket.” It caught my eye, sure, but it also felt like something that wanted to be noticed—and that is fine as long as the writer is able to place the hook within a world and story. In this case, it was just a turd in a bucket. Nothing that followed was as interesting or compelling, which means the opening line was a failure.

A great example of a story that places its hook firmly in a story and world is “The Key Bearer’s Parents” by Siân Griffiths. It was published online at American Short Fiction, where you can read it now.

How the Story Works

Here is how Griffiths’ story opens:

We were good parents. We know people assume otherwise when they see our wide ties and honking red noses, but we were. We took that job seriously. We told our son that he could be anything he wanted to be, just like you’re supposed to. Yes, we could see his embarrassment when we showed up for Career Day, how he threw the basketball into the field as our tiny car pulled in so that his friends would look away. And though we were happy clowns, smiles broader and wider than any lips, the disappointment underneath our makeup was easy to read. “It’s fine,” we said, fitting on our over-sized shoes and adjusting the flowers in our hats. We told ourselves that he would get over it.

The hook is obvious: the shock of encountering “honking red noses” in a story that starts off seeming like a realistic story about two parents. It’s sometimes useful to imagine how else a story could have been written, and so here is another version of these opening lines:

When people saw our honking red noses, they thought we weren’t good parents, but we were.

The basic elements haven’t changed: parenting, red noses, and the expectations people have based on those noses. But the effect isn’t the same. This new version is trying too hard, in my view, like a teacher who tries to be cool and uses five-year-old slang. It’s focused entirely on how people will see it and, as a result, doesn’t come off as natural. Griffiths’ actual opening, on the other hand, starts inside the narrators’ heads, focusing on what they believe about themselves: We were good parents. This grounds us. No matter how many unexpected details the story throws at us, we know who these characters are because we know what they worry about.

As the paragraph continues, we get more clown stuff: makeup, over-sized shoes, flowers. These details are humorous and interesting, but we see through them to what matters: the parents’ conflicted feelings as they watch their kid be embarrassed of them.

As with all “rules” for writing, this one won’t hold true all of the time. Sometimes a story will need to start, from the first word, with how a character is viewed. That said, it’s probably a good idea to start a draft inside a character’s head, feelings, and desires. Establish the kernel of humanity—the conflict or desire that readers will intuitively recognize—and then add a honking red nose or turd in a bucket.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s set up a story’s hook using “The Key Bearer’s Parents” by Siân Griffiths as a model:

  1.  Start with the hook. Know what it is. If you’re not sure, tell the first part of the story to someone—anyone, someone you trust or a complete stranger. What detail makes their eyes open wider? If you can’t bring yourself to do this, do it in your head. Which detail surprises? To quote the wisdom of Sesame Street, which of your details is not like the other?
  2. Figure out your character’s self-affirmation. If you’re old enough to remember Al Franken’s Saturday Night Live character Stuart Smalley, you know what I’m talking about. Smalley would repeat to himself, “I’m good enough, I’m smart enough, and, doggone it, people like me!” It didn’t matter if this was true or not. What mattered was that Smalley needed it to be true, the same as Griffiths’ narrators need to feel that they’re good parents. So, what does your character need to be true? How does your character need to be viewed?
  3. Place the self-affirmation before the hook. It doesn’t need to be as over the top as Stuart Smaller’s. Griffith’s first line seems like a basic statement of fact—but, of course, it’s not. It’s a matter of opinion, but it’s stated to plainly that it doesn’t jump out at us—until we read “honking red noses.” Ordering the sentence in this way can make the hook stand out more and also make the essential human need of the character stand out.
  4. Add action. When I was in college, I’d go to the rec center’s weight room, and there’d be enormous guys who’d grunt when they lifted and then drop the weights to the rack or the floor with a bang. They wanted to make sure that everyone saw them because they needed to be seen as strong. Desire always leads to action. Either the character acts, like the guys in the weight room, or the character becomes intensely aware of other people’s actions, like the narrators in “The Key Bearer’s Parents,” who notice every small thing their kid does when they show up. What action (acted or noticed) follows naturally from your character’s desire and self-affirmation?
  5. Don’t forget the hook. Keep it present in the reader’s mind. If you don’t, then it’s a gimmick. But if you commit to it, referencing it whenever possible, in the context of the action and desire, then you’ll create something readers haven’t seen before and they’ll keep reading.

The goal is to hook readers with something surprising and with an essential element of every story: character desire.

Good luck.

Make Readers Care about a Story’s Movie-Poster Elements

4 Oct
Christopher DeWan's story "Voodoo" is included in his new collection, Hoopty Time Machines.

Christopher DeWan’s story “Voodoo” is included in his new collection, Hoopty Time Machines.

I often teach a class about first pages and how to hook readers. There are some obvious strategies for this: introducing a gun, dead body, broken rule, or a moment with two possible outcomes. But none of these is enough to compel a reader to turn the page. After all, we’ve all seen these strategies put to use over and over again. Something else is needed. That something could be a bigger or more awful gun, more dead bodies, and a more taboo broken rule, but at a certain point you’re simply making another Saw movie. Shock value is a finite resource. But human emotion isn’t. For a first page to be truly compelling, it needs to make readers care about the gun or dead body or whatever.

A great example of making a reader care can be found in Christopher DeWan’s story, “Voodoo,” which was originally published in A cappella Zoo and is included in his new collection Hoopty Time Machines: Fairy Tales for Grownups.  You can read the story here.

How the Story Works

As the title makes clear, the story is playing with a well-known horror/supernatural trope. Any reader will have pretty clear expectations for what will follow: some version of a doll with pins and needles stuck in it. The problem facing DeWan is the same one facing most writers. The story is familiar, and so something is needed to make readers pay attention yet again. He could have used a more horrific doll or added bloodier consequences, but that wasn’t his approach. Instead, here is how the story begins:

You walk into your daughter’s room. You wouldn’t do this normally. You try very hard to respect her privacy, even when this sometimes causes you to wonder if you’re being a bad or neglectful parent. The fact that you wonder means that you probably are not a bad or neglectful parent. But everyone has better days and worse days.

There’s no mention of voodoo or a doll in this paragraph. Instead, we’re shown a relationship and a character who isn’t sure how to proceed, who means well but isn’t is faced with the possibility that good intentions might be insufficient. Or perhaps everything is just fine.

The uncertainty is important. As readers, we’re naturally drawn to situations in which a character is trying to discern the true nature of the world and circumstances. It’s why we’re drawn to conspiracy theories, magic, and Halloween. We love the idea that everything is not as it seems. But we also need to care, and that’s why the emotions in this first paragraph are so important. The character has feelings, and those feelings are tethered to concrete things (the welfare of his daughter) and abstractions (do we ever really know how someone is doing?).

The next paragraph makes good on the title’s promise:

Her alarm clock is going off and she’s nowhere to be found, so you walk into her room, and that’s when you see them: two little dolls. Voodoo dolls of you and your wife.

Now the story kicks into gear, but the reason we keep reading isn’t because of the dolls but because we care (and the character cares) what happens with those dolls.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s introduce emotional stakes to a story, using “Voodoo” by Christopher DeWan as a model:

  1. Decide what readers will care about. In other words, what’s the primary story element. In “Voodoo,” that element is voodoo. In monster stories (vampires, zombies, aliens, serial killers), the element is the monster. In detective fiction, it’s the pursuit of the criminal, and in romances, it’s the consummation of love and the struggle to maintain it in the face of difficulty. It’s the movie poster image for your story or novel. What is this element for your story?
  2. Create an emotional attachment to that element. Movies use a lot of the same emotional stakes—protecting a child or other loved one, finding true love or friendship, finding your best self—because they’re part of our lives in an essential way. Great literary works use the same emotional stakes. So, start by choosing something we all worry or dream about.
  3. Find an authentic entry to that emotion. The problem with blockbuster movies is they introduce the emotional stakes using some well-worn tricks (a child saying, “Why won’t you come to my ballgame, Mommy/Daddy?) but then abandon the stakes as soon as the movie-poster element shows up. After all, the filmmakers seem to think, who cares about that kid when the museum exhibits have come to life and are trying to kill you? They’re right some of the time. But in stories and novels, the writer usually needs to stick with the emotional stakes. Rather than using a shortcut, introduce the stakes with more uncertainty. So, find a simple action (walking into the daughter’s room) and then add a choice (should I or shouldn’t I?) and a larger emotional context (am I a good parent or not?).
  4. Lead with the emotion. Very often, as soon as the movie-poster element shows up, it sucks up a lot of the oxygen in the story. It’s hard to introduce emotion for the first time when stuff is blowing up. So, begin with the simple action, choice, and larger emotional context. Let it be the hook for the reader. The movie-poster element will arrive soon enough.

The goal is to make readers care about the big story elements rather than relying on those big elements to keep readers turning the page.

Good luck.

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