Tag Archives: hooking the reader

How to Swim in the Narrative Stream

13 Sep
Tim Horvath's story, "Fuchsia Maroon Timberwolf," was published in Green Mountains Review.

Tim Horvath’s story, “Fuchsia Maroon Timberwolf,” was published in Green Mountains Review.

If you spend any time in writing classes, you’ll eventually encounter the term “fictive dream.” It was coined by John Gardner in The Art of Fiction and means, basically, the zone that writers sometimes hit when the world they’re writing seems more real to them than the room they’re actually sitting in. Rather than seeing words on a page, the writers are dreaming their characters to a life that gets translated on the page. It’s a great feeling, but talking about it has always struck as a bit like talking about “runner’s high.” It’s good to know it exists; when it happens, you think, “Oh, this is what everyone was talking about.” But knowing that a fictive dream is within our reach doesn’t help us find it.

So, let me suggest another term. Narrative stream: The swiftly moving current of a story, as opposed to the still water in stagnant pools along the shore. When you find the narrative stream, your story seems to really move. Writing it feels easy, and so finding it is an important part of the writing process—the process for getting into the fictive dream.

A good place to see the narrative stream at work is in Tim Horvath’s story “Fuchsia Maroon Timberwolf,” a brilliant piece of not-quite-flash fiction you can read now at Green Mountains Review.

How the Story Works

The story is about a man and his daughter. On its surface, the story is structurally complex, spanning years and using a hypnotic style in which almost every sentence begins with “How…” This style and the montage-like movement through time give it a naturally dreaming effect but also presents clear challenges, for instance, how to keep the story moving when every sentence begins the same way. It’s a story that, by its nature, could easily get stuck in the still pools along the shore. The fact that it doesn’t—and that it ends with an emotional punch to the gut—makes the story worth paying close attention to. How does Horvath find and stay in the narrative stream?

Here is a passage from early in the story:

How he brought her to museums during the days, tilting the carriage up on its rear wheels till she pointed. How even when he was working, he’d taken days off. How he kept calling them days off, though he was home for months on end. How they grew apart even before he’d moved out. How he watched her increasingly from afar, marveling at her growing aptitude for making pictures, as if he could see manual dexterity insinuating itself into her wrists like a creature moving through the ocean in a time-lapse film, fingers as fluid as anemone tendrils but also hypodermic-exact. How he encouraged her!

The movement through time is evident here: the daughter starts the passage in a carriage and ends with her old enough to have grown apart from her father. That’s the dreaminess of the story—its ability to drastically compress time in a way that makes sense in a dream but is impossible in real, waking life. But that dreaminess is secondary to the story itself:

  • We see the man’s connection with his daughter in the way he tilts her carriage at the museum and the fact that he takes days off to be with her.
  • We see the change in the man’s work status (change almost always being essential to story).
  • As a result, we see the connection with his daughter begin to change until, in the next-to-last sentence, it seems to be severed in all ways except a lingering emotional one for him.

The sentences span years and, thus, could focus on anything, but what they actually focus on is emotion and change: the foundation for basically every memorable plot going back to Homer. The man feels something, and then his circumstances change, which leads to a change in the way he’s able to feel the original emotion. As readers, we naturally want to know what happens. As writers, we feel compelled to keep writing in order to find out.

The passage continues:

Brought her brushes and joked that she herself was his little paintbrush, gripping her hair and tugging it ever-so-gently to the top of her head till it all pointed upward, how then he hoisted her aloft and angled her till it tumbled over like horsehair as if she was the world’s largest heaviest giggliest shriekingest paintbrush and he working up a masterpiece on the canvas that was their wall. How her mother worried because it was late and he was getting her riled up. How he ignored her and lifted her still higher. How often he did this, how heavy his brush got! How once he dropped her but she was okay. She hadn’t blacked out, she promised, and she hadn’t started crying until she woke up at 3:18, hyperventilating and clawing the air. How years later on the field hockey team she started getting dizzy spells. How he learned that she wasn’t going to practice any more and hadn’t for over a month.

Again, we’re shown emotion (“joked that she herself was his little paintbrush” and “largest heaviest giggliest shriekingest paintbrush“) and from more than his point of view (“How her mother worried because…”). Again, time moves with astonishing swiftness (“How years later…”), and yet the focus remains sharply on change (“How once he dropped her” and the results of that drop).

When a story stalls out, it’s often (though not always, of course) for a couple of reasons:

  • We’ve lost track of what’s going on. Our characters are simply emoting in place, feeling strong feelings and thinking big thoughts with nothing else going on. In short, we’ve got emotion without change.
  • We’ve lost track of how things feel. A lot is happening, reversal after reversal, but it makes no impact on the character. Or, the impact is cursory. We write sentences like “She was sad” but don’t make the emotion visceral, which means it’s not really felt. After all, what significant emotion have we ever felt theoretically?

Horvath stays in the narrative stream because he’s able to continually focus on change and emotion. Even amid some pretty spectacular craft fireworks, the story remains devastatingly clear and compelling.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s swim in the narrative stream, using “Fuchsia Maroon Timberwolf” by Tim Horvath as a model:

  1. Find an emotion. In any moment, what is the strongest emotional state felt by someone? It doesn’t need to be felt by everyone or returned (I love/hate you, and you love/hate me). It doesn’t even need to be directly tied to the moment at hand. A character could be reminded of something and feel strongly about whatever is in his/her head. What you don’t want is blankness. You don’t want the answer that all kids give when their parents ask, “How was school?” Fine is not interesting for anyone involved. So, if a moment is fine for everyone, go in search of a moment where it’s not, where it’s good or bad or happy or sad or whatever. The emotion doesn’t necessarily need to be clear. Often, we don’t know what we’re feeling, only that we’re feeling it. When does your character experience a moment like that? There will almost certainly be more than one.
  2. Change the circumstances. In Horvath’s story, the man’s work status changes. It’s not clear what exactly has happened, only that something has. There’s an element of mystery. This is important to keep in mind. You don’t need to fully explain everything that happens in a story. Instead, the change should impact what is important (the emotion). The change can have an external cause (getting laid off) or be self-caused (dropping a kid on her head). It could be big or small, connected to the emotion or simply in the same place at the same time. What changes occur in your character’s world?
  3. Let the change impact the emotion. Once the man’s work status changes, his connection with his daughter deteriorates—not necessarily on his end, it seems, but on her end or her mother’s. The emotional connection isn’t the same as it was at the beginning. This shift matters because that’s the nature of emotional changes. We want to fall in love and feel loved, and we dread and fear falling out of love or losing love. Emotions are difficult, maybe impossible, to separate from desire. If you find a moment when a character feels strong emotion, it’s probably also a moment when the character desires something—which is what clues readers into the story. As with all emotions, characters will naturally resist or embrace change (I want things to change so I don’t feel this way, or I don’t ever want this feeling to end). What impact does your story’s change have on the character’s emotion or the way that emotion is felt?
  4. Repeat. Don’t stop with one emotion and one change. Or, stay with an emotion but complicate it by introducing change after change. Those changes and the impact each one has on the emotion is the story’s narrative stream.

The goal is to find the current that carries a story forward by focusing on the emotion and changes within the story.

Good luck.

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How to Use a Character’s Emotions to Hook the Reader

26 Jul
Adam Soto's story, "The Box," appears in the most recent issue of Glimmer Train.

Adam Soto’s story, “The Box,” appears in the most recent issue of Glimmer Train.

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: sorrychallengingmeaningfulselfishhauntfeels 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:

  1. 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?
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.

Good luck.

An Interview with John Jodzio

2 Jun
A New York Times review said about Knockout, "John Jodzio’s entire collection is tremendously funny and well written, every story inventive and a pleasure to read.”

A New York Times review said about Knockout, “John Jodzio’s entire collection is tremendously funny and well written, every story inventive and a pleasure to read.”

John Jodzio is a winner of the Loft-McKnight Fellowship and the author of the short story collections Get In If You Want To Live, If You Lived Here You’d Already Be Home, and, most recently, Knockout. His work has been featured in a variety of places including This American Life, McSweeney’s, and One Story. He lives in Minneapolis.

To read an exercise on building character based on Jodzio’s story “Lily and Annabelle,” click here.

In this interview, Jodzio discusses trying different approaches until scenes make sense, the importance of hooking the reader over and over, and surprise endings.

Michael Noll

I’m always curious how passages come into being. In this case, I love the paragraph about the mother’s hatred of Longwater Community School—so intense that she dumped red paint on the principal’s car hood. At the end of the paragraph, though, we learn that she’s sending her kids back to the school because she wants revenge on her ex-husband, who “hates the school even more than she does.” When you began writing about the mother’s hatred of the school, did you know in advance that she would send her kids back to it for revenge? Or did you begin the passage and, at some point, think, “Hey, what if she sent them back there?” I guess the larger question is this: Do you know where you’re going when you begin a passage, or do you start writing and hope for something cool to happen?

John Jodzio

In the early stages of this story I had written a couple of passages I found intriguing. One was the opening paragraph, the mother pushing the father out the second story window. Then there were a couple of scenes between Lily and Annabelle when they were back at Longwater. I didn’t really have any of the reasons how or why these things connected at that point, but after a draft or two the backstory unfolded (i.e. the dad cheated on the mother with a landscape painter, he was homeschooling them, their mother was sending them back there for revenge, etc). This is mostly how all of my stories come together. It’s mostly trying some different things and seeing what meshes/makes sense.

Michael Noll

The story is written in chunks separated by space breaks, and each chunk ends on a kind of punch. As a result, it’s possible to read each one as a kind of stand-alone piece, with a beginning, middle, and end. This would seem like a great way to approach plot and tension—worrying less about the big picture and more on keeping the reader hooked page by page. Is that your process? How much did you think about the big picture of the story?

John Jodzio

This is absolutely my process! In all my stories I am largely concerned with hooking the reader and love to give those little punches at the end of each passage in a story. I want these chunks to be able to stand on their own but to also move plot and character forward within the larger scope of the story. This is probably a function of how I write—I seem to end up really polishing each passage before I move on to the next one.

Michael Noll

How did you approach the end of the story? It’s sweet—and unexpectedly so. The next-to-last section ends on this:

“And that’s that,” their mom tells the girls as Jerry drives off. “Even the really nice ones have a breaking point.”

It’s not a moment that suggests good things will come. Were you surprised by your own ending?

John Jodzio

I usually don’t get surprised by endings but this one did surprise me. I’d struggled to find a good ending for a long time. I actually randomly added that blanket door as a detail to flesh out their apartment in one of the last drafts and then it somehow it came back to me as a possible ending. No idea why that happened, but ultimately liked how hopeful it was and how well it fit in the context of what was going with their family.

June 2016

Michael Noll Michael Noll is the Editor of Read to Write Stories.

How to Hook a Reader with Cool Stuff

25 May
The Yoga of Max's Discontent is the latest novel by Karan Bajaj.

The Yoga of Max’s Discontentthe latest novel by Karan Bajaj, tells the story of a “quest for answers that bother all of us at some level.”

I recently read a picture book version of The Odyssey to my 4 and 6-year-old sons. We read, of course, about the Cyclops and how Odysseus’ men clung to the bottom of sheep as they trotted out of the blinded monster’s cave. And how Odysseus traveled to the land of the dead, sacrificed two sheep, and let their blood pool because the dead love to drink blood, and how he saw, among the blood-drinkers, the shade of his mother. And how, when Odysseus finally returned to his homeland, only his old, sick dog recognized him—and then the promptly died. My kids were rapt. I could hardly read certain parts without getting choked up.

It’s tempting to forget amid the five-paragraph essays and multiple choice tests that we attach to literature that the reason certain stories stick around for years or millennia is because they’re freaking awesome. But their appeal isn’t based on “literary merit,” whatever that means. Odysseus watched a bunch of shades lap up ram’s blood so that he could get instructions from a dead, blind prophet—and his mother showed up, which meant she’d died in his absence. That’s great storytelling because of the emotion and because it involves dead people drinking blood. Without the latter part—and all the other crazy stuff in The Odyssey—Homer’s work likely doesn’t survive.

Great stories do cool stuff (to use the technical term). A perfect example of the power of cool stuff can be found in Karan Bajaj’s novel The Yoga of Max’s Discontent. You can read an excerpt at Riverhead’s website.

How the Novel Works

The novel is about an American named Max who becomes disillusioned with his Wall Street lifestyle and travels to India to study yoga and meditation and discover other ways of viewing the world and himself. In short, it’s a story that, if you’re interested in spiritual enlightenment, you’ve probably seen before. So, the challenge facing Bajaj is to hook a reader who knows what’s coming. He begins to set the hook when Max buys falafel from a street vendor, who throws in some cool stuff about certain yogis:

“I don’t know, these yogis were superhuman, like God more than men, sir,” he said. “All Indian soldiers selected to go up to the high camps of Siachen had grown up their entire life in the mountains. On top of that, we were put through a year of survival training and a team of psychologists monitored us when we came back. And yet none of us had even a fraction of the yogis’ powers. We walked up and down the ice in our five layers of clothes all day to keep warm. But the yogis just sat in the caves, their eyes closed, meditating, and they would come out once in ten, fifteen days, wearing nothing but a loincloth. They walked barefoot in sixty or seventy inches of snow and we used heavy snowshoes with crampons imported from Russia. Yet their feet were quicker, surer than ours. Like machines their bodies were, not human at all.”

A little later we learn that bears and snow leopards guarded the yogis’ caves. Even if you’re not inclined to read about yoga and meditation, it’s hard not to be tempted by these details. It’s the same reason that, if someone says they saw a ghost—really saw one—you pay attention. You’re probably about to hear something cool and weird. At its heart, that is what stories are often about: the cool and the weird. Richard Ford likes to say that fiction makes the impossible possible, and while he applies that maxim to realism, it’s a natural fit for the sort of stories people have been telling as long as stories have been around.

When in doubt, throw in something that makes the reader go, “What?” At best, you’ll write The Odyssey. At the very least, you’ll keep the reader turning pages.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s add cool stuff to a story, using The Yoga of Max’s Discontent by Karan Bajaj as a model:

  1. Decide what sort of story you’re telling. Homer was telling (literally) a story about gods and men. Bajaj is telling a story about spiritual practice. Both imply a beyond-human element. As a result, it’s not shocking when superhuman and supernatural details crop up. But not all stories are this type. Some are romances. Others are mystery or crime stories. Others are sci-fi/fantasy. Others are dirty realism. All of them are about people doing things. The question is, what sort of things might be expected in this particular world? How do you answer that question for your story?
  2. Find your character’s discontent. It might be the threat of physical disconnect (the alien is going to eat me). Or it might be romantic, philosophical, cultural, economic, familial, or professional. This discontent is often the source of whatever cool stuff you’ll pull out of your sleeve. Rocky Balboa is discontent with his archenemy pounding his face, and so he gets up off the mat and takes it to Ivan Drago (leading to the great line from Drago, similar to Bajaj’s line about machines, “He is not human, he is a piece of iron”). Cool stuff is the stock-in-trade of sports movies: a character gets beaten down (becomes discontent) and then does something awesome. In bro movies (whether it’s Animal House or Fight Club), you know that as soon as things get tough for a character, something crazy is about to happen. What is the nature of your character’s discontent?
  3. What sort of cool would your character perform or seek out? Sports movies are about individual performance. Romances are about passion—and so the passion better be hot. When I saw Titanic in the theater, in a moment when we’re teased with but not given a glimpse of Rose’s nude body, a guy shouted out, “Oh, c’mon!” Shortly after, the handprint-in-steam scene arrived. Regular old literary realism does the same thing. Richard Ford’s collection, Rock Springs, contains stripteases, gunshots, and stolen train tickets. One approach is to ask, “What is the craziest, slightly unbelievable thing that could happen to the character right now?” Ask that question of third graders, and they’ll invariably answer, “Ninjas!” But you’re aiming for slightly unbelievable within the context of the story. We know that Bajaj’s novel contains a quest for spiritual enlightenment in India, and so it’s believable that the cool stuff will revolve around yoga and meditation and slightly unbelievable that it might involve superhuman elements of those practices.

The goal is to get your readers to say, “Oh, c’mon,” after teasing them with the potential for something cool and “Whoa,” when you actually deliver the cool thing.

Good luck.

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