I’m going to do something a little different this time to demonstrate how one balances two important aspects of a story: informing the reader and maintaining reader interest.
I did a previous post on this, but here I’m going into greater depth.
The problem arises because informing the reader is usually exposition (and sometimes description) and that often is telling rather than showing. Even when information is given in dialogue, it’s still telling, and the writer has to be careful that it doesn’t come across as straight telling.
Let’s start with a couple of bad examples of story openings, then I will present three good examples of how to do this right.
EXAMPLE #1: (opening from an unpublished story by Rick Taubold)
The summer I was seventeen I thought life sucked. Big time. I had one more year of bad old high school to suffer through and my dad wouldn’t let me drive until I was eighteen. What was so special about eighteen that you suddenly were responsible enough to vote or to leave home legally? Or be in the Army? Do you have to be eighteen to go to a prostitute?
Of course, I had no job because I hadn’t even looked until the end of May when no summer jobs were left. I thought real hard about quitting school. “If no one wants to give me a job, why bother,” I yelled at my Dad.
“Education is never a waste, Matt.”
“Could’ve fooled me! How much brains does it take to fry hamburgers or drop on pizza toppings? Or hold a cup under a milk-shake or soda machine? Hell, on the Coke dispenser you punch a button and it measures the drink out for you! And the cash registers figure out the change for you. Why do I need math? Or history? All that stuff happened way before I was born, and all those people are dead now anyway. Maybe I’ll just go on welfare. Everyone else does.”
Most parents would have yelled back, “Don’t you ever let me hear you talk like that! No son of mine is going to live on welfare!” Instead Dad said, calmly, “If that’s all the better you think you are, go ahead.”
So, I sat around the house and played video games. Sometimes I called one of my car-less, non-working friends. I’d ride my bike over to his house and we’d play video games.
ANALYSIS: While the reader is informed about what’s going on and there is some obvious conflict, there’s not much reader interest because we don’t know what the story is about other than a teen unhappy with the current state of his life. It’s pretty much all exposition, even in the little bit dialogue. In order to boost reader interest, something needs to happen rather soon. In a good story (which this isn’t, which is why I never submitted it for publication), there should be an opening hook that makes the reader want to continue because something interesting is going on. Certainly we see the character, but without the balance of something beyond Matt’s complaints, there’s not much to interest the reader.
EXAMPLE #2: (opening from “The Real Story of the Quick Brown Fox and the Lazy Dog” by Rick Taubold)
The quick brown fox artfully jumped over the dog, each time reciting in his high fox voice, “The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog,” so many times that after his numerous saltations failed to arouse the dog, the frolicsome fox ceased his efforts, grabbed a mouthful of the canine’s food (acceptable, but he’d eaten better), and waited to see if the theft of his food would evoke a reaction from the dog.
The dog didn’t move, as if he simply accepted whatever life dealt him. After ingesting the dog’s food, the fox licked his reddish-brown coat. He considered himself a handsome fox, a proud member of his species, Vulpes vulpes fulva. He’d entered the grounds of the dog’s owners in search of his destiny when spotted the canine quietly reposing on the well-tended grass in front of a newly painted dog house. Was it his destiny to encourage this lethargic dog to play a more important role in the world. But that seemed not to be the case. Perhaps this particular dog was the destiny of another fox. He left and headed west.
* * *
The dog sighed, glad to be rid of the leaping creature and his annoying chant. “My name is Wadsworth and I want to play with you,” the fox had told him.
Cat’s breath! He couldn’t get that annoying fox’s sing-song out of his mind—”The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog.” And the fox said it every time he leaped. He’d rather smell a cat’s fish breath than listen to that.
Another voice, equally annoying, said behind him, “How is my sweetums today? How is my precious Spot?”
He wondered if his dog face adequately displayed his disgust. Why couldn’t she call him by his right name? My name is SPORT! he wanted to yell, but the resultant bark would likely frighten her, perhaps cause her to faint and injure herself. She was his meal ticket. He still held out hope that she’d abandon the dog food and feed him the good stuff all the time.
Ow! Why did she have to scratch his head with those vile weapons? She had his claws cut regularly. Why didn’t she cut hers? He had sensitive skin.
ANALYSIS: I did submit this one for publication to a place where I’d had works accepted before, and the editor’s rejection letter came back with “too much telling and not much showing.” After I thought about that, I agreed. This example displays a bit more reader interest than the first. The title sets up a potential reader expectation and promise of an interesting story. Unfortunately, the rest of the story focuses back on the fox and resorts back to a lot of telling. The dog, the potentially more interesting character with his attitude, is left behind with the less interesting fox (who has no attitude). If there was any good balance in the opening, it vanished afterwards—and the editor was right to reject it.
I have on a few occasions turning this piece into a more interesting incarnation came up empty. It wasn’t that great a piece to begin with, but it certainly makes for a good example of what not to do in a story. The editor had also said it was more anecdote than story, meaning it lacked significant conflict. In order to turn this piece into a decent story, it will require an entirely different approach. But I write novels now, not short stories.
Now let’s turn now to three examples of GOOD story openings where the authors balance interest with information. These three opening excerpts are taken from stories in the September issue of Fabula Argentea. I chose these three because they wonderfully illustrate the points of this post and not to single them out as being better than any of the other six stories in that issue. All three of these happen to be in first person, but I didn’t choose them because of that. If anything, they demonstrate particularly good first-person writing that avoids the often too-much-telling aspect of many first-person pieces.
You may want to read the other pieces in that issue as well with the points of the balancing act in mind to see that they all measure up. That’s one of the reasons we chose to publish each one of them.
EXAMPLE #3: (“Synchronicity” by David Rogers)
I knew something was odd about the young woman from the very start.
It was as if I could see the wall, right through her, for a moment. Then I realized the illusion was caused by the color of her shirt, a shade of dark red almost the same as the bricks. At least, so I told myself at the time. I thought she looked about nineteen. Then again, I did not see her long enough to be sure. Maybe sixteen, maybe twenty-two.
The platform was crowded. People surged toward the subway car when the door opened. The girl’s eye caught mine. She walked toward me, turning to slip through the tide of bodies….
(skip a few sentences)
A pair of teenagers struggling to walk across the flow of bodies blocked my view for a second. When they passed, she had gone.
There were too many people for her to move away quickly. I stayed another ten minutes on the platform, watching as the crowd thinned, until the transit cop who leaned against the far wall started to give me the evil eye. The girl had vanished.
* * *
I’m a prospector. You hear the word “prospector,” and maybe you think of the bearded, half-wild old man who featured in Western movies your grandpa liked. I’m not that kind of prospector. I find things of value, whatever their nature, wherever they turn up. I find things that are lost.
I’m very good at what I do. Call it a gift.
ANALYSIS: Reader interest occurs first, and it’s accompanied with just enough description to set the scene. Only then does the author tell us about the main character, and he does it in an interesting way that intrigues rather than simply tells. It creates an image then piques interest. And the story continues, balancing interest with information.
EXAMPLE #4: (“On the Road to Bamako” by Shuna Meade)
“Miss Sarah, come quick. The missionaries have a telegram for you.” Assitan, the medicine man’s youngest son, hurries ahead of me across the dusty school yard with the lolloping gait of a cripple. “They’re in the chief’s hut.”
I enter the hut and bow to the chief, as is the custom, before I acknowledge the others. “Good afternoon,” I say, shaking hands with the four missionaries, a new batch, faces too white, clothes too new. Many missionaries pass this way, few stay longer than their first tour of duty, unable or unwilling to deal with the hardships of life in the Malian bush. I must have looked like them when I came here with the Peace Corps ten years ago.
The leader of the group pulls a crumpled envelope from his backpack. “This arrived in the Bamako office three days ago.”
I’ve never received a telegram before and my hands are shaking.
ANALYSIS: This one is another good balancing act. The author quickly sets the scene, orients the reader, then piques the reader’s interest regarding what’s in the telegram, with a bit of foreshadowing that it may not be good news, especially when we learn that the telegram is three days old by the time she receives it.
EXAMPLE #5: (“In the System” by William L. Spencer)
The car is totally cherry.
So is the night. A warm Southern California summer night.
I’ve got my elbow out the window of the pinstriped, midnight-blue Mercury Marquis with the dipped front end when the lightbar on the cop car behind me goes off red blue, red blue, red blue, and they whoop the siren.
I’m downtown and they’re pulling me over for being a paisa with a ponytail in a gangbang car on the white folks’ street at the wrong time.
But I’m cool. I been driving low and slow. It’s routine hassle.
Javier told me go ahead take the Merc. I’m such a numbnuts I go for it when Javier says he’s borrowed the ride from a guy he knows. Except the guy he knows boosted it from another guy who reported it stolen.
ANALYSIS: In this piece, part of the initial reader interest comes from the character’s voice. The voice makes the character interesting and in the reader’s face. Then notice how deftly—and subtly—the author describes his character without it coming off as telling, something that’s difficult to do in such a natural way. The author builds interest when we discover that the kid is in trouble. The only thing we don’t know is how much trouble he’s in, which makes up the rest of the story and keeps pulling the reader along by holding the reader’s interest up to the excellent ending.
That’s how it’s done, folks. That’s how you maintain the right balance between satisfying the reader’s need for information while maintaining the reader’s interest. With these five examples in mind, pay attention to these two elements in the stories and novels you read. And in those that you write, don’t let your reader get bored, but also don’t keep him in the dark about the need for information about the story and the characters. Make sure that if you do withhold information that there’s a clear story reason for doing so, but at the same time, don’t make the reader feel as if you’re deliberately keeping information from him in order to pull off a cool surprise. Readers will see through that ploy.
As you read other writers’ stories that you’re enjoying, keep asking yourself why you’re enjoying them and why you want to keep reading. For those stories that don’t hold your interest or that you don’t enjoy, look for clues as to why. Chances are good that the author hasn’t done a good job with the balancing act, that he or she has gotten off track with too much explaining that bores the reader or too little that the reader is confused.
Good stories are good for reasons beyond having just a cool premise. And believe me when I say that I’ve read a lot of stories with a cool premise where the author failed to pull off a good story around because of too much telling and not enough engagement with the reader.