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» Hatrack River Writers Workshop » Forums » Open Discussions About Writing » article on beginnings in Wall Street Journal

   
Author Topic: article on beginnings in Wall Street Journal
Kathleen Dalton Woodbury
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This article is excerpted from a book for nonfiction writers, but it certainly rings true for any kind of prose writing, so please read.
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Grumpy old guy
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Thanks for that Kathleen, very instructive.

Phil.

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Crystal Stevens
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Makes me sit back and go "Hmmmm."

I've heard something like this before, but it does urge me to reread some of my stories and see if what this article says pertains to what I've already written.

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EVOC
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Interesting. As someone who has been bludgeoned with "hooking" editors, I hadn't given much thought as to what that really meant. Of course, a lot of how you open a story depends on what type of story you are writing.

Though I will say, the editor side of me has resisted stories that were overly complicated in the opening.

I'm going to file this short article away for reference later.

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Reziac
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Interesting, especially this bit:
====
Writers are told that they must "grab" or "hook" or "capture" the reader. But think about these metaphors. Their theme is violence and compulsion. They suggest the relationship you might want to have with a criminal, not a reader.
====

I think this is a good point. Maybe we should think more about luring the reader in, and less about hooking him like a fish.

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EVOC
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quote:
Originally posted by Reziac:
Maybe we should think more about luring the reader in, and less about hooking him like a fish.

Perhaps more like bait under a box propped up with a stick. [Smile]
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Reziac
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New self-help book: "Hunting the Wily Reader"

Ch.1 Snares
Ch.2 Box Traps
Ch.3 Pit Traps
Ch.4 Bait and Tackle
Ch.5 Cleaning the Carcass
Ch.6 Recipes

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MattLeo
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I think the problem with the "hook" metaphor isn't that it's coercive -- unless you consider a carnival barker "coercive", or consider a guy in a bar twenty minutes before closing time who hasn't found anyone to take home yet "coercive". The problem with the hook metaphor is that it's a misleadingly narrow metaphor for the process of drawing a reader into a story.

I have nothing against a gimmick that works, but too often in unpublished MSS there's a hook that's grafted on to the front of a story and an obvious discontinuity when the story *really* starts. It doesn't matter how good a hook is if the real opening is laborious and unrewarding to read -- in fact an attention grabbing gimmick makes the deficiencies of a weak opening even more apparent.

Whether or not you use some kind of opening gimmick, you still have the work of drawing the reader into the story, and that demands a high degree of perfection and efficiency. Slightly lead-footed writing that is otherwise tolerable in small stretches can be fatal in an opening. On the other hand deft writing can do the trick without having anything particularly exciting to say -- as in the opening of *A Wrinkle in Time*, a chapter I'd encourage everyone to study who's interested in openings.

There's more than one way to open a story, but all openings have to deal with the same factors: balancing reader effort and interest; compromising between getting the story moving and bringing the reader up to speed.

This bit of advice is particularly valuable IMO:
quote:
You can't tell it all at once. A lot of the art of beginnings is deciding what to withhold until later, or never to say at all. Take one thing at a time. Prepare your readers, tell everything they need to know in order to read on, and tell no more.
I think the single most common piece of feedback I've given in openings is that a reader briefing up front is smothering the story. In the first 5-10% of a story, you have to decide which information is critical for the reader to have and restrict yourself to that. It's a difficult decision to make, but making that decision takes a lot of the cognitive load off of readers and lightens the story.
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extrinsic
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Clarity, as simple as the writing principle seems, is a tricky beast. The conversation that prose writing is between writer and reader shouldn't be so clear that readers don't engage their intellect and imagination, their empathy and curiosity.

On the one hand, cooperation between writer and reader is the tacit contract of clarity, a mechanical aspect; on the other hand, the contract calls for limited handholding. Implicature: implied, clear meaning interpretable by readers covers the aesthetic aspect of clarity. Two weighted feature qualities at times at odds yet working together to engage reader caring and curiosity, intellect and imagination.

An example of clarity balanced with implicature;

"Diane," Martha said, "are you working for the rest of the day?"

"I get off at 5 o'clock." Diane said.


Assuming the place closes at 5, an ordinary work day, that would be the rest of the work day as far as Martha is concerned, an implication a reader could assume. Antecedent and subsequent context would afirm readers' understanding of the meaning. Clear but implied.

In the context of dialogue, though, Diane's response to Martha's query, a colloquy dialogue, is a non sequitur: does not follow. For absolute clarity's sake the dialogue could be written as follows.

"Diane," Martha said, "are you working until 5 o'clock?"

"Yes," Diane said, "my shift ends at 5 o'clock."


That example is colloquy and echo dialogue, absolutely clear; however, as dry as stale, burnt toast, as dreary as foreign language practice recordings. ("¡Hola!, Isabel! ¿Cómo está usted?" "¿Soy fino, y usted?" "Multa, gracias." "Hello, Elizabeth. How are you?" "I'm fine, and you?" "Fine, thank you.")

Squabble dialogue--for flirting, impish misdirection, or veiled animosity, and the like, implied and clear--example;

"Diane dear," Martha said, "are you working your tailbone off until the quiting bell?"

"Yes," Diane said, "until the motherless boss sneaks away to his club anyway."


[ January 15, 2013, 05:32 PM: Message edited by: extrinsic ]

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Owasm
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The article's flippant discussion of the hook, does hooks a disservice and I think that's an intentional assertion. In fiction, you try to get the reader into the story and envelop them in the action as soon as possible to get them quickly immersed in the story. That's what the hook does and it's necessary in a lot of fiction.

In non-fiction, the concept of immersion isn't as strong as the concept of establishing credentials or a trusted relationship--hence the author's example of the 'Call me Ishmael' opening.

I think they both have their place and they can be combined, if skillfully executed.

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Reziac
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But the hook need not be action, or character. It can be environment, or speculation, or anything that catches interest sufficiently to make us finish that first page and turn it.

I'm thinking specifically of the Gormenghast books, which take a very long time to get to the meat of the story, and meanwhile the hook is the weird environment. That's what you're immersed in, not the story.

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