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» Hatrack River Writers Workshop » Forums » Open Discussions About Writing » Non-tension openings---do they work, and why?

   
Author Topic: Non-tension openings---do they work, and why?
zerostone
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Much debate was sparked by my posting on criteria of a good opening. Kathleen suggested that I post some examples. So here are three. 'Tension,' is defined here by writing professor Dwight Swain ("Techniques of the Selling Writer") as 'causing anxiety in the reader.' Often this is a physical threat of some sort. But there seem to be other ways to engage the reader. IF you'd keep reading these stories based on these openings, please let me know why. Thanks.


Non-tension opening samples, 6-10-09

Sample 1:

I was anchoring a set of attitude jets to a hundred-meter ring fragment, getting it ready for it's long drop into the inner Solar System, when I spotted the artifact. It glistened under the ice like a fish in water, and I thought for a moment it might be a ring trout that had somehow burrowed into the rock-hard surface, but ring-trout are gold, and this was silver. When I scraped a flat spot in the ice to look through, I saw this was long and cylindrical, without the tentacles of a ring trout, either.
It was a meter deep, embedded in remarkably clear ice. Usually the frozen mountains we mine from Saturn's rings have a milky, bubbly tecture from all the fracture lines and voids left over from their accretion, but the area around the artifact was clear as glass.

----"The Pandora Probe," Jerry Oltion, Analog, December, 1994, p. 87

Sample 2:

Trevelyan street used to be four blocks long, but it now is only three, and its aft end is blocked by the abutment of an overpass. (Do you find the words ­_Dead End_ to have an ominous ring?) The large building in the 300 block used to be consecrated to worship by the Mesopotamian Methodist Epsicopal Church (South) but has since been deconsecrated and is presently a glue warehouse. The small building contains the only Bhutanese grocery and deli outside of Asia; its trade is small. And the little (and wooden) building lodges an extremely dark and extremely dirty little studio that sells spells, smells, and shrunken heads. It's trades are even smaller.
The spells are expensive, the smells are exorbitant, and the prices of its shrunken heads --- first chop though they be --- are simply inordinate.

----"Dr. Bumbo Singh," Avram Davidson, F&SF, October 1992, p.41

_November, 2023; North Wells, Maine_

On Monday morning, a message waited on Sarah Lightburn's answering machine. It was Seule, breathless, forgetting to say when the call was made, or if she intended to call back. Sarah, who up till now had been happy with their progress, felt a sinking in her heart.
"---I know I can handle it. Nothing will happen, we'll be working together, that's all. Clay needs me. " Seule's voice was happy, excited. "His project needs me. You've helped me so much, Sarah. I really feel that I have my emotions under control, and if it turns out that I don't...well, I'll call you. I thinkof you as a friend. You know that don't you? Please be happy for me, Sarah. Everything will be all right."
A pause, the sound of rapid breathing. Sarah heard Seule's claws clicking impatiently on the receiver, and thumping noises in the background.

----"The Fragrance of Orchids," Sally McBride, Asimov's, May 1994, p.64


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Merlion-Emrys
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Well first off, my choice to read all of a story or not is rarely even much effected by just the first 13 lines. Its often effected at least as much by the title, and by the fact that I will usually scan different parts of the story to see if its content actually interests me.


Second, as far as the subject title question I'm pretty sure "no tension" openings MUST work(or at least can and do some times work, like every other style of opening/story/whatever)...otherwise we'd never have any published low-tension, slow paced and otherwise not heavy, obvious, conflict driven stories...and we do. So I think thats pretty obvious.


Third, as far as the three openings you posted...I'll start by saying my interest in any of them basically has nothing to do with the tension level or lack there of and almost everything to do with subject matter and style.

The first one is too hard sci fi, tech focused feeling for me.

The second is probably the most interesting, due to the mention of magic which is what I like, and the relatively interesting setting.

The third one was not terribly interesting to me, up until the word "claws" appeared, then it became mildly interesting.


Fourth, I don't necessarily agree that "tension"="anxiety". I think it depends on the person.

And lastly, I don't believe an opening...or even the whole of a story, absolutely must have "tension", but it must be interesting. But seeing as how what constitutes "tension" and "interesting" is different for each person (especially the interesting part) I conclude that theres lots of types of stories (and therefore story openings) and that theres people who like, and people who dislike, all the different types, styles and catagories and elements thereof.

[This message has been edited by Merlion-Emrys (edited June 10, 2009).]


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TaleSpinner
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I'd keep reading sample #1 because I like SF, fantastic alien devices, and have some confidence that Analog are likely to deliver a satisfying read.

I'd read sample #2 a little further to see where it's going, because I like the imagery and "first chop" made me chuckle. If it turned into yukky horror I'd quit.

Sample #3 has the feel of the kind of relationship story that Asimov's appears to like, the kind that annoy me profoundly because the fantastic element isn't core to the story. Even though in this case I can't be sure of that, I'd skip it impatiently -- yet if it had been in Analog I'd have given it more of a chance.


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MrsBrown
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I would say all three samples have varying degrees of tension.

#1 has an unexpected item found in the midst of the mundane and commonplace (which is actually pretty darn interesting, IMHO). The word "artifact" creates a bit of mystery. This opening promises that things will get more interesting soon.

#2 uses word choices and references that hint at something sinister (or dare I say "ominous"?).

#3 is a woman who goes from happy to troubled, because of a phone call that threatens her future success.

[This message has been edited by MrsBrown (edited June 10, 2009).]


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InarticulateBabbler
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1) The hook is the mystery. The tensions is what he learns about the artifact. Is it a dangerouos weapon? A device for peace? A recording? The Rosetta Stone of Saturn?

2) We have character, genre (spells), background (we know a bit about where) and are left to wonder why the narrator has use for spells and/or shrunken heads, what the narrator is looking for there and whether his intentions are benevolent or malevolent.

3) The tension in the third place is in an implied love triangle, and the fact that Suels has claws.

[This message has been edited by InarticulateBabbler (edited June 10, 2009).]


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arriki
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The first I d read on but not the third.
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Kathleen Dalton Woodbury
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I think TaleSpinner's response to #3 is interesting because I infer from it that for some readers, magazine and anthology editors can build trust in their readers just as writers can (and, in my opinion, should). And I think editors realize that and strive to honor such trust as they select stories to publish.
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satate
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#1 The hard sci fi put me off, but the mystery kept me mildly hooked. I'd read on if I had nothing else to do.

#2 I got a little bogged down by the description and wanted more character, still, I liked the mention of magic. I'd probably read on.

#3 I was imediately hooked by the characters anxiety and was interested in the relationship. It was my favorite of the three and the one I would be most willing to read.

I think everyone's reaction to these openings are interesting as they seem to differ quite a lot.


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Owasm
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I wouldn't be put off by any of the three, unless sample #2 ended up as a strong horror piece. The tone doesn't indicate that.

Example #1 has the vision of a strange artifact punctuated by the description of ring trout.

Example #2 has interesting language and a droll sense of description of the shop.

Example #3 has claws to recommend it.

Of the three, I would be most suspicious of #3 being a disappointment.

[This message has been edited by Owasm (edited June 10, 2009).]


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Merlion-Emrys
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I guess I just think of the word "tension" differently than a lot of folks here. To me it usually, in the end, implies fear. Either the obvious, bodily or other impending threat kind, or the more subtle "social" tension or awkwardness...which still basically amounts to fear of discomfort or inconvienence.


I don't consider mystery to necessarily imply "tension" though it can. In the first one I suppose the artifact could potentially be dangerous and that could constitute tension or fear but theres not really any suggestion in the fragment that the character is tense or afraid. The people that are drawn to that fragment are drawn to it by 1) wanting to know what the object is and/or 2) the fact that its obviously hard sci fi and thats what they like.

Likewise the middle one has nothing I'd remotely describe as tension, but as IB says it has character, setting and the presence of spells which clearly label it as fantasy and/or supernatural horror and which are the main things atracting those who are attracted to it (such as myself.)

The third one does have what I'd maybe consider tension, or more like anxiety. It is relationship based, which has turned off a couple people while drawing others in. A couple of us became mildly interested due to the fact that one character has claws.


Again, it seems to me many people are either attracted to a piece or moved away from it mostly by its subject matter and content.

quote:
I think everyone's reaction to these openings are interesting as they seem to differ quite a lot.


Yep...like I say, its all basically a matter of taste. Theres an audience for just about every type and pace of story, though certainly some audiences are larger than others.

Whether you say a begining needs "a hook", "tension", "conflict" or whatever, the fact remains that those things are going to be different for different people.


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Kathleen Dalton Woodbury
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Tension, it seems to me, is the feeling you have when the violins are playing the same note, not with a long stroke of the bow, but with a quick back-and-forth motion on the string.

You know something is going to happen, but you don't know what it is, and until it does, you can't relax.


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Merlion-Emrys
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See, for me, by that definition ANY begining of ANY story would be almost pure tension. Because I go in with the knowledge that even if a whole lot isn't happening in the begining, things are going to happen, but I don't know what they are unless I keep reading.

I guess thats why its just not a big deal for me. if a story is in medias res, whatever it is is already happening, but if it isn't, even if the begining is seemingly a slow setup or whatever, I know stuff is going to happen. So for me its just hard to understand all the hullabaloo about beginings...


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satate
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I have a question then, what would a horrible opening be like? I tend to agree with Kathleen with the violin example of tension. Maybe we should do a challenge to write the worst first thirteen opening. At the least it would be fun.
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Merlion-Emrys
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quote:
I have a question then, what would a horrible opening be like? I tend to agree with Kathleen with the violin example of tension. Maybe we should do a challenge to write the worst first thirteen opening. At the least it would be fun.


See, I don't really believe theres such a thing. I don't really believe in "bad" writing (or any form of art) at all. Now I'm not talking about mispelled words or horrid grammar...the mechanics of the language are actually objective. But all the stuff about "tension" and "hooks" in the end is subjective.

If I posted the first 13 lines of a lot of the recently published fiction I like many here would likely consider it "bad" and yet its published.

Theres an audience out there for almost every possible type, mode, style and pace of story, but certainly some audiences are larger than others.


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BenM
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My interpretation of tension as simply being an unanswered question that keeps me reading may differ somewhat from Swain's, but in that light I'd view the samples thus:

Sample 1 - The first sentence grabs my interest: The character is going about his business when he (or she) is stopped in his tracks by an artifact. Question: What is the artifact? Sentence two raises more questions: Why's it silver? What are ring trout? Why is this important enough to justify the character breaking their routine? After two sentences I know I'd keep reading.

Sample 2 - is an example of the sort of opening I often put down. Rather than posing a question, the answer for which I'll continue reading for, it offers a scene, a few curios, perhaps hoping that I'd engage at the shrunken heads or simply trying to set a scene before starting the story proper. I simply don't consider this type of exposition or scene setting as story. Continue too long with these atmospherics and, unless I fall in love with them, I'm off reading the next story on my list. Amusingly enough, I'd read the story if someone recommended it to me, which probably just reveals how vapid a reader I really am.

Sample 3 - leaves me with unanswered questions that I'll keep reading to answer, starting with the first sentence (what message?) as well as others (the nature of the name Seule? rapid breathing? thumping noises? claws?).

So, I don't conclude that a story needs fireworks in an opening to engage me, or even tension in the form of a threat - Swain's 'anxiety' can, for me, be a simple question (bearing in mind that in books such as Swain's, the author is usually trying to distill a common ruleset from a wide variety of working styles, and that workable exceptions must exist). I determine instead therefore that it just needs to be 'story' -- that question and answer, motivation and reaction mechanism I do so love -- to get me engaged and keep me there.

Tastes change though - perhaps tomorrow I'll write a rebuttal to my own post...

[This message has been edited by BenM (edited June 11, 2009).]


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tchernabyelo
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I think all three openins are good. There's plenty of tension in #1 and #3 - even if it's intellectual in #1 and emotional in #3 - as well as hooks - tantalising glimpses of something we want to know more about (the artifact in #1, Seule in #3). #2 is a pure exercise in voice opening, and it's delightfully written; crisp and humourous. And it's by Avram Davidson, and that alone is a hook, surely?
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jayazman
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I agree. With everyone. lol

Seriously, #1 and #3 would hook me, but #2 wouldn't. If I bought the magazine, I would read it anyway to see if it got better, but if it was free, like online, then I would probably pass #2 and go on.

BTW: I think the MC in #3 is a dog. Does anyone know?


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posulliv
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It could be that the key words in Swain's definition are 'in the reader'.

#1 hooks me, I'm wondering what the artifact is, and I've read enough artifact stories to imagine that it won't turn out to be a discarded pop can.

#2 not as much, but I'd read a little further. It seems like it is foreshadowing something interesting and deserves the benefit of the doubt.

#3 I wasn't interested until the mention of claws, and even then, maybe not, unless the author tells me in the next paragraph why Suele has claws, and doesn't try to 'cheat me' by withholding evidence.

This is a nice selection of examples. I wonder if they would get the same response without attribution and we had to guess if they were published works or not?


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dee_boncci
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I'd probably keep reading all of them, not because anything about the openings "hooked" me, but because I'll always read at least a few pages of a short story, or a few chapters of a novel, before I'd consider abandoning it (which rarely happens).
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philocinemas
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My sentiments reflect the last three posts. I’d read on a little farther with all three, and whether I had paid for it would be a factor as to how far. One interested me the most. I would have to see where two and three were going.

I have taken a different perspective in looking at these stories – not what entices me, but what enticed the editors to purchase them (other than the author’s names).

Observations:

1 – Starts out in first person (possibly causing early suspicion if writer is unknown). The first sentence reminds me of how a mechanic talks to you about some part of your car that he obviously feels you should know more about than you do. I believe this establishes the milieu and helps in character development. The word “artifact” at the end of the first sentence is the hook (as well as is the title). The second and third sentences make use of stream of thought as either a clever infodump or a “gold herring” (I suspect the second – I doubt we ever even hear about “ring-trout” again). The last two lines are similar to the “ring-trout” sentences, except they give more detailed sensory information about what it is the MC is seeing. The word “accretion” is the token $3 word. All of these lines work together to establish believability and to get the reader inside the world and mind of the MC. This is what I think sold it – hook, line, and sinker.

2 – This is the same set up as the first, but reversed. The author uses several $3 words. The first two sentences give us background information about where the story begins and what it looks like there, details that reinforce believability. They also establish a voice by using stream of thought in the parentheses and irony (comic tone) by word-choice in “deconsecrated” and explaining the church is now a glue warehouse. The narrator then gives more detail in describing more precisely where this story starts and establishes the hook by describing what the store sells. Again, voice is reinforced through stream of thought – “fist chop…” The title also suggests a comic tone.

3 – This opening strongly uses reader’s interest in unknowns to hook and has no $3 words. The first sentence introduces the MC (Sarah) and creates a casual nothing-out-of-the-ordinary tone. The next sentences establish the unknowns or “fill-in-the-blank” information. Seule is a “she” and “breathless” and “excited”. Sarah has been “happy with their progress”, which suggests to me that Sarah has been trying to help Seule in some way, most likely as a therapist. Seule then states, “His project needs me…I really feel I have my emotions under control..” This would suggest to me that it is a working relationship (most likely boss-secretary) that has turned intimate. Seule then tries to justify her behavior to Sarah. The last sentence establishes the hook with the use of the word “claws” (I suspect it to mean “fingernails” and foreshadowing a more sinister turn in the tone of the story) and the “thumping noises in the background.” This is a very dense beginning, that a first-time read-through probably wouldn’t catch, but it could plant a subconscious seed in the reader. Part of the appeal to this story could possibly be the second read.


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