Hello. This is a Standard Preamble for those just joining the posting, "Non-tension openings---do they work, and why?" in the Open Discussionss forum.
Much debate was sparked by my posting on criteria of a good opening. Kathleen suggested that I post some examples. Here are three more. '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. (I'm placing the posting date before each sample so people can refer back to them if need be.) --------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------
6-12-09 Sample A:
The plate was empty. Two minutes ago it had contained a grilled croissant slathered with Nutella. Sprinkled with sugared coconut. The now-empty plate was supposed to have contained a chicken breast sandwich with bib lettuce and cucumber, held together with low-fat cream cheese. Victoria Spoon stared at the plate. Moments earlier, it had looked like a long lost friend. Only now, when it was too late, did she see its true form---that of an implacable enemy. Tears welled up in her eyes. How many hours of exercise had she just wiped out? How many cucumber sandwiches had she just zeroed? Tears sliding down her face, she took out her cell phone and tapped out a number she knew better than she knew her mother's...
The road down from London was muddy with rain, despite the calendar's protests of June. George Pengallen shifted his weight in the saddle and felt a stab of sores brought on by too many hours straddling a horse whose ample girth seemed better suited to pulling the plow than to the conveyance of a gentlemen, even so financially diminished a young gentleman as himself. The day was warm, the conditions of the roads notwithstanding. A sun that could do nothing towards reducing the level of muck underfoot was remarkably efficient when it came to drying out the solitary rider's throat while at the same time conjuring up rills and rivulets of sweat beneath his clothes. George doffed his tricorn hat and used it to fan
----"The Fraud," Esther M. Frisner, Asimov's, March, 2005, p.12
Shattered by rejections of the off-off Broadway circuit and the regional theaters, the cold incestuousness of the university circuit, Shakespeare turns his back on the theater. Perhaps he will do better in the prose arena. _Timon of Athens?_ Perhaps he can novelize _Timon of Athens._ He takes out the weary, overplotted morality drama, considers it. Water shrieks in the pipes of the two-room apartment on East 3rd Street near Avenue B where he is living under an assumed name; roaches and rats chase each other inside the walls. _Timon of Athens_. The raving monologues, the soliloquies of hatred roaring through the final acts, make him wince. How could he have taken all of this stuff seriously in his youth? Nonetheless, there might be something he could do
----"Shakespeare MCMLXXXV," Bill Pronzini and Barry N. Malzberg, F&SF, Nov., 1982, p.65
[This message has been edited by Kathleen Dalton Woodbury (edited June 12, 2009).]
Yawn. I do not feel greatly inspired to turn the page for any of these samples. They certainly have merit, but I would probably need good cover art and an interesting back cover blurb to keep me going. Sample A is the most likely to catch my eye during a slow period, because I like the writing style and the MC's dilmemma.
Of course none of them have the sorts of speculative elements that interest me. That is probably my biggest problem with them.
[This message has been edited by MrsBrown (edited June 12, 2009).]
Neither an empty plate, a loser on a rainy day, nor -- least of all -- Shakespeare (and a play that even he doesn't like) attract my interest. Nobody I feel symathetic towards, no problem that's interesting, no attractively written prose, no hint of fantastical gadgets or alien culture, no tension -- vindication, perhaps, of the things many of us strive for in our first 13s.
None of these provoked any anxiety in this reader.
Sample A lacks an identifiable hook, but I'm curious to know what happens next. Maybe I just like the writing style. I'd read a bit more and see how it goes.
The relaxed pace of Sample B reads more like the start of a novel. It conveys a good sense of place, but I'm guessing this is a fairly long short story. There's some tension here... Where's he going? Why is he financially diminished?
After reading Sample C, I literally did this: Off the top of my head, I don't recall any specific stories about WS in modern times, but it just feels like such a tired concept.
I would thumb through the rest of the mag and maybe come back to these if I was trapped on a plane with nothing else to read. Of course I'd probably read a little more of all of them first to see if something happened.
[This message has been edited by posulliv (edited June 12, 2009).]
I agree. I probably would not turn the page on any of these. If I had to read one, I would pick the second, mostly for the sake of the setting which seems to be an era I'm curious about, and which I'd be interested in finding out the speculative elements in. Which, oddly enough, none of these samples have any hint of speculative element in it yet.
There's precious little movement in any of these. Nor is there any kind of mystery, nor is there anything nice about the prose. The one bit that I thought held promise was the line "even so financially diminished a young gentleman as himself" since there was a touch of sarcasm there.
I believe I have experienced an epiphany. This is what I see - these stories are not the exception to the rule for these mags, but they are representative of the rule. If anyone here has read these mags to get a perspective on what is selling, then he or she knows this. None of us should be scratching our heads right now, because these are the kind of openings that are out there in the big three, as well as somewhat in WOTF.
There's often no action, or conflict, or even any obvious speculative thrust in the opening lines. The hook for these editors appears to me to be the writer's ability to create a level of realism and believability that transcends the plot of the story. Sometimes this is done through voice (as in stream of thought) or character development. Other times it is done through small or even overarching details. Verbiage appears to be extremely important to them, not necessarily big words, but just the right word for the situation. But most important, possibly even above plot and character, is depth.
I agree with philocinemas, I think the hook to get editors to continue reading is good writing. Ultimately the story must be satisfying and interesting to the editors for them to publish it, but I think most editors would read the entire story if it is written well.
Sample C is the only story that I have absolutely no interest in, and that is only because the premise is not interesting to me at all.
Sample A gives a good sense of character which moves the story forward. I am curious who she is going to call, and where the story is going. The lack of speculative element in the begining of a story published in a speculative fiction magazine is actually a hook to me.
Sample B gives setting and characterization and is moving the story forward by showing the mc on a journey. I am quite confident that something will happen soon either on the road or at his destination. So I would keep reading.
Not all stories should begin with major conflict; some stories need a more subtle begining. As writers we need to find the right place to begin our story, which I think is extremely difficult.
quote:Not all stories should begin with major conflict; some stories need a more subtle begining. As writers we need to find the right place to begin our story, which I think is extremely difficult.
With some stories it can be. Beginings and endings both can be hard. But if we start with the idea that the begining has to be a certain way, has to have conflict and tension and grab on and not let go, its going to be even harder. That basically limits you to writing only certain types of stories.
quote:I agree with philocinemas, I think the hook to get editors to continue reading is good writing. Ultimately the story must be satisfying and interesting to the editors for them to publish it, but I think most editors would read the entire story if it is written well.
Well the trouble is, "good writing" beyond basic mechanics is a totally subjective concept. However, I do agree with philo also, and I think what it is is what Crystal Stevens was talking about in one of my recent threads. Its about voice. Every plot has already been done. Action has been done. Characters have been done. But nobody can write with your voice. Nobody has your characters living inside their head. Nobody can see into the worlds in your mind, unless you show them. But it has to be in your way. You have to write the stories that are in you, perfect them into the best versions...the closest to whats in your mind they can be...and then find the right audience for each of them.
Merlion-Emryse, I totally agree with you about the importance of voice, and how it makes your writing unigue. I also think that it is possible to have your voice stripped away by trying to perfect your prose.
But I don't think good writing is entirely subjective. There is a natural flow when a story is written well, when words are carefully chosen to create the right images and invoke the desired emotional response, when transitions are smooth and logical, and sentences aren't bogged down by wordiness.
There are a lot of books where I think everyone would agree that the writting is amazing whether or not you enjoyed the story.
quote:There are a lot of books where I think everyone would agree that the writting is amazing whether or not you enjoyed the story.
I'm not so sure about everyone. Because the qualities you speak of, flow word choice etc are also themselves subjective. I think it is easier to judge "good", there are works that most people...not all but most...will agree have certain technical merits. But there will still be some who disagree.
And its even more true when speaking of so called "bad" writing. For instance, theres a lot of stuff that you'd probably feel was bogged down by wordiness that I think is beautiful.
So in the end, its still all about taste, and taste is subjective. It is about "good" writing, but what constitutes "good" writing for each individual editor (heck even for each individual editor on any given day or week) is going to be something different. Your never going to please everyone...however carefully you choose your words and gauge your pace, your not going to evoke those right responses or paint those right images for everybody.
[This message has been edited by Merlion-Emrys (edited June 14, 2009).]
I did say that good writing isn't ENTIRELY subjective. I do admit that there is some subjectivity, but it is not completely subjective either.
If you want an example of truly terrible writing, I have a few stories I wrote in middle school that only my mother would call good writing.
I bet if we were judging several passages from a real editor's slush pile, not the ones here at hatrack because we are a talented bunch, we would agree more often than not which ones were well written.
quote: these stories are not the exception to the rule for these mags, but they are representative of the rule
I don't think that a handful of stories can be representative of far greater output, especially when they have been chosen, one presumes, for their non-tension openings.
Nor do we know how they were initially presented to the editor--did the editor know the writer and read the story regardless of its first 13? Did the story have an action-packed first 13 that grabbed the slush-pile reader's attention but got itself dropped in a revision?
A quick look through a few recent editions of Analog, F&SF and even Asimov's indicates that most of their stories start with a clear indication of F or SF, of action, or a problem -- as well as decent or in some cases attention-grabbing writing. Most, I'll agree, not all.
My conclusion from this is as before. If there's no tension in the opening, something -- a character, the writing quality, the setting -- has to attract the reader, and before that, the slush pile reader.
There's also the matter of taste, or subjective likes and dislikes of the reader. I like Analog, but not the opening to the story above. A story that starts with Victoria Spoon crying over an empty plate simply doesn't appeal to me, and that's okay; I don't expect to like every single story that Analog publishes, just enough to justify the subscription; sometimes, just one goshwow story does it for me, and any more in that issue are pure bonus.
I am going to highlight the parts of Sample A that I suspect sold it:
quote:Two minutes ago it had contained a grilled croissant slathered with Nutella. Sprinkled with sugared coconut. The now-empty plate was supposed to have contained a chicken breast sandwich with bib lettuce and cucumber, held together with low-fat cream cheese.
This part had such detail that it even showed what was "sprinkled" on the sandwich.
quote:Only now, when it was too late, did she see its true form---that of an implacable enemy.
This part personified the sandwich and used a very specific word - "implacable"
quote:Tears sliding down her face, she took out her cell phone and tapped out a number she knew better than she knew her mother's...
This is the actual hook, but it is emphasized with the use of the words "sliding" and "tapping" - very specific verbs.
I originally was going to do this for all of these openings, but I honestly do not see that it is necessary. Each of these stories use specific wording, voice, and backstory to create a sense of reality and believability that goes beyond the openings. I agree with you, TaleSpinner, on all of your points. However, my point was not that all of the stories in these mags open this way, but that it is "often" the case. I also questioned the importance of the author's name in the first set of openings from zerostone's original thread. The one commonality that I have seen in all of these openings is depth of character and world. I'm having a hard time putting into words what I'm trying to describe, but it goes beyond character and plot. It is almost like world-building within the context of the story. The only word I can use to describe it is "depth".
I think your analysis of story A is correct, philocinemas; it has a depth, an attention to detail I can imagine would attract some--especially, perhaps, those who have dieted and failed, who might identify with Victoria's feelings. Of course, this is where the subjective likes and dislikes come in.
This was published in Analog, and I imagine a speculative element appears at some point. But that depth, that attention to detail that for you was a hook was, for me, a reason not to read on. I guess one person's hook can be another's unhook.
Why does the depth not hook me? I haven't the patience for it. Taking these first lines as an indicator of what is to come, I fear that the speculative element I might be interested in will be lost in the detailed feelings of a failed dieter. Who knows, maybe it's the story of a fantastical dieting product that doesn't work in some futuristic fashion -- perhaps she'll lose weight by eating a fancy tub of cream, only to find she's the human incubator for nasty parastic aliens. Or something.
I think that "The plate was empty" is a good example of a bad opening line. It's negative. I immediately felt I had missed the story and felt disinclined even to read the second sentence. When she started crying, that was the clincher. I don't want to spend time in the company of one so sorry for herself.
[This message has been edited by TaleSpinner (edited June 14, 2009).]
TaleSpinner, you misunderstood me. I didn't like this either. I am pointing out what "sold the piece". In all honesty, I have enjoyed the pieces I have critiqued here at Hatrack far more than what I am reading in the big three. I am often having to put the stories down and splash water on my face after getting just a little ways through them. I then have to psych myself up to finish them. This isn't always the case, but it's not all that uncommon either.
There are several threads going on right now at the same time which I feel are coalescing into one common meaning for me. These stories read like stories from literary magazines. Now I happen to like some "literary" stories by certain authors and many of the classics. However, I also like straight to the point genre fiction, especially in short stories. Using poetic desciption doesn't bother me as long as it doesn't drag out the story. These stories often drag like a lake patrol searching for a dead body.
I agree with you Philo. I actually used to have a subscription to Fantasy and Science Fiction and although that was quite some time ago, it seems their content hasn't really changed.
Thats part of why I some times find many of the comments here at Hatrack strange, because people often criticise first 13s or whole stories for doing things or having qualities that in my experience huge amounts of published fiction also does or has.
Its not just poetic description either. I like poetic prose and even what many consider "purple" prose. It's also the fact that a lot of the stuff now a days is lacking in an actual speculative element and is often, at least for me, a little TOO focused on a character and their internal drama (and some times there soap operatic external drama as well.)
This is probably part of why some of the new "lesser" markets you see popping up are putting some times a little more emphasis on straightforward genre stuff especially fantasy. Most of the big markets hardly even publish high/epic/sword and sorcery fantasy.
That aside, another thing I've had trouble understanding is, if the begining of a story must have action or "tension" in the sense basically of fear or danger...what about stories that aren't action oriented, that are slow paced, that are focused on something other than the resolution of an obvious problem danger or obstacle? Should we just forget about writing anything like that because it won't get published?
I think these openings say definitely not. Theres different kinds of stories. And therefore different beginings. And there are people who like each of the different kinds...even people like me that like multiple types of stories...
quote: TaleSpinner, you misunderstood me. I didn't like this either.
Wups, sorry for any misunderstanding, philocinemas. And I agree with both philocinemas and Merlion on the way the short story markets seem to be going.
I'm becoming increasingly convinced that the major paper short story markets (big three plus Interzone) are aiming for the writerly and literary portions of the F&SF audience. Their style and content is quite different from the stuff we find on the F&SF shelves from publishers like Tor and Baen, who are clearly aiming for a broader readership, one that wants a "good read." (Interestingly, Gardner Dozois's short story anthologies go for the same broad market, I think.)
I cancelled a subscription to one of the big three a few months ago. I got many letters offering me a last chance to save a negligible fortune on an annual sub and telling me how they were the best magazine ever, and even a "Final Demand" which led me to wonder how little they understand and respect their paying readers. Not once did they ask why I was cancelling, or what they could do to improve their product -- a sure sign of a complacent, inward-looking business that will surely vanish.
I'm inclined to quit reading mags and instead read Gardner Dozois's anthologies. (But I'll still buy the odd Analog or Asimov's, because I like the cover art, the pulp tradition, and eternally hope they'll get better.)
I'm becoming increasingly convinced that the major paper short story markets (big three plus Interzone) are aiming for the writerly and literary portions of the F&SF audience. Their style and content is quite different from the stuff we find on the F&SF shelves from publishers like Tor and Baen, who are clearly aiming for a broader readership, one that wants a "good read."
I agree with all this, but I haven't seen this trend toward the writerly in Analog. Of course, paper zines may be dying out. The question as to whether this reflects the dying of SF as a genre is a much bigger question.
I don't think there's anything to take away from the demise of short fiction magazines in terms of the broader genre. Across the board publications that specialize in short fiction are receeding. Apparently not many people want to pay for that stuff anymore. The tendency to be increasingly writerly/literary probably reflects the last holdout audiences.
"Mainstream" fiction seems to be absorbing some aspects of SF, probably because it takes less-and-less suspension of disbelief to accept ever more powerful technology. I guess it is possible that SF might contract as a distinct genre, but I think there will always be room out there for fiction that looks into the future.