Hello. This is a Standard Preamble for those just joining the posting, "Non-tension openings---do they work, and why?" in the Open Discussions 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.) ------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------ -----
6-13-09 Sample A:
It happened so fast that I nearly missed it. I'd seen the kid hanging about near Wang's stall, with a studied nonchalance on his face and a hardness in his eyes, but a lot of street urchins do that and it's not illegal to look at tourist trash without buying any. And I can tell the thieves from the hopefuls---some kind of sixth sense, born of long practice. This time, my extra sense let me down. The kid was good, I have to admit. Wang Chin-Li was distracted by a potential customer, a willowy blonde just flown in from Amsterdam, still red around the eyes despite recent applications of eye-shadow and mascara. She was deciding whether to buy and expensive jade rabbit, and Wang, who has a
----"Environmental Friendship Fossle," Ian Stewart, Analog, July/August 2006, p.144
_AUTHOR'S NOTE: I found what follows in the throw-up pan they send home with you from the hospital along with a bottle of Keri lotion and a box of Kleenex that cost forty-eight dollars. It's in my handwriting, but I have no memory of writing it. That may be because of the drugs I was given for pain. On my hospital bill (page 19), it says I was given an injection of streibadol every four hours, and when I looked streibiadol up in Merck's drug compendium, it said short-term memory loss was a common side effect. It didn't say hallucinations were, though, and I thought you'd better see this just in case._
I think I may have discovered something, lying here in the hospital, and I decided I'd better get it down while the nurse
----"Close Encounter," Connie Willis, Asimov's, September 1993, p. 52
February gripped the farm like a fist, and the baby would not let her rest. Rachel lay wakeful by her sleeping husband and listened. The baby's cry came to her as a faint protest from the burial ground, patient and mournful as he keen of wind about the clapboard house. "Beece," she whispered, shaking him gently, "Breece, listen." Breece mumbled, rolled over, and dragged her into his embrace, but he did not wake. Outside, the wind gusted, rattling the knotted fingers of the skeletal oak that stood by the house and chasing watery moon-cast shadows through the bedroom. The barn door banged. Gray specks of snow spat beyond the pale square of window.
----"Home Burial, " Dale Bailey, F&SF, December 1994, P. 83
[This message has been edited by Kathleen Dalton Woodbury (edited June 15, 2009).]
I guess I don't understand why these are classified as "non-tension".
In Sample A the fist line poses an implicit, unanswered question (what happened? missed what?) we soon learn it might involve a crime. I'm aware of the "anxiety" hypothesis for tension at the start of the series of threads, but an unanswered question does introduce a tension that won't be resolved until the question is answered, by which time the framework for a broader story should unfold.
Sample B is essentially the same trick (found what?)
Sample C is classic. On a dark and stormy night sounds that shouldn't be coming from the burial ground are. The title plays into that. Then the somewhat mysterious response of the woman: she doesn't appear overly concerned about the sound (maybe the "haunting" is an ongoing thing, maybe they have a neighbor across the ground with an exceptionally strong-lunged newborn).
I don't see any of the examples as particularly elegant, and none violenltly jerk the reader into a high tension environment (where the anxiety definition might be more applicable). But in all three cases there's something to draw the reader in. A and B in effect say, "Listen, I'm about to tell you a story about _____", and C gives the appearance of something spooky/out-of-the ordinary about to happen through setting and a touch of characterization.
[This message has been edited by dee_boncci (edited June 14, 2009).]
Unlike the previous group, to me these feel like they have some tension.
A: A robbery in progress is a pretty tense situation. Perhaps diluted somewhat since it's from the perspective of a (presumably) non-involved bystander.
B: "I think I may have discovered something..." is a pretty effective, if somewhat clunky, way of ramping up tension. This one may be diluted by the fact it's a flashback within a flashback... by the end of this opening I was getting desperate for the story to actually start
C: A baby crying from its grave? If that ain't tension, I don't know what is.
While these examples are more "tell" than "show", they do foretell (sorry) the promise of an interesting story to follow. The anxiety arises from creating an interesting/unique situation such that the reader wants to know what happens next. Why is this guy watching street theives? What happened in the hospital? Why is a buried baby crying?
My point in posting these is to get some feel for what sorts of things 'make the reader want to keep reading.' The problem is this term, 'tension' is thrown about without any precision. Curiosity, it seems to me, is a common way to engage the reader. But often writers can get stuck in the physical threat form of tension, parodied by (I think it was S.J. Perelman)
Blam Blam Blam Three bullets struck me in the gut. But let me tell a little about myself before I go on.
quote:Curiosity, it seems to me, is a common way to engage the reader.
Curiosity is, I think in the end what all the others boil down to. The begining is the begining, whatever kind of begining it is, and most people are going to want to find out what all happens and how it all ends.
Its also why most people, as readers, don't just read a few lines then stop or continue. I and most people I know will look through a story before deciding to read it or not.
I tend to think of tension as something unresolved, where there are opposing forces that have yet to directly confront each other and/or escalate to the extent one has to yield. It's kind of an analogy to the concept of tension in physics.
It can be subtle: the curiosity of a reader (or character) versus a gap in information, as a couple of the examples utilize. Or it can be obvious and heavy handed: a warrior and his nemesis bent on destroying each other. It can be internal: a character's ongoing addiction versus a desire for sobriety or even survival. There is probably no end to the ways tension could appear in a story, and a concise definition might be hard to come up with.
And I agree that a reader's curiosity about what will happen when things collide, or at least what happens next, is a crucial element in keeping the pages turning, especially when they sense the pending confrontation is meaningful (that might be a serviceable definition of "dramatic tension").
Creating curiosity is creating tension. Think about it. Ever wondered something and couldn't rest until you found out? What about something you already know but can't remember (like the name of that gal who sang that one song) and you must google it immediately before you can think of anything else? Curiosity must be satisfied. Tension is a state where you are not completely satisfied.
A reader can be satisfied that he has read enough or feel the need to read more. Until his wants are satisfied, he is under some tension.
Zerostone, I know I'm going to make this comment and as soon as I do you're going to post another three first-13's and my comments will be forgotten somewhere down in one of the yellow folders that make the slow crawl to oblivion, but here it goes anyway:
I actually liked this batch better than the last group - an Artful Dodger style robbery, a mysterious and forgotten message to oneself, and a baby crying from its grave. What's not to like?
But they, and the ones before them, and the ones before those are all about the editors and not about the readers. Sure, the readers buy the magazines, but half of those readers are probably people like us who buy them largely to write them. The other half are either people who have had subscriptions since the seventies, and just can't bring themselves to give up on the magazines or those who thought the covers looked cool when offered a 3 for 1 deal from "winning" a publisher's sweepstakes they never actually entered. The editors, though, they're the ones buying the stories.
These stories have a literary flair to them. They are about character, and voice, and depth. There's not a whole lot of speculativity here, except for the last one. I am sure they get there, but here is what we're talking about, and here there is very little sign of science fiction or fantasy. It is about the writing. Not "good" writing, but making something so believable that the ambience becomes so real, so palpable, that the reader is absorbed into what's happening. This is about what the editors want.
The readers just want a good story, but the editors want something more. They want to know this is really happening. They want to believe that if the pages caught on fire and burned to ashes, that this story would show up in the daily's the next day - probably not as well written, but as true as anything else that shows up there.
I'm not going to dissect them, I did a little of that earlier, but look at each one of them and examine them closely. They all have an element of what I would call "depth".
Let me give a quick and, most suredly inadequate, example.
Joe and I were taking a leisurely stoll down to that new deli on 10th Street. It was a fifteen minute walk, but we had an hour, and in all honesty, Joe needed the exercise as well as a little sunlight. The sidewalk was one of those white-washed, sectional cement peculiarities that never seem to need repair but appear to have existed back when the dinosaurs still roamed the earth. If one looked hard enough he could probably even find a Microraptor or an Archaeopteryx buried next to a finger etching of 'Ralph was here'. The only semblance of wear was a little powder-like dust and the hair-thin cracks that both of us made a playful game out of dodging along the way. It wasn't until we came upon a crack large enough in which to drop a city bus that we realized our trip was about to take a slight detour.
Sorry if this went over - wrote it on the fly.
This opening, literally, goes nowhere. It is all about a sidewalk, but it gives a pretty detailed view of a sidewalk - hopefully enough to believe it is a real sidewalk and to help the reader somehow place this sidewalk in his or her mind and relate it to some aspect of their own experience. I threw in a hook at the end, but their was no "conflict" up until that point.
These stories are all reading like a Michael Chabon novel, but many of them are made out of the stuff that dreams are made of - lead (the heavy metallic kind).
Edited to make a few minor plurality corrections, add the names of a couple of small dinosaurs, and to clarify the word "lead".
[This message has been edited by philocinemas (edited June 18, 2009).]
[This message has been edited by philocinemas (edited June 18, 2009).]
I think the previous posters have hit the nail on the head. Curiosity = tension. The stronger your desire to find out what happens next, the greater the pull to keep reading.
And for speculative fiction readers, there is something to be said for having a speculative element right up front. Thinking back to some recent stories I've written, this is something I could probably do a better job of.
In philocinema's example, there are questions raised, but the riviting description of a sidewalk doesn't engage my curiosity enough to care much about those questions. Compare that to something like:
quote:The baby's cry came to her as a faint protest from the burial ground
It's only fourteen words, and I have to know what's going on.
However, I don't think a non-fan of spec fiction would be as intrigued by that line. I can imagine my mom, for example, reading that line and saying something like "well that's stupid, a dead baby can't cry" and putting the story down in disgust. (Hmmm... actually, I may be selling my mom short, as she's into those mysteries where a cat ends up solving the crime, so maybe she would be intrigued by that opening...)
Having "conflict" in and of itself is no guarantee you'll have "tension". The reader has to be intrigued enough to wonder WHY the character(s) are in conflict. If they don't care, all the pyrotechnics in the world ain't gonna help.
I did state that my example would most likely be inadequate. I probably should have plucked something from a reputable writer, so please ignore my attempt.
My point is that it is the wording and the deeper meanings underlying the words that has garnished the attention of editors. Yes, there's tension and sure, "Home Burial" seems like a great read. I am intrigued.
The overlapping question to me, however, is why an editor chooses this piece, a story about Shakespeare's Timon of Athens, and one about a shop next to a Bhutanese grocery that sells shrunken heads. What's the common thread other than the authors' names being recognizable.
Did the Shakespeare story (from the previous set of selections) create curiosity? I'm perfectly glad if it did that for you, but I don't think that's what got it into the pages of F&SF.
We're looking at first 13's. These aren't designed for the regular readers; they're designed for the slush readers and the editors to hook them. I do not recall ever stopping after 13 lines and stating to myself that this opening sucks and I'm not going to waste my time reading it. Now, after a page or two of "suckage", I would most likely move on.
Maybe there's no common thread. Maybe it's like throwing chaff in the wind, and where it lands is where it lands. Maybe there are multiple reasons why these stories are chosen, whether they open with sandwiches or Shakespeare. But I'm guessing this is not the case. I think every one of these has something in common that has put it in front of the others that didn't make it. I believe it goes beyond plot and grammar, and drives to the very core of current trends in writing.
I think that engaging a reader's curiosity/interest is more of an effect than a "cause", and maintaining that interest should be an ongoing thing, not just something tossed in at the beginning.
I would bet that the strength of the entire work has a lot more to do with what gets selected for publication, especially for relatively unknown authors, than does any particular opening gambit. That said, a strong work will generally include a strong beginning. A well executed work that aligns with what an editor feels like publishing stands a reasonable chance of getting published.
My two cents: use the beginning to effeciently present a motivated character in a situation that requires action. That presentation probably should be underway within in the first thirteen lines. In general, the sooner the better.