Jumping into the story as quickly as possible
December 1, 2017
Let’s see if you can capture and cage the magic of literary prose in a single paragraph.
There will always be an exception to the rule. There are exceptions to every rule. But, more and more, I am beginning to believe that the day of the great literary epic lies abandoned somewhere in the distant past, buried in the past century, and it may not be seen again for years.
There was a time when people read for the sheer pleasure and luxury of immersing themselves in great writing. Quite frankly, it took forever for something to happen. The story simply rocked along without a plot. Not yet anyway.
And readers didn’t really mind. They were patient and had come along for a long ride. Look at Gone With The Wind, for example. It took Margaret Mitchell the first hundred pages for everyone to simply get to the picnic. And once they arrived, not a lot happened.
In this new digital era of publishing and storytelling, here’s what an author has to do somewhere in the first ten pages:
- Everybody goes to the picnic.
- Somebody shows up with a gun.
- A marriage falls apart.
- Someone falls in love.
- Someone falls in love with the wrong man or woman.
- That’s why the marriage fell apart.
- The gun fires.
- Someone screams.
- Someone dies.
- Someone flees in the dark.
- The dead man is a stranger.
- He had no business at the picnic.
- He has one business card in his pocket.
- Someone reads the name on the card.
- It belongs to the man who hosted the picnic.
- Everyone looks around.
- The host is missing.
And now the preliminaries are out of the way, and the action can really begin.
Authors can’t back into stories anymore. They have to jump into the middle of the first paragraph with both guns blazing, figuratively speaking. If it takes readers a hundred pages to get to the picnic, they change their minds about page twenty-two and go somewhere else.
It doesn’t matter about the genre: mystery, thriller, romance, science fiction, fantasy, or historical fiction. The stories must open with a bang, then keep a reader’s imagination running hard for the next 50,000 to 60,000 words. There’s no reason to write long when readers want to read short, so give them what they want: shorter books and more books.
My first few paragraphs in Last Deadly Lie read like this:
MAX GORDON’S BRAINS had been splattered against the bedroom wall, and to Nathan Locke, the wet stain looked oddly enough like a weeping icon whose pleading eyes had been hollowed out by a shotgun blast.
He frowned and straightened his silk tie, stepping out of the shadows that cowered in the musty corners of a cheap walkup hotel catering mostly to drunks and drifters and girls of the night who gave away too cheaply what they could no longer sell.
Nathan Locke suddenly felt very uneasy, almost oppressed by the surroundings. Silently he cursed the phone call, the strangely empty voice of Max Gordon that had dragged him out of bed in the middle of the night. A chill wormed its way through his body, and a cold sweat dampened his forehead. Max Gordon had made a helluva mess of himself.
What else is there to say?
The reader sees it.
He’s got the picture.
The end is always in sight.
And when you write about your characters, you don’t need to spend chapters going back in time to write long drawn-out backstories. Simply write something like: He hadn’t been sober for two consecutive days since his wife ran off with the hometown banker eight years ago. It had been on a July Fourth night. Everybody saw the fireworks. Nobody found the bodies.
In Place of Skulls, I wrote:
AMBROSE LINCOLN watched the ragged edges of night paint the streets below and waited for the dead man to step from the shadows. They were never together, he and the dead man.
They were seldom apart.
They had never spoken.
Their eyes had not yet met.
Death was the only thing they had in common.
What else is there to say?
The minds of most readers are framed by what they see at the movies and on television. Their attention spans are short, their patience even shorter.
And that’s the challenge facing serious writers today. You are no longer permitted to write literary prose for page after page after page of narration.
Let’s see if you can capture and cage the same magic in a single paragraph. That’s what separates writers, the good from the bad. Readers will let you know which is which.
Please click HERE to find Last Deadly Lie on Amazon.
Please click HERE to find Place of Skulls on Amazon.