There’s an old bit of advice that says that short story writers need to hook the reader on the first page. This is actually true. In fact, I think a whole page might be more than most readers give a short story before deciding whether to read it or not. As a subscriber to Daily Science Fiction, I notice this myself. When that free short story arrives in my inbox — unless it’s by an author whose work I know I like — it gets maybe a couple of sentences before I’m on to the next message, promising myself I’ll get back to it later (which almost never occurs). This harsh reality has led to myriad essays, blog posts, chapters in textbooks, etc. on the topic of how to hook a reader. And I’ve found I agree with very little of this advice.
My husband and I got to talking about peer pressure the other day, specifically discussing that as a teenager I didn’t think it really existed. That’s because the way it was portrayed in the media and in that ridiculous “Just Say No” campaign bears very little resemblance to the real thing. But, for us science fiction writers, peer pressure is a very real force that needs to be at work in our worlds.
I’d like you to imagine you’ve written a scene in which a family is sitting around the dinner table discussing which brand of corn flakes was the better buy at the grocery store that morning. This scene is probably boring. Now, imagine that at the beginning of the scene you’ve established that the main character has some world-shattering news to share, and is trying to find the right moment to drop the bombshell. Now this scene is probably much, much more interesting, with all the inanities of the conversation serving as dramatic complications for our poor, can’t-just-blurt-it-out protagonist. The reason this works is because you’ve established what in drama we call “the objective.”
Many years ago, I sang in a production of Murder in the Cathedral, which tells the story of the martyrdom of Thomas à Becket. Being one of those performers who cannot let a historical drama go unresearched, I read up on the incident. Not surprisingly, I was left with a less-than-flattering opinion of the four knights responsible for the killing.
Well, something interesting happened last weekend. My mother, who is researching our family’s genealogy, informed me that (remembering that there’s always doubt in such research) I’m most likely a direct descendent of one of those four knights. This prompted the involuntary re-evaluation in my mind of his actions with the “family” filter applied. While I still don’t condone what he did, my opinion of him changed dramatically.
And this got me thinking about how we view our characters who do despicable things. You’ve got to love them.