Tuesday, 2 September 2014

Fishing for Readers



A number of months ago I read an article which was critical of the advice we often give to Creative Writing students in which we encourage them to begin their stories in the thick of action, or in medias res.  The argument goes that writers must capture the reader’s interest right at the beginning by ‘hooking them in’ so they feel compelled to continue reading.  Often this ‘hook’ is achieved through the creation of intrigue, something or someone which is obviously out of place or which otherwise encourages the reader to ask questions.  At other times it involves a piece of high drama and the reader is dropped straight into a piece of unfolding action. 

At the same time that we encourage students to work on their hooks, we tend to shoo them away from using too much description at the beginning of a story.  Readers’ attention spans have shortened, we say, and if a writer doesn’t grab reader’s interest in the first couple of paragraphs – or in the case of short stories, in the first couple of lines – then the work is doomed.  But I wonder if these warnings are really true.  Are ‘hooks’ and description really mutually exclusive?

In an effort to see how writers have succeeded in gaining my attention, I have looked at the openings to a random selection of some of my favourite pieces of literature.  I’ve included novels, short fiction and one example of non-fiction to help me pinpoint what it was that encouraged me to keep reading.

 1)      Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy (novel)

See the child.  He is pale and thin, he wears a thin and ragged linen shirt. He stokes the scullery fire. Outside lie dark turned fields with rags of snow and darker woods beyond that harbor yet a few last wolves. His folk are known for hewers of wood and drawers of water but in truth his father has been a schoolmaster. He lies in drink, he quotes from poets whose names are now lost. The boy crouches by the fire and watches him.
              Night of your birth. Thirty-three. The Leonids they were called. God how the stars did fall. I looked for blackness, holes in the heavens. The Dipper stove.
              The mother dead these fourteen years did incubate in her own bosom the creature who would carry her off. The father never speaks her name, the child does not know it. He has a sister in this world that he will not see again. He watches, pale and unwashed. He can neither read nor write and in him broods already a taste for mindless violence. All history present in that visage, the child the father of the man.

McCarthy begins by speaking directly to the reader. Rather than simply showing us the boy, he first commands us to ‘see’ him, emphasising the boy’s importance in the story to come. This opening paragraph sets the theme and tone of the novel, contrasting light and dark images, and we get a powerful sense of the simmering violence that is at the novel’s core. The biblical reference to ‘hewers of wood and drawers of water’ hints at the curse the boy is under and, with the Wordsworth paraphrase, sets the heightened and allegorical language of the story. All of these things combine to make the boy an intriguing figure and compel me to read on despite the lack of action. In fact, the quality of the writing alone makes me trust McCarthy.  I know he’s not going to waste my time.

2)      Desert Solitaire by Edward Abbey (autobiography)

This is the most beautiful place on earth.
There are many such places. Every man, every woman, carries in heart and mind the image of the ideal place, the right place, the one true home, known or unknown, actual or visionary. A houseboat in Kashmir, a view down Atlantic Avenue in Brooklyn, a gray gothic farmhouse two stories high at the end of a red dog road in the Allegheny Mountains, a cabin on the shore of a blue lake in spruce and fir country, a greasy alley near the Hoboken waterfront, or even, possibly, for those of a less demanding sensibility, the world to be seen from a comfortable apartment high in the tender, velvety smog of Manhattan, Chicago, Paris, Tokyo, Rio or Rome – there’s no limit to the human capacity for the homing sentiment.

The opening here poses a philosophical question regarding the concept of beauty. We do not know where ‘this’ place is or what it looks like at this stage, only that Abbey considers it to be uniquely beautiful. No details are given to provide his personal definition of beauty, but the list of places which others might consider ‘the most beautiful place on earth’ suggests that his definition is very different.

3)      East of Eden by John Steinbeck (novel)

The Salinas Valley is in Northern California. It is a long narrow swale between two ranges of mountains, and the Salinas River winds and twists up the center until it falls at last into Monterey Bay.
              I remember my childhood names for grasses and secret flowers. I remember where a toad may live and what time the birds awaken in the summer – and what trees and seasons selled like – how people looked and walked and smelled even. The memory of odor is very rich.
              I remember that the Gabilan Mountains to the east of the valley were light gay mountains full of sun and loveliness and a kind of invitation, so that you wanted to climb into their warm foothills almost as you want to climb into the lap of a beloved mother. They were beckoning mountains with a brown grass love. The Santa Lucias stood up against the sky to the west and kept the valley from the open sea, and they were dark and brooding – unfriendly and dangerous. I always found in myself a dread of west and a love of east. Where I ever got such an idea I cannot say, unless it could be that the morning came over the peaks of the Gabilans and the night drifted back from the ridges of the Santa Lucias. 

Steinbeck opens his novel with a detailed description of place, recording not just the physical features of the landscape but also its character and history.  He imbues the landscape with human characteristics, showing it to be both nurturing and threatening with the representation of the two mountain ranges hinting at the novel’s conflict between good and evil. The whole of the first chapter focuses on the shape of the landscape and its history up to the time the narrator’s grandfather arrives there to homestead. No action, no dialogue, no introduction of characters.  Just landscape.

4)      One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez (novel)

Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendía was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice. At that time Macondo was a village of twenty adobe houses, built on the bank of a river of clear water that ran along a bed of polished stones, which were white and enormous, like prehistoric eggs. The world was so recent that many things lacked names, and in order to indicate them it was necessary to point. Every year during the month of March a family of ragged gypsies would set up their tents near the village, and with a great uproar of pipes and kettledrums they would display new inventions. First they brought the magnet. A heavy gypsy with an untamed beard and sparrow hands, who introduced himself as Melquíades, put on a bold public demonstration of what he himself called the eighth wonder of the learned alchemists of Macedonia. He went from house to house dragging two metal ingots and everybody was amazed to see pots, pans, tongs and braziers tumble down from their places and beams creak from the desperation of nails and screws trying to emerge, and even objects that had been lost for a long time appear from where they had been searched for most and went dragging along in turbulent confusion behind Melquíades’ magical irons….

This is one of the most intriguing of opening lines to any novel I’ve ever read. The phrase ‘many years later’ immediately thrusts us into the future before we are given any sense of the implied ‘here and now’.  In the same sentence, we are placed in front of the firing squad alongside the Colonel – a good example of in medias res, with all the immediacy and urgency of that life and death moment. Before we are given any detail of that particular moment, however, we are thrust backwards in time to a ‘distant afternoon’ in the Colonel’s childhood. Within one sentence, we glimpse three different time periods. Marquez then opens up the world of the Colonel’s memory, but instead of leaving us in his point of view, an omniscient narrator takes over and we move into a sort of fairy tale time when the world was new and magical things happened. 

5)      The Hellhole by Annie Proulx (short story)

On a November day Wyoming Game & Fish Warden Creel Zmundzinski was making his way down the Pinchbutt drainage through the thickening light of late afternoon. The last pieces of sunlight lathered his red-whiskered face with splashes of fire. The terrain was steep with lodgepole pine giving way on the lower slope to sagebrush and a few grassy meadows favored by elk on their winter migration to the southeast. Occasionally, when the sight lines were clear, he caught the distant glint of his truck and horse trailer in the gravel pullout far below. He rode very slowly, singing of the great Joe Bob, who was “…the pride of the backfield, the hero of his day”,* in front of him walked the malefactor without hunting license who had been burying the guts of a cow moose when Creel came upon him. The man’s ATV was loaded with the hindquarters. The rest of the carcass had been left to rot.

Proulx opens the story with her main character performing an action, walking downhill through the woods towards his pickup but her focus is on description of place, not action or event. She is setting the scene for the story to come which depends entirely on the landscape we see in this first paragraph. Landscape is more than setting, however. It is a character in its own right. It has agency and it moves the story forward. 

6)      A Thousand Acres by Jane Smiley (novel)

At sixty miles per hour, you could pass our farm in a minute, on County Road 686, which ran
due north into the T intersection at Cabot Street Road. Cabot Street Road was really just another country blacktop, except that five miles west it ran into and out of the town of Cabot. On the western edge of Cabot, it became Zebulon County Scenic Highway, and ran for three miles along the curve of the Zebulon River, before the river turned south and the Scenic continued west into Pike. The T intersection of CR 686 perched on a little rise, a rise nearly as imperceptible as the bump in the center of an inexpensive plate.

Again, the focus is almost entirely on place. In the first paragraph Smiley provides a detailed picture of the landscape in which her novel is set with a description that is so specific we could locate the precise location on a map. Over the next three pages she expands that description of landscape and place before slowly introducing her characters and hinting at the conflict at the center of the novel. For some readers, this type of opening may be a slow burn, but for me it is bliss.

7)      Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell (novel)

Beyond the Indian hamlet, upon a forlorn strand, I happened on a trail of recent footprints. Through rotting kelp, sea cocoanuts & bamboo, the tracks led me to their maker, a white man, his trowzers & Pea-jacket rolled up, sporting a kempt beard & an outsized Beaver, shovelling & sifting the cindery sand with a tea-spoon so intently that he noticed me only after I had hailed him from ten yards away. Thus it was, I made the acquaintance of Dr Henry Goose, surgeon to the London nobility. His nationality was no surprise. If there be any eyrie so desolate, or isle so remote that one may there resort unchallenged by an Englishman, ’tis not down on any map I ever saw.

While Mitchell does provide us with details about the setting, the focus here is on establishing the character of the first-person narrator and the situation. Written in the form of a diary entry, we see the world as the first-person narrator sees it and it is the details he chooses to include that help us to know him and which also help to create the intrigue surrounding the appearance of the mysterious Englishman. Notice how the narrator’s language, along with a few specific details work together to establish the time period.  

8)      The Search Engine by Sherman Alexie (short story)

On Wednesday afternoon in the student union café, Corliss looked up from her American history textbook and watched a young man and younger woman walk in together and sit two tables away. The student union wasn’t crowded, so Corliss clearly heard the young couple’s conversation. He offered her coffee from his thermos, but she declined. Hurt by her rejection, or feigning pain – he always carried two cups because well, you never know, do you? – he poured himself one, sipped and sighed with theatrical pleasure, and monologued. The young woman slumped in her seat and listened. He told her where he was from and where he wanted to go after college, and how much he liked these books and those teachers but hated those movies and these classes, and it was all part of an ordinary man’s list-making attempts to seduce an ordinary woman. Blond, blue-eyed, pretty, and thin, she hid her incipient bulimia beneath a bulky wool sweater. Corliss wanted to buy the skeletal woman a sandwich, ten sandwiches, and a big bowl of vanilla ice cream….

Alexie begins by placing the protagonist within a vague setting – the student union café – but instead of looking directly at Corliss, and providing a physical description of her, our attention is diverted to a young couple sitting at a nearby table.  From Alexie’s description, we know that this is merely a casual, probably first-time meeting.  But of course as readers we are not really meant to be focused on this anonymous couple, and as Corless eavesdrops on their conversation, Alexie hints at her personality through the way she interprets what she sees. Like any fiction writer, she is a student of character and as she watches the young man trying to chat up the young woman she makes up backstories to explain their behaviours.  More importantly, though, this first paragraph very subtly introduces the main theme of the story – that of being an outsider.

9)      Hills Like White Elephants by Ernest Hemingway (short story)

The hills across the valley of the Ebro were long and white.  On this side there was no shade and no trees and the station was between two lines of rails in the sun.  Close against the side of the station there was the warm shadow of the building and a curtain, made of strings of bamboo beads, hung across the open door into the bar, to keep out flies.  The American and the girl with him sat at a table in the shade, outside the building.  It was very hot and the express from Barcelona would come in forty minutes.  It stopped at this junction for two minutes and went on to Madrid.

Hemingway packs this first paragraph full of information, giving us a very precise description of place.  We get a clear view of both the wider setting – of the arid hills in the distance, and of the immediate surroundings – the shaded table outside the station bar.  Even though we are not explicitly ‘told’ that it is hot and dry, this is the main impression we are left with.  We also know that the protagonist is American.  We have no further detail about him at this time, but the fact that he is foreign to the location adds a sense of the ‘unknown’ which is an important clue to his character.  This first paragraph also includes a reference to the ‘two lines of rails’ which run past the station, and with this image Hemingway begins to build a motif which illustrates the central theme.  The station is at a junction between Barcelona and Madrid, and for the couple sitting at the table there are important decisions to be made.

10)      Homesick by Guy Vanderhaeghe (novel)

An old man lay asleep in his bed. This was his dream:

He is young again, once more an ice-cutter laying up a store of ice for the summer.  The Feinrich brothers and he drive their sledges out on to the wide white plain of the lake.  The runners hiss on the dry snow, metal bits in the harness shift and clink, leather reins freeze so hard they lie stiff and straight as laths down the horses’ backs.  Before them the sky lightens over purple-shadowed, hunch-shouldered hills.

Dream sequences are intriguing as they always provide important clues about a character’s psyche, revealing unconscious or suppressed aspects of their personality that help to explain their waking actions and behaviours.  Often there is a surreal quality to dreams, but here the scene is presented through very realistic imagery.  We are given precise details which help to set the story that follows within a particular landscape.  We don’t yet know anything for certain about the protagonist, other than that he is ‘and old man’, but the specific imagery used in this opening creates an overriding impression of coldness.