Sunday, December 11, 2011

Openings—hooking the reader

            Hooking the reader is about catching her from the outset: no explanations, no wind-up, but bang—straight into it. In a short story, you’ve got two or three paragraphs to accomplish this; it’s best if you can snare the reader with the first sentence. In a novel, you’ve got a bit longer—maybe two or three pages. In both forms, the reader wants to know upfront who the story is about, and the story’s setting.
With the novel, where you typically have 300 pages or more to work with, you might choose to begin with an establishing shot—as they do in movies. But don’t drag it out. With a short story—1,000 to 10,000 words—you can’t afford to be that leisurely; you have to introduce the main character, establish the setting and define the problem within a few paragraphs. Below are examples of catchy openings, pay attention to the first sentences.

Zarafa sprawled on her belly on a futon, her mane of brunette ringlets spilling off the top of the mattress to puddle on the woven-grass flooring. A few thousand yards from her bamboo-and-thatch bungalow, surf crashed against white sand that powdered the Aitanu Atoll like sugar on a donut.
Outside the rattan grid of the bedroom window, orange-throated tanagers trilled from orchid trees that hugged a verdant ridge sloping to the shore. A mixed choir of treefrogs and bellfrogs chirped and chimed the first movement in what would become a white-noise symphony when the moon rose up over the islet’s central lagoon. Zarafa listened to the plaintive serenade of birds and frogs pining for a mate, and knew a deeply human version of their songs. She closed her eyes, sinking one sigh deeper into loneliness.

            The first thing you need to know about Robi-John Lazar to begin to understand him, is that when he was nine years old, his father beat him to death.

            Twilight, on the Day of the Seahorse, with the sun and twin moons trading places, I kissed the tender flowers of her gills one last time.

These words I type are not my own, but only what they want me to tell.

            A tall, sinewy, flat‑chested woman strode toward me from across the ship’s hold. Her shoulders bulged beneath a tunic of laquered leather. A thin, white scar outlined her right cheekbone, and her nose bent to that side. The look in her gray eyes made me think she would march right over me, grind me under her sandals, but she stopped with her flattened nose an inch in front of mine. She smelled of sweat and leather and arnica oil.
            “You here to bet or to fight?” Her bark was deeper than my dog’s.
            “To fight.”
            One eyebrow went up and she gave me a more thorough inspection. My face was not scarred. I pulled back my hair to reveal the stub that remained of my left ear.
She smiled. “Knives.”
            I nodded.
            She announced to another woman getting dressed, “Red, we got us a new cutter.” The other woman turned toward us, her fiery pubic hair matched her flaming mane. She smiled and twisted her fist in the sign of knife fighters.
The first woman said to me, “I’m Ka.”
“My name is Tara,” I lied.
“You’re pretty,” Ka said. “Why don’t you get that ear regenerated?”
            I shrugged. “Can’t afford it. Besides, a mangled ear has a certain sex appeal, don’t you think?”
            Her laugh boomed around the curved titanium walls, and suddenly I had my first friend in years.

            My arms have grown back, that’s the good news. The bad news is something more has generated: muscular, wing-like appendages, but not exactly wings. They jut several feet above my shoulders and they are still growing and I don’t yet know their function. When they aren’t itching or tingling, they burn like hell.

The Elders taught that dreams are underground rivers that carry the dreamer to other worlds. They said the animals in dreams are allies who reveal the dreamer’s true self or force him on journeys he is afraid to take alone.
But River had not believed a word of the Elders. The Old Ways were obsolete. Therefore, he wasn’t prepared for the dreams when they arrived to sweep him away.

            Larissa squinted against gritty, blowing rain. In every direction of the naked mountaintop where she stood, sandstone boulders loomed out of the slanting downpour, some as small as doghouses and others bigger than barns. A billion years of winds had scoured the rock, sculpting it into organic shapes, breasts and heroic torsos and immense phallic columns.
In fact, she was seeing erotic forms everywhere; in the rivulets and puddles, in the dark and roiling sky. Interesting. An effect of two cups of yonamayi tea she had imbibed with the shaman, Carlos. The flower-seed brew was clearly a hallucinogen, and perhaps it also triggered a flood of dopamine in the hypothalamus. Dopamine was the most potent of the brain’s sexual triggers. Was that why she felt so fiercely horny now? The rainclouds churned in the cold wind and a fussilade of sandy raindrops shot sideways.
If the old shaman had not refused to let her bring along pen and notebook, she could be recording these observations, instead of hoping she wouldn’t forget them once the drug wore off.

            If Tom Harding had been paying attention to his fingertips when they began to tingle, the strangest encounter of his life would not have happened.
He hovered ninety feet down in Hali’e’kalile—the Navel of the World—a bottomless lagoon surrounded by the sands and coconut palms of Aitanu Atoll in French Polynesia. The crater of an ancient volcano jutting from the ocean floor formed the ring of the atoll; the volcano’s hollow core shaped its circular lagoon.
Tom had no idea how deep the navel’s sheer sides plunged into the belly of the earth. At his present depth the lagoon’s clear water had deepened from sky blue to cobalt. The void beneath him faded to midnight blue, and finally, squid-ink black. Caves honeycombed the limestone and coral walls of the abyss; some caverns just big enough to house a moray eel or an octopus, others with vaulting interiors roomy enough to dock a Trident submarine.
The tingling in his fingertips turned into prickling, but a living lightshow dancing in the lens of his video camera kept him enthralled, oblivious to the danger sign of hypoxia—too little oxygen in the blood.

Two men and a girl tramped across a springy mat of deer moss and tiny yellow flowers scattered to the horizons of the tundra. John Nahadeh drove a team of malamutes that towed a dogcart packed with video gear and digging tools. His daughter, Nika, strode alongside. (Opening of my novel, Ember from the Sun.)

Mason Drake awoke and saw the pilot burning. (Opening of my novel, Down to Heaven.)

The girl’s blood cells floated across the video screen like shimmering blobs of gel. No matter how much Richard Osden finessed the microscope’s fine tuning, he could not bring the inner architecture of the cells into sharp clarity. (Opening of my novel, Second Nature.)

Ket opened her eyes, still groggy from the blow, and screamed so long and loud it fogged the faceplate of her helmet. (First sentence of my short story, Dragonfly.)

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