What’s the Matter?
Being inexplicably dropped into the past, as happens to Martin Padway, is intrinsically interesting, as is Davy’s discovery that he can teleport to any place he has previously been. Consequently, in both cases, the Situation is presented almost immediately with little or no set-up. Padway is dumped into Late Antiquity already on the fourth page of the text. Davy “jumps” on the second page. The reader blinks and says WTF?
Other Story Situations are not interesting intrinsically. To drive a car from Denver to St. Louis is not interesting in itself. It must be made synthetically interesting by the use of Explanatory Matter. Driving a car from Denver to St. Louis to escape the aftermath of a meteor strike makes it interesting. Celebrating a birthday is not intrinsically interesting, but celebrating one’s 111st birthday without having apparently aged, as Bilbo Baggins does in The Fellowship of the Ring, leads the reader to wonder.
The Explanatory Matter makes the Story Situation both interesting and plausible and sets out the condition or state of affairs that precipitate the situation. Rendered either in presentation units or in the author's own interpolations, the Matter makes clear to the reader that the Accomplishment (or Decision) can come only when the Chief Actor has:
a) Overcome a Difficulty;
b) Engaged in Conflict with Opposing Forces; or
c) Averted a Disaster.
Lawrence Block recommended “First things second.” That is, if Chapter 1 is the set-up or prep and the Situation gets rolling in Chapter 2, make the second chapter the first one, and then backfill the explanatory matter. In Writing the Novel: from Plot to Print, he says:
[Death Pulls a Double-cross] was a reasonably straightforward detective story featuring one Ed London, an amiable private eye who drank a lot of Cognac and smoked a pipe incessantly and otherwise had no distinguishing traits. … As I wrote the book, it opens with London being visited by his rotten brother-in-law, whose mistress has recently been slain in such a way as to leave the brother-in-law holding the baby, or the bag, or what you will. In the second chapter London wraps the young lady’s remains in an Oriental rug, lugs her to Central Park, unrolls the rug and leaves her to heaven, or to whatever necrophiles are prowling that expanse of greensward. Then he sets about to solve the case.
I showed the book to Henry [Morrison]. He read it all the way through without gagging. Then we got together to discuss it.
“Switch your first two chapters around,” he said.
“Huh?” I said.
“Put your second chapter first,” he said patiently. “And put your first chapter second. …. The idea is to start in the middle of the action, with London carting the corpse around, and then go back and explain what he’s doing and just what he’s got in mind.”
In other words, if the Situation is inherently interesting – lugging a corpse wrapped in a carpet and leaving it in Central Park, for example; or being dropped by a bolt of lightning into Ostrogothic Italy – start with the Situation and bring the Explanatory Matter afterward. This can be done through:
- Biographical details
- Special quality in the background or atmosphere
- Prior happenings; especially those that suggest the likelihood of failure and the probability of opposition.
For example, only after Pete has kidnapped the two children do we learn about the background: the post-apocalyptic future in which he lives and in which there is a machine that allows irregular scavenging trips into the pre-apocalyptic past. These resources, including genetic diversity, are desperately needed "after the fall."
For many synthetically interesting Situations, the Explanatory Matter must come before presenting the Situation, because the Situation would not otherwise be Interesting. You may have to prepare the reader with several scenes and/or chapters before he is ready for the Main Story Situation.
In Double Star (Heinlein), Lorenzo Smythe does not learn of his Story Problem – to impersonate the prominent politician Joseph Bonforte – until page 31. (At this point the Beginning is over and the Body begins.) But by then, the Reader has been presented with a down-at-luck actor trying to cadge a meal off an apparently chance-met spacer, a mysterious phone call to meet at another hotel, a conflict with Jock Dubois, hints at hidden machinations, the revelation that Smythe is wanted for an impersonation, his initial refusal, a deadly conflict with a Martian and a human, the gruesome disposal of the bodies, secret identities to slip through spaceport security, the lift to rendezvous with a torch ship bound for Mars, and the 2-gee acceleration to meet an unspecified deadline. So there is plenty to keep the reader Curious along the way – and to make the Situation plausible, for we are shown a) Smythe’s genuine acting talents and ability to “read” other people, and b) his professional pride in being a “trouper” who keeps his commitments. The show must go on. And does.
We employ a “hook” or an appetizer to grab the reader’s interest while building up the Story Situation. It is best to do this within the first few hundred words of a short story or within the first few chapters of a novel. Sometimes, the opening sentence or passage will hook the reader. Nancy Kress particularly notes the opening sentence of Anna Karenina:
All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.
…because, she says, “immediately I wanted to know how the unhappy families were unalike and whether we were going to meet one of each. My interest was sustained by the closely-following introduction of the Oblonsky household in disarray because of Stepan's affair with his children's governess. There was conflict by the second paragraph.”
Yet Dostoevsky opened The Brothers Karamazov with the following lumbering two-sentence giant:
Alexei Fyodorovitch Karamazov was the third son of Fyodor Pavlovitch Karamazov, a land owner well known in our district in his own day, and still remembered among us owing to his gloomy and tragic death, which happened thirteen years ago, and which I shall describe in its proper place. For the present I will only say that this “landowner”—for so we used to call him, although he hardly spent a day of his life on his own estate—was a strange type, yet one pretty frequently to be met with, a type abject and vicious and at the same time senseless.
This is remarkable in that Alexei is introduced in the first sentence and then disappears from the rest of the chapter. We are learning about his father instead! But it serves to announce that the narrator is given to digressions and distrac– oh, look! a squirrel!
The hook typically takes the form of a Scene or Chapter Situation which will incite curiosity in the reader while the Story Situation is being set up. Thus, before we learn about the Ringworld, we get interested in Louis Wu celebrating his 200th birthday using jump booths to follow midnight around world. The Fellowship of the Ring opens with Bilbo Baggins celebrating his eleventy-first birthday:
When Mr. Bilbo Baggins of Bag End announced that he would shortly be celebrating his eleventy-first birthday with a party of special magnificence, there was much talk and excitement in Hobbiton.
Bilbo was very rich and very peculiar, and had been the wonder of the Shire for sixty years, ever since his remarkable disappearance and unexpected return. The riches he had brought back from his travels had now become a local legend, and it was popularly believed, whatever the old folk might say, that the Hill at Bag End was full of tunnels stuffed with treasure. And if that was not enough for fame, there was also his prolonged vigour to marvel at. Time wore on, but it seemed to have little effect on Mr. Baggins. At ninety he was much the same as at fifty. At ninety-nine they began to call him well-preserved ; but unchanged would have been nearer the mark. There were some that shook their heads and thought this was too much of a good thing; it seemed unfair that anyone should possess (apparently) perpetual youth as well as (reputedly) inexhaustible wealth.
This is followed quickly by Frodo’s mission to deliver the One Ring to the Council. John C. Wright writes of this opening that:
“The fishing line to snare the reader's interest here is that, of course, it is too much of a good thing that anyone should possess perpetual youth and inexhaustible wealth. That thread leads step by darker step to a magic ring, which turns out to be a cursed magic ring, and the curse is from the darkest of Dark Lands itself. Mr. Bilbo’s perpetual youth is not just unnatural, it is a gift from the pit of Hell. The Ring is already drawing the Enemy. The thread leads all the way to the Cracks of Doom.”
The Earnestness of Being Important
In the Explanatory Matter, there are several ways to incite Curiosity. These are not mutually exclusive and a story may employ some or all of them to good effect.
3. Importance of the Story Situation, intrinsically or synthetically through foreshadowing, made clear in Scene or Scenes.
Getting rid of a ring is not very important. Getting rid of the One Ring, which Sauron could use to control all Middle Earth, is.
The importance need not be Saving the World.™ Sometimes, the importance is personal: Davy’s ability to teleport could have led to a routine story of super adventures; but during the Beginning of Jumper it is coupled to Davy’s personal safety from his abusive father and later from sexual predators.
In Space Pioneer, by Mack Reynolds, Analog (Sep-Nov, 1965), the nameless protagonist stows away on board a colony ship out to settle a new world. He takes the identity of a colonist who opted out at the last minute, passing out from drink. This is modestly Interesting in itself; but its Importance is heightened when we learn that the stowaway is an assassin intent on killing one of the colonists, whose precise identity he does not yet know.
The Explanatory Matter comes first in “The Darfsteller,” by Walter Miller, Astounding (Jan 1955), because the Story Situation as such – an out of work actor wants to be in a play – is not intrinsically interesting, or at least not very. But Miller takes care of that with the very first sentence, now almost legendary as a “hook.”
"Judas, Judas" was playing at the Universal on Fifth Street, and the cast was entirely human.
Only after this are we presented with Ryan Thornier, his contempt for robot acting, his penurious circumstances, and his desire to tread the boards once more.
“Barkeep, I’ll Have the Unusual”
4. Something Unusual in the Story Situation or in the character of the Chief Actor.
This is very nearly a sine qua non in SF and Fantasy stories. If everything was usual, it would be mainstream fiction!
Unusual Actors: The private detective is a standard character type, but Nero Wolfe is a lazy, overweight, agoraphobic orchid breeder. Louis Wu in Ringworld is an unusual character. So is George R.R. Martin’s Haviland Tuf, introduced in “The Plague Star.” He is unusual in appearance and temperament. In Up Jim River, the character of the scarred man is unusual in that he has seven quarrelling personalities inside his head, the result of an experiment that either went horribly wrong or even more horribly right.
Michael Swanwick’s “Mother Grasshopper, The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction (April 1998) is set on a grasshopper the size of an asteroid. That may qualify as an unusual setting. As does Tolkein’s Middle Earth.
In her new novel After the Fall, Before the Fall, During the Fall, Nancy Kress elicits the Reader’s curiosity with Pete, a crippled teenager materializing on a beach and then snatching two children from their bedroom. The character is unusual in his deformity and chronic pain; and the situation is unusual in his sudden appearance, the deadline by which he must accomplish an unnamed task, and then the Reader’s shock at finding that task to be child abduction.
In Ancient Shores, April Cannon, a fairly usual character type, learns that the yacht unearthed on a Dakota farm is made of a stable transuranic element, which by current knowledge should be impossible. As if a yacht buried in the North Dakota prairie were not unusual enough!
Constant Reader may realize at this point that the mainstream writer has a far more difficult task in making the mundane world unusual. In “Last Wishes” (William Trevor), the beloved mistress of an estate dies before she has signed a will giving all the servants life tenancy. This is a change in the environment that puts the Chief Actor, Plunkett the butler, in conflict with it. The Unusual is introduced when Plunkett conceives of the idea of concealing the reclusive Mrs. Abercrombie’s death so that things may continue as before and sets about convincing the others to go along with it.
Rudyard Kipling’s “Dayspring Mishandled,” McCall’s (March 1928) is a tale of jealousy and revenge in which Manallace conceives an Unusual means of revenge; viz., he will forge a manuscript by which he hopes to discredit Castorley, a Chaucer scholar. In his fantasy story “Wireless,” Scribner’s (August 1902), the narrator arrives at a chemist's shop on the south coast of England to witness attempts to communicate with another experimenter, using Marconi’s new wireless telegraphy. Radio was unusual in 1902, but Kipling introduces the Unusual when the chemist’s assistant, a consumptive, falls into a drugged trance, during which he apparently receives “wireless” messages from John Keats a century in the past.
A Story Situation may be Important without being especially Unusual, and Unusual without being especially Important. Either will do to elicit Curiosity from the Reader; but of course doing both may heighten the Interest.
5. Original Conception or Interpretation so that the apparently usual is made unusual.
Genre fiction in general relies on something unusual in the Story Situation: air stories, sea stories, adventure stories, war stories, and the like depend for their interest on presenting the Reader with situations unusual to him: the wild west, darkest Africa, biplanes, a Napoleonic-era frigate, a dark and romantic stranger in a remote manor house. But the host of pulp magazines that once catered to these interests are largely gone now, because constant reading within a genre makes the settings less and less unusual and therefore less and less interesting. (The same thing can happen to a series that runs on too long.) There are only so many Westerns you can read before they all begin to seem the same, or at least begin to seem ordinary. SF, fantasy, and mystery magazines have survived because within those genres there is a much wider range of the Unusual.
However, today you would have to do something very different to make a story about a trip to the moon Interesting. It has been done too many times, not only in fiction but in fact. To make such a story interesting, you would need an unusual “take” on it. The same goes for most of the usual tropes of SF and fantasy: alien invasion, time travel, first contact, and so on. They’ve all been done; so if you plan to do them again, do something new and original.
For example, in Firestar (Flynn), the Story Situation imagined a time when the government no longer has an active manned space program and the effort is taken up by private interests with a variety of motives and with the support (and opposition) of various factions within society. In Eifelheim (Flynn, again), first contact with aliens is given a twist by placing it in the 14th century Black Forest.
OTOH, Jack McDevitt gives another sort of twist to this in Infinity Beach by suggesting that first contact had been made in the far future, but has been concealed by the team that did so. The Reader then wonders, WTF? Why would they do that?
The Unusual involves shedding new light on an old subject.
- An unusual interpretation of a usual phenomenon
- An unusual adaptation of a usual incident
The Unusual may lie in the Situation or in the Character. A story set in Cleveland may be made Unusual, at least to people who don’t live in Cleveland. Likewise, a story set on Mars. Urban fantasy takes the by-now usual tropes of elves and demons and such and sets them in the contemporary world. Elves at the Mall. John Dunning’s The Bookwoman’s Last Fling is set in the world of horse racing, sufficiently unusual for most readers to capture their interest. His book Two O’Clock Eastern Wartime is set in the milieu of live dramatic radio in the 1940s.
OTOH, too much genre fiction depends on simply placing unusual characters in unusual settings, much as modern sci-fi movies depend on special effects. Even when necessary, this is not sufficient. Settings and people have no plot interest. They are stimuli. A plot is a series of responses to those stimuli.
Best of Times; Worst of Times
6. A Contrast or Juxtaposition of opposites.
Kipling’s early stories created interest “not so much by the unusual that was India, as by the unusual that was the Englishman in India.” That is, from the juxtaposition of something usual with something unusual. In “The Man Who Would be King,” Kipling sends two ordinary British soldiers into a remote valley inhabited by the descendants of Greek colonists from the time of Alexander.
The contrast may be
Between a character and a setting; for example, a homeless beggar panhandling on Millionaire’s row; or an ordinary modern archeologist in out-of-the-ordinary Ostrogothic Italy.
Between the main character and another character; for example, between Louis Wu (human) and Speaker-to-Animals (kzinti).
Between an unusual character type and a usual problem. In A Mirror for Observers (Edgar Pangborn), the usual problem of blending into society is made interesting by having hidden Martians on Earth trying to blend in.
Between a usual character type and an unusual problem. For example, Max Collingwood in Ancient Shores restores antique airplanes, which makes him somewhat unusual and therefore somewhat interesting; but he is faced with a yacht buried on a North Dakota farm, surely a somewhat unusual problem. Similarly, Colin Ferguson is a Los Angeles policeman; somewhat exotic to non-Angelino non-cop Readers and therefore modestly interesting, but he must deal with the aftermath of the Yellowstone eruption, an unusual problem, we can only hope.
You can see how these contrasts tie in with the list of Interesting Situations mentioned earlier. You can also see how these same juxtapositions lead naturally to the next tool for creating Curiosity.
7. The Foreshadowing of Difficulty, Conflict, or Disaster to carry interest over into the Body of the Story.
You can generate interest in the Beginning by hinting at
- Difficulty to be overcome
- Coming conflict
- Disaster to be avoided
There ought to be a very real possibility that the Chief actor could fail to achieve his purpose. Otherwise, if the harper and the scarred man want to find the harper’s mother, they would simply go out and find her. There must be difficulties in their way that must be overcome; there must be conflicts with Opposing Forces (human and inanimate); and there must be the chance that they might not find her. Since you cannot pack all of these into the Beginning, you must hint at or foreshadow them. Up Jim River did that by informing Constant Reader that the Kennel had given up the search, by showing what a large haystack is the Spiral Arm in which to hunt for a needle, by suggesting that whatever it was that Bridget ban had been looking for, it had evidently been too much for a Hound of the Ardry, let alone a harper and a drunken old man. There are also hints that the Shadows of the Names may also be hunting for the trail. Omens and portents.
|Allayo of the
Gariniki, "Let the Word |
Take Me" (art by Jared Fiori)
In Juliette Wade’s short story, “Let the Word Take Me,” a human settlement intended to mine the planet Garini's biodiversity is about to be kicked off because humans aren't able to communicate with the gecko-like Gariniki. This possible failure is made known early and is shown by an encounter between the translators and the Gariniki. What makes it interesting is that the humans can speak and understand the Gariniki language; yet somehow they cannot “communicate.”
In Double Star, we learn early on the likelihood that an impersonation will fail (let alone the impersonation of a public figure) and that an opposition group is prepared to use deadly force.
Lest Darkness Fall suggests a number of difficulties in the Beginning: Padway’s pockets contain little of use in the sixth century; only his metal coins have any value. He knows Italian and classical Latin but not the Vulgate. He must find (and pay for) lodging for the night.
The Rhys Davies short story, "The Benefit Concert," begins thusly:
When it was decided to give a Benefit Concert for Jenkin, so that he could buy an artificial leg, no one thought this ordinary event would lead to such strife.
But then no one suspected that the loss of his proper leg—it had gone gangrenous through neglect—had turned Jenkin into a megalomaniac. The affair not only divided the valley into bitterly opposed camps but it nearly caused a strike in the colliery. Imperfect mankind is addicted to warfare and a false leg is as good a pretext for liberating smouldering passions as greed for a continent.
A number of factors here elicit curiosity. Jenkin has lost a leg to gangrene and must buy a prosthetic, and a benefit concert has been proposed to raise the money. This is fine, and a little ordinary. But then we are off-handedly advised that the loss of his leg has turned Jenkin into a megalomaniac! An interesting contrast. And we are warned of conflict lying ahead, indeed one that bitterly divides the valley! The reader’s curiosity is certainly aroused by this promise of conflict to come.
We find the same kind of foreshadowing in The Fellowship of the Ring. John C. Wright tells us that “Not merely the oddity of ‘eleventy-first’ or that the main character is over one hundred and ten captures the reader's interest. There is also a hook of curiosity, an almost inaudible note of omen hovering behind the gossip of a rustic gentleman of means.”
Bit by bit, the sense of foreboding is built up as Gandalf realizes the nature of Bilbo’s ring and warns Frodo to skip town. By the time the main Story Situation is established at the Council of Elrond, we have encountered opposing forces like the Nazgûl and the physical hazards of travel, and the power of the One Ring that “wants to be found.”
The Beginning is concluded once the Story Situation has been presented and justified in the mind of the Reader and the Main Actor is determined to address it. This requires the author to elicit Curiosity, because the task is to engage the Reader’s Interest. Once that Interest has been engaged, it must be sustained.
The Body is that part of the story by which the Main Actor attempts to resolve the Story Situation by encountering a series of obstacles to his success, averting an Epic Fail. For this, we will need a different sort of Interest: namely, Suspense. This does not mean the suspense suggested by the “suspense genre,” but simply that resolution of the Story Situation remains “suspended,” in doubt.
Our first taste of Suspense lies in the foreshadowing that comes in the Beginning. In Up Jim River, the Beginning runs to the point when the scarred man agrees to accompany the harper at least as far as the Kennel, where he hopes she will be talked out of her hopeless venture; essentially, when, after initially refusing to help, he steps across the threshold of the Bar of Jehovah to find her waiting. These two chapters hint at difficulties to come: Donovan doubts his own ability to act in an integrated fashion in a crisis. Whatever has prevented Bridget ban from returning would just as easily prevent them. The possibility of opposition is suggested by the thought that only the Shadows of the Names might prevent a Hound from returning. The Kennel might not cooperate with their amateur efforts. And of course, the potential exists of disaster, the failure to accomplish their objective.
The resolution of these problems is suspended until the Body. And this is a subject all its own.
TOF would like to thank for their contributions:
- Nancy Kress, multiple Hugo and Nebula winning author and one-time fiction columnist for Writer's Digest
- John C. Wright, author of the Golden Age series and Chronicles of Chaos and most recently Count to a Trillion
- John Gallishaw, Twenty Problems of the Fiction Writer, (Putnam, 1929)
- Robert C. Meredith & John D. Fitzgerald, Structuring Your Novel: From basic idea to finished manuscript, (Barnes & Noble, 1972)
- Lawrence Block. Writing the Novel: From Plot to Print, (Writers Digest, 1979)