Archive for March, 2017

If you're a writer and no one reads your stuff, be sure to make your openings irresistible. Article About Writing Better

Monday, March 20th, 2017
William H. Coles

Look. I can't help it. I feel bad and often dislike those who don't heed me. But over time, as a writer, when I fail to engage a reader, I've come to believe I'm to blame , not others, and here's the logic.

We benefit when we learn to attract and hold the attention of another human being(s); it allows us to transmit ideas and feelings. In every facet of our lives–one-on-one, audience performance, letter-writing–or a novel, a telephone call, an email or a tweet–we need to discover how to immediately tweak a brain cell, pluck a heart string, or corral curiosity with one essential element–a good start. Writers especially have to grab readers' attention in the first few sentences. For examples:

My one unbreakable rule was never pick up a hitchhiker.  And never at night.  But at the far edge of the headlights this girl showed up in the breakdown lane near mile marker 381, kind of humped over as if she didn’t even know I was bearing down on her … not like a hooker who’d be standing straight with her hand waving shoulder-high and her head tilted like a come-on … or some hidden robber’s decoy girl waving with both arms like the ship was sinking.  I slowed with no thought of stopping.   "Inside the Matryoshka" by William H. Coles

It was the last daylight hour of a December afternoon more than twenty years ago—I was twenty-three, writing and publishing my first short stories, and like many a Bildungsroman hero before me, already contemplating my own massive Bildungsroman—when I arrived at his hideaway to meet the great man.  "The Ghost Writer" by Philip Roth

–This opening from The New Yorker doesn't work for many: "The Dungeon Master has detention. We wait at his house by the county road. The Dungeon Master’s little brother Marco puts out corn chips and orange soda." It's unclear, and there is little promise of action, conflict, or engaging prose. "The Dungeon Master" by Sam Lypsite

Let's look at a few generally accepted GREAT FIRST LINES from literature:

"Call me Ishmael." —Herman Melville, Moby-Dick (1851) (I think the imperative has made this last.)

"Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins." —Vladimir Nabokov, "Lolita" (1955)

"If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you'll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don't feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth." —J. D. Salinger, "The Catcher in the Rye" (1951)

"It was the day my grandmother exploded." —Iain M. Banks, "The Crow Road" (1992)

"When Dick Gibson was a little boy he was not Dick Gibson. "—Stanley Elkin, "The Dick Gibson Show" (1971)

"It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife." —Jane Austen, "Pride and Prejudice" (1813)

"He—for there could be no doubt of his sex, though the fashion of the time did something to disguise it—was in the act of slicing at the head of a Moor which swung from the rafters." —Virginia Woolf, "Orlando" (1928)


Here are guidelines for starters, but, in truth, great beginning lines come from the unique imagination and are not copied from others. (Although gleaned from prose fiction, most guidelines apply to any means of communication.)

1) Engagement. Intellectually others must become involved in what your saying.
2) Clarity. Openings must be understood.
3) Promise of enlightenment, or to agree or disagree, or to assist or resist. (e.g. We are three steps away from learning that life exists on Mars.)
4) Promise of learning something unique, new, and valuable, OR, something revealing, salacious, controversial, withheld, or buried.
5) Reversal of interest–surprise, incongruity, humor.

TAKE-HOME MESSAGE: Be prepared to use your imagination to create the great, engaging story-opening. Then make it sizzle.

"Inside the Matryoshka" by William H. Coles.  You can read (or listen to) this story free.
The Ghost Writer. Philip Roth  ISBN 0-679-74898-9
"The Dungeon Master" by Sam Lipsyte

What do you do to make scenes come alive in literary fiction? Article About Writing Better

Monday, March 6th, 2017
William H. Coles

Literary imagined scenes come alive with CONFLICT and ACTION in language, narration, story, and dialogue. It's not inherent for most writers striving to write literary fiction. To start, writers and storytellers are dependent on these basics:  1) literature is written works that have merit and lasting potential as an art form, and 2) fiction creates imagined events and characters. For success in inserting conflict and action, writers master vibrant in-scene writing–an important staple of effective story delivery–supporting concrete-imagery, credible dialogue, and action prose in narrative.

Here are examples of conflict and action in dialogue, narrative, and a descriptive scene using senses, thoughts and perceptions. These examples are not exclusive. With an active imagination, a myriad of ways can be created by an author to achieve action and conflict in creative fiction. The examples:

1) A family whose parents have just been buried are dividing the parents' possessions among them. Carrie, the youngest, is working in the tool shed. Martha, Henry, and Jessie argue over who gets items in the house–and no one wants the responsibility of bringing up Carrie.

Now, to make the scene alive, conflict is inserted, mainly in dialogue. Conflict results in action, the fuel for great fictional prose.

   “I am not taking on responsibility for a seventeen-year-old,” Henry said, pausing mid-brushstroke and turning from the window frame he was painting to make the house sellable.
       “Quiet, she’ll hear you,” Martha said from the kitchen, throwing a cracked and chipped casserole dish into a metal trash can with a crash of splintering glass. She turned back to scrub glassware in the sink.
       Jessie went to the front door to look for Carrie. “She’s carrying stuff out of the tool shed,” she said.
       “Don’t let her throw out any power tools,” Henry said.
       “She’s laying things out for us to see.”
       “She’ll take the best.”
       “She doesn’t want power tools!”
       “Anything of value.”
       “Stop it. She's your sister.”
       “You think so much of her, you take care of her.”
       “I’ve only got a one-bedroom apartment,” Jessie said, picking up a broom and sweeping with a flurry of useless strokes.

From the novella Sister Carrie

2) For conflict in a narrative passage, here's an excerpt from Conrad's Heart of Darkness.

" . . . I was circumventing Kurtz as though it had been a boyish game. I came upon him, and, if he had not heard me coming, I would have fallen over him too, but he got up in time. He rose, unsteady, long, pale, indistinct, like a vapor exhaled by the earth, and swayed slightly, misty and silent before me; while at my back the fires loomed between the trees, and the murmur of many voices issued from the forest. I had cut him off cleverly; but when actually confronting him I seemed to come to my senses, I saw the danger in its right proportion. It was by no means over yet."

3) Here is a remarkable scene from Faulkner's "Barn Burning" where "alive" is achieved without describing action per se, but with use of accurate, imaginative language and sensual perceptions.

The store in which the justice of the Peace's court was sitting smelled of cheese. The boy, crouched on his nail keg at the back of the crowded room, knew he smelled cheese, and more: from where he sat he could see the ranked shelves close-packed with the solid, squat, dynamic shapes of tin cans whose labels his stomach read, not from the lettering which meant nothing to his mind but from the scarlet devils and the silver curve of fish – this, the cheese which he knew he smelled and the hermetic meat which his intestines believed he smelled coming in intermittent gusts momentary and brief between the other constant one, the smell and sense just a little of fear because mostly of despair and grief, the old fierce pull of blood. He could not see the table where the Justice sat and before which his father and his father's enemy (our enemy he thought in that despair; ourn! mine and hisn both! He's my father!) stood, but he could hear them, the two of them that is, because his father had said no word yet: . . .

It's a complicated subject to grasp, much less master and incorporate, but essential for literary fiction storytelling. Here are posts and essays for further study:


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