Ms. Anderson picked the top paper off the tidy stack on the corner of her desk and said, “I want to read a particularly effective story from your short story class assignment.
“‘Once over the six foot chain link fence at the far end of the school field, the two boys bolted across the service road and into the trees on the other side. Even under cover and dodging branches at face height and jumping over branches underfoot, they ran and ran.’”
I didn’t pay attention until a minute into the story, when it occurred to me that I’d heard it before and seemed to know what was going to happen before Ms. Anderson read the words. It took another 20 seconds for me to realise my Grade 7 English teacher was reading my story aloud to the class.
After finishing, she inserted the paper randomly into the stack on her desk and then cut and re-cut the papers several times like a card dealer to maintain the anonymity of the author before walking up and down the aisles to hand papers back. She asked us what we thought of the story. My ears were burning and I wondered how I could camouflage myself against my desk.
Tension and suspense: “And then what happened?”
Unexpectedly, the comments gave me insight into my story I wasn’t consciously thinking about while I wrote it. Someone volunteered that the story really sucked you in right from the beginning. Someone else agreed that, even though you didn’t know much about the two boys including their names, you still wanted to know what was going to happen to them, because obviously, something big was going to. Someone else said there was suspense, even when nothing particularly interesting was happening.
My story was about two boys who cut school, build a makeshift raft, and raft down the creek to have a Huck Finn-like adventure. It all goes wrong and ends tragically when they go over a waterfall.
Nope, not a Pulitzer Prize candidate. Twelve-year-olds aren’t particularly subtle when it comes to storytelling. But somehow, even then, I had an intuition about the elements of compelling storytelling, though I wouldn’t have been able to put a pin on what they were.
Many years and hundreds of dollars spent on post-secondary courses and texts on creative and business writing later, I finally discovered the secret that twelve years of hearing stories, reading stories, and watching stories had subconsciously taught me by Grade 7: to hook an audience, the writer’s main concern is to keep them asking, “and then what happened?”
Stories, stories, stories.
People want to hear stories.
Humans have told each other stories for as long as there has been language (or rock paint) to communicate them. Stories make it easier for us to learn, to remember important information, to relate to someone else’s experience, and so on.
We’re attuned to hearing stories, and wanting to know what happens next is as natural as breathing.
As a writer, how do you keep your reader reading? Make sure they’re compelled to find out what happens next.
How do you do that?
Scenes: Showing instead of telling.
Stop me if you’ve heard this foundation advice from writers: show, don’t tell. That’s not the last word in how to write compelling, but it’s a
Whatever you’re writing about, start by showing rather than telling. This means setting the scene, describing each of the relevant senses—sight, sound, touch, smell, and taste—and using dialogue to let people speak their own words.
Put us in the room, let us observe as the action unfolds.
What to do when you don’t know how to get started.
Start in the middle of the action. That’s it.
Did you notice how I did that not once, but twice in this post, both with the leading story and the short story within?
In the very first sentence, I tell you what Ms. Anderson is doing before I even explain who she is or when this takes place. I drop that information in eventually, but to get you hooked at the beginning, you don’t need to know all that.
I also started my short story with the boys at the moment they leave school property and officially become truant. I didn’t bother explaining how they got to school that morning or how they made the agreement to cut out together or when this happened or even where. I didn’t even give the boys names.
When you start by withholding information, the reader’s brain won’t want to leave without filling in the answers to the unspoken questions: who, what, where, when, why, how?
You try it.
Take something you’re working on, preferably something you’ve already drafted, and think of a story that will help bring out your point. Write it as a scene. And start it in the middle.
Compare the first 50-100 words of each version. Which one pulls you in faster?
If you don’t trust your own opinion because you’re too close to it, show both versions to someone else and ask them which one they’re more interested in reading.
Please share with me in the comments what your results were!