Friday, May 29, 2009

The Jab

Short stories work very well if the opening jabs the reader. Often called “the hook,” this is when the first paragraph or two draws the reader further into the story (some argue that the jab should happen within the first sentence or two). Without such a device, your story may not see the light of publication or may be skipped over by readers even if it is published.

I used to think that jabs were unnecessary. Why must my story start out with a bang? I preferred to build the story slowly and eventually get into some more interesting plot later on. The problem with such thinking is that it isn’t what people want to read. This again goes back to my motto that if you’re writing for yourself, you should never be upset when you can’t get published because you’ve already reached your target audience.

I remember one of the first times I tried to come up with an effective jab in a story. I was thinking about the movie “Fight Club” and how it unfolds. For those who haven’t seen it, it begins with a climactic scene that doesn’t make a lot of sense. The narrator then decides to back up the story to an earlier point and begin again, and by that time, we’re already engaged in the movie. So keeping “Fight Club” in mind, I wrote the opening for what turned out to be my first sale. Here it is:

Before the final war with Uthov, I became one with the elves. It was the elves who gave me the name I now use. Beloved, they called me years later, further demonstrating their compassion rather than the more sinister attributes that were supposed to go along with elves (according to my mother).

But though I was beloved among the elves, this was not the life I wanted. It is what Onarre willed for me, I know now, but I had only one desire when I came to the elves. “Uthov has them now,” an elf told me, and the sound of that name has made my hands clench ever since. But the tale begins before this, so I must start anew.

(For those interested, the full story is still available here:

My tricks, if you will, are rather simple: I want to frame the story in general but leave readers with questions. My original opening started with the protagonist waking up and going about his business, but without a jab, there wasn’t much to keep readers interested.

Here’s a simple suggestion for those who wonder if their opening jabs readers: think in terms of Beethoven’s Fifth. Trust me, you’ve heard part of this symphony, even if you didn’t know what it was called (I found a clip of it on YouTube if you’re still not sure: It opens with four notes that can’t be ignored and leave the listener unsettled. Open your story in a similar manner: don’t leave things in a nice, neat package; force the reader to go on because it would be uncomfortable not to. Stories I stick with are stories that start out well. Stories I set aside are ones that haven’t made me care after the first few paragraphs (yes, I stick it out a little longer than some readers).

One word of caution, however: don’t overdo it. If you start by blowing readers out of the water, the rest of the story will be boring. Likewise, the entire story can’t be extremely heart-pounding from one sentence to the next, or it loses all flavor. If I shout at you for twenty minutes, my raised voice loses its significance. By contrast, if I speak in mixed tones for a while, you’ll especially notice when I shout.

Start jabbing.

This article is part of the Top Five Writing Improvement Articles:
1. Writing To Your Strengths Or Weaknesses – Should you write to your strengths or weaknesses? The answer varies depending on what you’re trying to accomplish.
2. Writing Tools – As writers, we need to consider which tools will help us the most with our craft and have them at the ready.
3. The Callous Editor – To edit our own works well, we must divorce emotions from the process and make hard choices.
4. Writing Exercises – When thoughts seem locked up tight, try some exercises to get the sludge moving again.
5. The Jab – We need good openings to our stories, and this article shares some advice and an example from my own writing.

No comments: