Thursday, November 10, 2011

Making the Reader Ask Questions

I’m trying to read more non-work-related books this fall. Last week, I mentioned my admiration for Elmore Leonard and offered an exercise inspired by his work; this week, I will discuss Ernest Hemingway and what I take from him.

One item I always find myself noticing when I read Hemingway is his spectacular opening lines, particularly in his short fiction.

What does one try to establish in a story opening? The true but vague response is the “hook”. Yet let’s examine what the the ”hook” actually means. Consider this opening to Hemingway’s “The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber”: It was now lunch time and they were all sitting under the double green fly of the dining tent pretending that nothing had happened.

What does the “hook” here amount to? Tension, caused by several questions that require further reading and contemplation if the reader wishes to locate answers. Who are “they”? And, of course, what “had happened”?

I would argue that you could do worse than to make this the goal of every introduction you write: force the reader to ask one or more questions.

Consider these additional opening lines from The Short Stories of Ernest Hemingway:
- “The marvelous thing is that it’s painless,” he said. “That’s how you know when it starts.”
- “The strange thing was,” he said, “how they screamed every night at midnight.”
- At the lake shore there was another rowboat drawn up. The two Indians stood waiting.
- One hot evening in Padua they carried him onto the roof and he could look out over the top of the town.
- In 1919 he was traveling on the railroads in Italy, carrying a square of oilcloth from the headquarters of the party written in indelible pencil and saying here was a comrade who had suffered very much…
- There were only two Americans stopping at the hotel.
- I guess looking at it, now, my old man was cut out for a fat guy, one of those…

If you are looking for an exercise, this one is pretty simple. Write 10 opening lines that pose one or more questions. Then select the one that offers the question that most intrigues you, and run with it. See where it leads, who emerges, and what you learn. Remember: no surprise for the writer, no surprise for the reader.

2 comments:

Aline Templeton said...

I do agree about that vital first sentence, John, and your point about it raising questions.
I've no brief for Jeffrey Archer, either personally or as a writer, but I do think his opening to Kane and Abel - the only one I've read -is right up there with the best: 'She only stopped screaming when she died. It was then that he started to scream.

John R Corrigan said...

What a great line. I will look for it.
Thanks.