Over the course of 2021, we’ll be examining stories from many angles, including hooks, exposition, pacing, conflict, character, plotting, and more.
Of course, that’s a year in the making. Patience is a rare human virtue, so let’s jump in with an overview to get you started.
The Good Opening
The first few paragraphs and the first page are critical to catching our attention. They need to be sharp, clear, and engaging. Hook us in and give us a promise of something interesting to come.
Here’s one of our favorite openings from DreamForge, Issue # 2. You can read the entire story by following this link
to “Sid,” by Andrew Jensen. The story begins as follows.
“The wheel popped off my toy car. That’s how I met Sid.
It wasn’t one of those fancy cars that fall apart on purpose when you crash them. When the wheel popped off, I knew I was in trouble.
Not that anyone would shout at me. They wouldn’t care. No one would get me another car or fix this one either. My car was broken. I was on my own.
The wheel rolled under my bed. I scrambled down fast and tried to grab it before it rolled too far into the dark.
Then I saw the eyes. They were glowing.”
In 100 words, Andrew establishes a character (a young boy we come to know as Adam), a scene, a sense of back story, and immediate peril. Without describing a child’s bedroom, he makes us understand it’s a child’s bedroom. Without saying anything about the child’s socio-economic status, he tells us exactly what that status is. It’s a great opening, and I want to read more.
The Bad Opening
Openings that shut us down almost as soon as we see them, go something as follows.
(Don’t worry, I made one up fairly quickly, no need to embarrass anyone.)
“The energy beams lanced into the mighty space cruiser Indefatigable, causing the bridge deck to shudder with the impact. Commander Olivia Redstone surveyed her loyal crew with steely, determined eyes as sparks flew from the nav panel and flames erupted from the engineering controls.
Only last week they had all been on shore leave together on the planet Graxcredical Suprovana, where, as half the galaxy knows, the saying is “Drist Bradagan Purtensis,” all or nothing in the face of overwhelming odds! They had spent their days drinking the brown, bubbling mead of the many cave-pubs and their nights ensconced in the gambling dens of the embittered Prince Dugomere.
Another explosion rocked the ship, but Redstone only smiled, supremely confident that in the next few moments, her ship could turn the tables on the bushwhackers whose as yet invisible ships remained hidden in the nebula to port.”
There you go.
Whether you’re writing fantasy or hard SF, bring a little research and understanding to your topic. Energy beams do not hit with physical force, and except on TV spaceships, circuit breakers were invented a long time ago
More importantly, physical action for the sake of physical action is generally not a good hook. I don’t care how fast the car is going or how many swords have clashed.
Do not make me read hard words because they were fun for you to type, in any language, even if they are real words. (And when you do, make it later in the story and make it count.)
Do not give me backstory that immediately breaks my engagement and provides a history lesson. More than a few submissions delighted us with a perfectly good opening hook and then immediately devolved into a complex backstory that no one cared about, not even the characters, I swear!
While the threat appears to get worse, the protagonist either doesn’t care, or you just told me she is in no real danger. Don’t do that!
In all tales, across all genres, we care about people who are in trouble and they know it, however fearlessly they may present themselves to the world. A mother trying to protect her child from village raiders; a teenager who has accidentally killed an alien; a starship captain who must choose between the man he loves and the sister whose criminal enterprise will save their world.
Whatever the problems may be, give us pain, uncertainty, and fear, especially if it’s clear and simple and I feel like I could be there in that same sort of trouble. You’ll have me hooked. The time to introduce complexity that enriches the experience of the narrative is not at the beginning.
Point of View
Someone, I presume, is your point of view character —the protagonist—a person or creature in empathy with whom we are about to experience the adventure you’ve prepared for them.
Your character may not be human, but your readers are. We need human emotions and points of view with which to orient ourselves and enter your tale on solid ground.
Again, from this issue’s “Sid:”
“Thanks,” said the not-monster. “I gotta go. My mom can be really mean if I’m late for supper.”
I was hungry. “What’s for supper?”
“Fish. It’s always fish. See you around.” The glowing eyes blinked out. There was no one under the bed anymore.
In this scene a young boy is talking to a monster under his bed, a troll in fact. Yet we clearly have a very human interaction. The author builds on it later to bring out the differences between trolls and humans, but by then our empathy has been engaged and we actually care about this under the bed intruder.
“Using the fifth essence, Grtacororex consulted the thousand nodes of his centipede-like feet, each with its own opinion about whether to fight or flee, as every single limb spanned both a past and future equipotential. The task ahead would be difficult, as humans understood nothing of the fifth essence and walked on but two, stone-dumb feet.”
In the example above, there is nothing allowing me to orient myself in a human experience.
Imagine if the movie “Arrival” had been told from the aliens’ point of view. The fun was experiencing the adventure through the eyes of linguistics professor Louise Banks as she fought against her own limitations and the interference of her superiors to gain a critical understanding of why the extraterrestrials had appeared.
The aliens in “Arrival” experienced both language and time differently than humans – telling the story from their point of view would have been maddening and somewhat incomprehensible, and yet we see contributors trying to pull that impossible trick again and again.
Even if your character is a human in a cyberpunk world, it’s hard to follow a protagonist who is having her own thoughts, interfacing with the neural net, and arguing with a secondary sub-mind chattering away in the background at the same time. Give me a point of view character from whose ordinary perceptions you can step away to reveal the magically weird world you want to invite me into.
Believe it or not, alien environments work the same way. Focus on a comprehensible human experience or activity first, then step back slowly to unveil the marvels.
In Larry Niven’s “Smoke Ring,” the story takes place in a torus of atmospheric gases circling around a neutron star. For me, the ring is among the strangest and most marvelous environments ever conceived. Humans live on spinning integral trees, water is found orbiting in spherical lakes and asteroid sized oceans, and the native life forms have trilateral symmetry. Yet when we first experience human characters, they are swimming, fishing, and worrying about the kids getting into trouble in the water. These are recognizable experiences, from which the narrative pulls back with deft movements to bring a truly alien environment into focus.
Start with the ordinary; start with the average man or woman in pain, and pull back to reveal the wonders.
Development of Tension
Now that you have an opening, a hook, and a point of view, it’s important to quickly develop tension. Unfortunately, my attention span is short and my interest is fickle. Hmm… sounds like a lot of readers I know.
In “Sid,” what you might think of as “Scene Two” starts immediately after the opening, and within another 100 words I’m oriented to the scene and I know there’s going to be trouble.
“I was a couple of years older, and I was alone in the woods. I wasn’t supposed to be, but my bike had a flat tire, and I wasn’t going to walk all the way around when I could take a short cut.
The woods weren’t scary like the fairy-tale kind. There were no big bad wolves. I just had to worry about the poison ivy and the piles of rusted metal everywhere.
There were older kids, too. They had BMX trails with jumps over big rocks and jagged pieces of trash. They were scary. You didn’t want to mess with them.”
Make that moment of tension enough to keep me reading until there’s a resolution, after which another moment of tension occurs and the next, even bigger problem, occurs.
In “Sid,” that first resolution is easy. Adam meets up with Sid again.
“I felt better walking with Sid the Troll beside me. I wasn’t so worried about the other kids.”
After this we learn a bit more about Adam’s abusive mother and difficult life, a childhood friendship begins to blossom between Adam and Sid, but soon, back in the woods:
“Yeah, this is it.” He started digging with his bare hands.
After a short time, something showed up under the dirt. It was lighter in color, and sort of smooth. Too smooth to be a rock.
“Is that a skull?” I asked, horrified.
“Yeah. Some little kid got into the woods, and those bike kids found her. What they did to her was awful. I heard some of it. They buried her here. They laughed about the idea of jumping their bikes over her body.”
As the story develops, the problems get deeper and more complicated, breaking Sid and Adam apart and leaving Adam to travel a rough road into young adulthood. The problems peak when Adam is in an accident, one of his own causing, that almost takes his life.
Your characters have a history and possibly a destiny. It’s important for you to know those timelines and critical junctures to some degree; they are important to the reader only in so far as they affect the current story, helping us to empathize with the situation and understand the choices being made.
Even though backstory can be critical at times, it can be a deadly bore unless you do it well. Every time you stop to explain the past to me, you run the risk of losing my short and fickle attention.
Between Adam and Sid, backstory is often handled in engaging little conversations that reveal character in meaningful ways. Adam starts off and Sid follows:
“Dorothy, the Scarecrow and the Tin Man were going into these creepy woods, and they were scared of the dangerous animals. Lions and tigers and bears. Get it?”
“My mom’s taught me about bears. There aren’t any here. What are lions and tigers?”
I was stunned. Who didn’t know about those animals?
“Haven’t you seen any movies? Or read about them in books?”
“I had a book once. It didn’t last too well in the swamp. I did learn some letters, though, before it fell apart. ‘A is for Apple.’” He said it proudly.
I finally understood. “You’re being home-schooled, aren’t you?”
Sid shrugged. “I guess. My mom’s the only one who teaches me anything.”
I’d heard of kids who were home-schooled. It made sense in Sid’s case: he was so ugly that everyone would bully him. Still, I felt sorry for him. I’d hate it if my mother was my teacher too.”
Another technique used in “Sid” is Adam’s own internal musing as the viewpoint character.
“All of a sudden I felt awful. I thought about how I kept wrecking everything in my life. I’d quit school. The closest thing I had to a friend was a troll who I almost never saw, and everyone said was imaginary. I’d stolen a car. I’d wrecked my stolen car. Couldn’t I do anything right?”
Though engaging dialog and internal musings can be successful ways to introduce a character’s past, I feel compelled to provide an important warning:
NEVER have characters explain in dialog things that should be obvious to themselves or others.
“As you know, George, the hyperbolic inverter was never meant for use this close to a neutron star.”
When it comes to backstory, keep it short; keep the narrative flowing, and sprinkle in a few hints of this and that, here and there, like spices that add to the flavor of a tasty dish. If it feels like you just stopped the forward movement of the story to provide a history lesson, don’t do it.
Difficulties Mount Until It Is Life Or Death
In “Sid,” every new situation in which we find Adam is more problematic than the last, until the young man is involved in a car crash and severely injured, though he doesn’t know how badly he has been hurt at first.
“Anyway, blowing a front tire on a back road is a bad thing. I ended up rolling the car into a deep ditch. There was a lot of water in it, so I crawled out the shattered windshield as fast as I could. I did manage to hang on to one of the bottles of vodka, though.”
Luckily, Adam has crashed near a bridge where Sid is working. They meet again, and when it becomes obvious how bad off his human friend is, Sid gets him to a hospital. A few snippets of their conversation show that things are coming to a head between them.
“You called 911!” It’s hard to whisper a shout, but I tried.
“I thought you were going to die! You people are so easy to break.”
“I’d be better off dead.”
“You don’t mean that.”
“Yes, I do. Go away. I never want to see you again.”
Interestingly, the life or death decision critical to the resolution of the story is neither made under the bridge nor in the hospital scene to come, but happens “off screen,” in a private moment of Adam’s that we are not privileged to experience with him. It is implied and referred to when we (and Sid) next catch up with Adam working in a salvage yard. Adam explains:
“When you called for help. I could have died there, under the bridge. But you wouldn’t let me. And then those people you called, the ones I was so mad about, they made me stop and figure out what I could do. I love welding things, but I never had the chance to find that out before. Because of you, I got that chance.”
Adam’s life or death decision, of course, was not that he was given a chance, but that he at last recognized and took the pivotal chance that would save his life and give it meaning. By its structure, the story makes clear that the relationship between Sid and Adam had everything to do with that decision; there was no need for us to see the exact moment of the decision; we had already experienced everything necessary to make it true.
Final Resolution and Denouement
Once the corner has been turned, the final issue resolved, it’s time to wrap things up. In “Sid,” once we know that Adam has become a welder and is in love with his art, the story is over. We no longer need to worry about him ever again, and we know his friendship with the troll who first appeared under his bed will continue for a lifetime.
“I reached behind a large statue, and pulled out my shiniest creation.
“It’s a suspension bridge,” said Sid, uncertainly. “It looks like it was made from a grocery cart.”
“It’s amazing what new things you can make out of old trash.”
“I hate bridges,” said Sid, thoughtfully.
“I know,” I said.
“Bridges are bad for the life underneath. It gets ignored, or wrecked.”
Sid was silent for a while.
“But this isn’t a real bridge, is it? It’s a symbolic bridge.”
“With real details. I was very careful about that.”
“Symbolic bridges I can live with. Thanks.”
Sid held out his huge, clawed hand. We shook.”
There’s a little more to the final paragraphs of “Sid,” but you get the idea.
It Sounds So Easy, But….
Some stories will be subtle in applying these rules, while others may appear to violate them completely. Masterful writers can bend reality and the rules of storytelling almost anyway they want. Of course, most of the authors crafting words at that level don’t need to be reading our advice.
Next, let's take a look at some additional key elements in making your story stand out as a work of craftsmanship you can be proud of.
Telling vs. Showing
Readers enjoy stories that spring to life in their imaginations. “Telling” prevents any such engagement from happening.
Telling: The amnesty for the Golgana was never supposed to happen. Ten years of interstellar deliberation had followed the Rebellion at Apaca, yet the Tribunal and the Fleet could come to no agreement on how to address the genocide that had taken place. Now it was left to the vigilantes along the Rim to sort it all out.
Showing: Using her gun hand, Jen tore at the Fleet patch on her shoulder. A nail split, catching painfully in the threads. “You coming, Lt?” asked her sergeant from the drop way. “Rebs are lining up. Settin’ their guns at our feet. Hell, we can kill ‘em with their own ordnance. You OK, Lt.?” The patch came away, a little blood on the stars. “Yeah, I’m with you, sarge.”
Showing takes more effort and reveals things more slowly, but that’s OK, because the reader has been drawn into the unfolding drama and eagerly awaits the next hint that builds the backstory. When you fall into the trap of telling, the only thing the reader wishes you would do is stop providing the backstory.
When mind-numbing exposition goes on for paragraphs, we call it “info dumping,” and that usually signals a quick return of the offending story.
A Mysterious (or Confusing) Opening
Packing your opening paragraphs with unfamiliar words, confusing exposition, and the trappings of a mysterious world we’ve never experienced before are not the same as setting an intriguing hook. Make clear what’s going on and why we should care about it; and do it quickly.
Cringeworthy: The Up-onta-y-Senta revealed its inmost korta to the great Muse, setting the stage for the denouement of the story dance in way that only those trained by the famed U-Cha master of Stor could do.
Better: Toes balancing blade to blade, Upo danced and wondered. She could fall and make it look like an accident if she tried. She’d seen it done. The Sea of Swords was sharp, the stage below dark with the blood of centuries. Step. Turn. Sway. She fought to choose: the pain of death, or the pain of truth. Which would it be?
Just as with showing vs telling, engaging the reader with the character takes more effort and by its nature forces you to reveal your story points and background more slowly, but that’s OK. We’re dancing on swords and afraid to slip!
Save the Heart First, History Second
Intellectually, I can appreciate that the space habitat at Lagrange Libration Point 5 has been hit by a swarm of mini black holes and one million people are in danger of dying in the vacuum of space.
Emotionally, I’m far more interested in the fact that 9 year-old Greta was kidnapped from her home just before the swarm made contact, and now her abductor has to decide whether to cut the kid loose and flee for her life or use Greta as a prop to escape. Isn’t there always something about women and children first?
As quickly as you can, focus on the personal drama that has a chance of pulling me through your story. It doesn’t have to be a physical danger. An athlete sidelined by an alien disease, an engineer whose work has been discredited, the doctor who chose to save an injured clone over an organic human. Take us where the drama is and then, in the greater warp and weft, with the subtlety of your craft, show me how this affects the state of mankind.
No Preaching, No Pulpits
The purpose of a story is not to make a speech. Climate change is a popular topic right now, so much so that it’s starting to get boring as far as speculative fiction goes. I don’t say that to diminish its importance, but an asteroid strike still packs more potential destruction, yet as far as fiction goes, we’re kind of over it.
Whatever your high horse, leave it in the stables. Readers cringe at pompous explanations inserted into otherwise engaging stories. “This tuna has malformed gills, but it’s all we can catch now. If only our ancestors hadn’t polluted the oceans with plastic for a thousand years!”
Show us the great sea barriers of New York City’s future; take us through the underwater ruins of Venice or bring us along on the great discoveries to be made when the ice retreats from the poles. Show us winners and losers, because even the worst disasters reveal new opportunities in their wake.
However you choose to engage us in the world of your dreams or nightmares, let us experience it with our emotions and curiosity. Never “tell” us what it all means or how we’re supposed to feel. That’s when we cringe at best and stop reading at worst.
Think It Through
Do the decisions of your characters make sense when the story is complete, or did they act only to support the plot?
Is the behavior of your protagonist throughout the story sufficient to support his or her final actions in the climax?
Yes, we always want to see characters grow and change if the story is of sufficient depth to support it, but self-centered, self-aggrandizing schemers do not change on a dime to sacrifice themselves for the good of humanity at the last minute.
The beginning of any story sows the seeds of its own ending.
Polish Until It Gleams
You only have a few words to win us over. Once you have your first draft in place, go back and polish it, paying attention to as many details as you can.
In addition to the points we’ve covered so far in our two essays, you need to make sure it reads well, and one of the easiest ways to do that is to take the time to read your work aloud.
One day, if you are successful in gaining public attention, you will be asked to read your work at conventions, book signings, and interviews. This happens at a very early stage in your career and can even happen before you sell a single thing—when you are “workshopping.”
If it’s difficult to read through your work smoothly; if sentences sound rough; if you trip over your own words, it’s time to do more polishing.
A good exercise is to read the words of your favorite author or story aloud to yourself. Then read some of your own work. Strive to make your prose sound as smooth and interesting to listen to as that of the pros.
What Do We Mean by A Positive Theme?
Finally, what do we mean by a positive theme of the kind DreamForge likes best?
It’s amazing to us that so many writers who submit to DreamForge have a hard time wrapping their heads around our mission of delivering a positive theme, of characters who take action to change things for the better. Of a future worth living for.
We’ve seen a story in which the only hopeful action was when the protagonist hugged a bunny just as the world came to an end. That is said not to make fun of the writer or the story they expended serious effort in producing, only to point out how foreign the idea of hope and positive outcomes has become to some people.
Let’s start with some basics. Humans are past masters at surviving catastrophes. It would be great if we didn’t cause some of them ourselves, but nevertheless, it’s true. Our own DNA contains evidence of an ancient genetic bottleneck when there were only a few thousand of us left alive. A supervolcano some 70,000 years ago is a likely culprit. Yet we’re still here, and now more than 7 billion strong.
Not only did we survive, we’ve come to dominate the natural world. Our knowledge and powers are growing exponentially and show no signs of abating. Yes, that’s both awesome and terrifying, and sometimes looks about as promising as giving the nuclear keys to a cranky 12-year-old, but until we’re extinct, we’re not extinct.
At DreamForge, our mission is to publish stories that show human creativeness and determination in solving problems, building a more peaceful and productive world, and always moving in anticipation of a better tomorrow. We are now living in a world which any of our human ancestors would consider some Olympian dream. They gave their all and their lives to get us —all of us— past the horrors they dealt with; let’s continue to pay it forward.
Our goal, then, is to publish fiction and commentary that embody, in one way or another, these essential principles: integrity and decency, compassion and creativity, intelligence and inventiveness, the rule of law and liberty under the law, the dignity of the individual, and the power of synergy to unleash the potential of disparate individuals and communities for the betterment of all.
We do not subscribe to hopelessness or futility as a vision of the future or of any setting or situation. In all worlds and times, our tales revolve around those individuals and groups who bring meaning and value to the world, whose actions are of consequence, and whose dreams are the vanguard of things to come.
Try not to give us simple answers and political or ideological screeds. The world’s not going to stop and suddenly embrace veganism, ditch capitalism, hand over all firearms, and wonder why they didn’t follow one religion, party, or great leader in the first place. Civilization is always going to be messy and contentious and we belong to a warlike species; nonetheless, the human adventure is just beginning.
Until next time, keep writing!