Wednesday, November 28, 2007

The Three Commandments-- Part One

It’s been awhile. I am back. Good to see you again. Hope all is well with you. How’s Mom? Doing better? Glad to hear it. Let's step into the parlor, shall we?

Today, instead of discussing NaSto, which is only of interest to me, I have decided to fulfill my long-ago promise and post on the Three Commandments of Short-Story Writing, as I see them, or, if you prefer, Three Things Every Short Story Must Do. And behold, they are:

1) Thou Shalt Grab Thy Reader’s Attention Immediately

2) Thou Shalt Hold Thy Reader’s Attention Vigorously

3) Thou Shalt Deliver a Pay-Off Worthy of Thy Reader’s Time

This may seem oversimplified to some, but I guarantee you, if you have all of three of these down, you will sell. If you are missing any of these, you probably won’t. In many ways, these simple commandments are applicable to all writing, but short stories really distill them to their very essence, because, well, they’re short. You have to get to the point fast, because the reader isn’t willing to invest in a short story like they are in a longer medium (At least, this is true of the first two—the Third Commandment is probably actually more distilled in a novel, though, because so much has been invested). In this post, I’m going to focus on the First Commandment, and I’ll expound on the others in their own individual posts later.

To the extent that any of these commandments is more important than any other, the First is the most important for the short story writer, because this is where your reader is won or lost. It doesn’t matter how great the second page is, the third page is, the last page is, if your reader doesn’t make it past Page One. Or Paragraph One, for that matter. I suspect that there are an awful lot of good stories that fall through the slush cracks because they have weak openings. Don’t be one of them!

Now I’m not saying that I think every story needs to start with a gun-battle or an explosion. What it does need to do is grab the reader’s attention immediately and make him want to read the words that come next. This can be done any number of ways. Some will drop you straight into an action scene. Some will show you a brilliant and blinding aspect of their world that is so unique you have to know more. Some introduce a character you have to know more about, or will give you a hint of the ride to come, coaxing you to push onward just to see the big reveal, or how they’re going to get out of this one. All of these work. What they have in common is that they make the reader want to read more. And that’s the purpose of an intro.

For a bunch of different examples and a far better analysis than what I’ve written here, see this post by Douglas Cohen, slushmaster for Realms of Fantasy (some of these I think are great, some not, which just goes to show you subjectivity, but in general, you’ll get the point.) The ultimate point is that a short story reader is not going to say “I’ll give it a little while to see if it warms up.” A page is the best you can hope for, and a paragraph is probably the best you’re going to get. So pull out the goods early and dazzle straight off the bat.

Next time, Commandment Number Two! Now, for you NaSto word zombies (and I know you’re out there), the Update-O-Meter will be below shortly. Don’t spend it all in one place!