What draws you into a story?

I wish I didn’t have quite such a quirky a mind. My immediate reaction is a cartoonist, drawing a funny-looking Bob.

This Bob is resisting with all his strength, but has no hope. A rope around his neck is inexorably drawing him into a story, where he’ll do one of two things. Either he’ll survive, which proves that the Devil owns him so he’ll be burned at the stake, or he drowns, in which case he was innocent.

This can be my contribution to the international campaign to acknowledge women, because that’ll have made me the first non-female witch, right?

Oh… Maybe that wasn’t Rhobin’s intention. All right, what makes me drown in a story?

First, the author needs to tickle my interest. (STOP IT WITH THAT FEATHER!) The first paragraph needs to promise that I’ll be reading something I can’t find in ordinary, humdrum everyday life, or haven’t already encountered many times. Boy meets girl… Yawn. A crime has been committed, and the detective… Oh, haven’t I read this a thousand times? The Superman marches onto the stage, scattering two-dimensional villains out of his path… Yeah, right.

What I need is a person who will interest me, in a situation that immediately arouses my empathy — either empathy for this person, or empathy for this person’s victim (in some sense). I can have immediate disapproval for the character, or immediate sympathy… anything but a so-what.

How does this opening grab you?

“I intensely disliked my father’s fifth wife, but not to the point of murder.”

One sentence, and I want to read on. This is from one of my favourite writers, Dick Francis, in Hot Money.

Or…

“The first thing the boy Garion remembered was the kitchen at Faldor’s farm. For all the rest of his life he had a special warm feeling for kitchens and those peculiar sounds and smells that seemed somehow to combine into a bustling seriousness that had to do with love of food and comfort and security, and, above all, home. No matter how high Garion rose in life, he never forgot that all his memories began in that kitchen.”

That’s the start of Pawn of Prophecy by David Eddings. It’s chatty, and from the outside, and yet, it grabs me because of the immediate liking I get for a little boy, combined with the promise of great things to come. How will a boy in a farmer’s kitchen ever rise high in life?

As for my own books, this opening won a prize in a “first page” contest:


“I’ve always thought that ‘an aching heart’ was a cliché, a metaphor, a mere turn of phrase. But during my daily visits to my dying mother, I learn that it is an exact description. My heart is where I feel the pain of grief.”

It is from Anikó: The stranger who loved me.

But when the hook has grabbed your interest, you still need to be induced to drown in the story. In fact, this needs to be done at the start of every chapter, scene transition, paragraph, even sentence.

The outside view in Pawn of Prophecy immediately disappears, and the reader is induced to BECOME the boy, Garion. Same with the other examples. The tool for that is “point of view” (POV). I have described how to use POV to create a powerful story, and how to pull the reader out of created reality in two places: in this ancient essay, and somewhat differently in a somewhat more recent one.

The second essential tool is tension. No, this is not the same as in knitting. Tension is when a character has become important to the reader, that character wants something very badly, but there is an apparently insuperable obstacle in the way. I’ve given several examples here, in a post I still find enjoyable, years later. You might, too.


Please comment, then visit these other participants in Rhobin’s Rounds.

Only, their posts will become visible on 21st March. I DID schedule this post, but WordPress thought it knew better, and released it too early.

Victoria Chatham
Skye Taylor
Rhobin L Courtright
Marci Baun
Judith Copek
Helena Fairfax
Fiona McGier
Diane Bator
Connie Vines

About Dr Bob Rich

I am a professional grandfather. My main motivation is to transform society to create a sustainable world in which my grandchildren and their grandchildren in perpetuity can have a life, and a life worth living. This means reversing environmental idiocy that's now threatening us with extinction, and replacing culture of greed and conflict with one of compassion and cooperation.
This entry was posted in fun, Rhobin's round robin, writing. Bookmark the permalink.

17 Responses to What draws you into a story?

  1. judyinboston says:

    You are spot on with needing tension and the POV character wanting something. And the need for freshness and a character we haven’t already met 100 times. Good observations.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Victoria Chatham says:

    Aha! Another Dick Francis fan. I had all his books at one time and read and re-read them. I still do when I find copies in thrift stores. The book of his that I remember best is Smokescreen. And I don’t think you’re a grumpy old man!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Dr Bob Rich says:

      Thank you Victoria.
      Best thing about Dick Francis (wish he were still alive and writing a book a year!) is his view of human nature.
      As for me, I am an apprentice Buddha. We all are. But I DO have a long way to go.
      🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I like kitchens, too, Bob. They say here in Scotland that the best parties take place in the kitchen. My story this month s that I couldn’t post because I’d be on holiday. Nature thought otherwise…

    Like

    • Dr Bob Rich says:

      I am more or less kept out of the kitchen, because my wife is a champion cook, and transforming food is one of her creative activities. I used to be a good cook um… 53 years ago.
      🙂

      Like

  4. Fiona McGier says:

    Years ago, while cuddling my third son on the couch while his brothers were in school and his sister was in the crib still asleep, I shared with him that I don’t feel love in my heart area. I feel it in my stomach. When I love someone, the bottom of my stomach feels “soft” and “jumpy.” He was only about three then, but he agreed with me. A couple of years later he drew me a Mother’s Day card with a stomach on the front, saying, “I love you with all of my stomach.” Yes. And that’s how I love him back also! I guess it’s just me, but the only feeling I associate with my heart is heartburn, and that’s not pleasant!

    People these days are having to relearn that no man is an island. We will either sink or swim together. Hoarders never learned this elemental lesson. IMHO, they must not be readers, because readers learn to feel empathy for their fellow humans, and altruism towards those who need us to look out for them, like the elderly. Every time I think we humans have advanced as a species, reprobates like that remind me that we’re not really that far out of the primordial ooze that our ancestors crawled out of. I hope we continue to evolve. A bit quicker would be nice. Less selfish, and more selfless, please.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Dr Bob Rich says:

      Fiona, you gave me a laugh. Heartburn is stomach acid. Maybe you and your son are built differently?
      I agree about hoarding and the other idiocies. The hero of my Doom Healer series, Bill Sutcliffe (who is currently doing the rounds of publishers) has taught me to do my best to live by the rule: “Above all, do no harm. When you can, do good. When you can’t, change the situation so you can.”
      So, being an obedient author who does as his characters tell him, I shape my actions accordingly.
      🙂

      Like

      • Fiona McGier says:

        I know heartburn is stomach acid, but it doesn’t hurt my stomach. It hurts my esophagus, up next to my heart. That’s the only feeling I’ve ever really noticed close to my heart, other than tiredness when I’m working out. But love I feel in the bottom of my stomach. I don’t think we’re built differently, because neither Mom nor Dad were aliens, though Dad was a “resident alien” for a while, after he crossed the pond and moved here from Glesga. I used to ask him if he hid his antennae, a la “My Favorite Martian,” or if they’d been removed so he could become a citizen. He’d call me a “daft wee lassie.”

        Liked by 1 person

      • Dr Bob Rich says:

        What a compliment, to be a daft wee lassie.
        But in my case, I’d never believed any of that heart stuff until I felt it, as described in that opening paragraph.
        I am definitely an alien, only sojourning on this planet. Just a visitor, waiting to go home.
        🙂

        Like

  5. Skye-writer says:

    You are in an especially numerous mood today. Especially given what’s going on over this novel virus. But I agree the author has to pose a question or set a scene that grabs out attention. Then keep that tension going with a hook at every possible place to put the book down.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Rhobin says:

    Enjoyed your humor and your metaphor of drowning in a story; however, I prefer to feel like I’m eavesdropping, or vacationing when reading. Drowning is scary.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Dr Bob Rich says:

      Thank you, Rhobin. I’ve told you before, I have no sense of humor, but am a grumpy old man. Other people have humor because they laugh at what I write.
      One does drown in the best stories, the ones we can’t put down.
      🙂
      Bob

      Like

  7. pendantry says:

    What do you think of this opening line, Bob?

    The screaming was over.

    (It’s from my flash fiction piece ‘Iceberg!‘)

    Like

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