These 5 story hooks will help you write intros readers won't be able to resist
Storyline Longform is a series of in-depth articles that explore narrative approaches to web writing and design. This week, we'll be looking at the mechanics that drives spellbinding intros and showing you how you can apply those principles to your own writing.
When I was a boy, my father used to tell me this story before I went to bed:
It was a dark and stormy night and the first mate said to the captain, "Captain, tell us a story." And the captain said, "It was a dark and stormy night and the first mate said to the captain, 'Captain, tell us a story.' And the captain said..."
Little did I know when I was four that the "story" was actually taken from the opening sentence of a 1830 novel called Paul Clifford by the English novelist Edward Bulwer-Lytton. Lytton's line—it was a dark and stormy night—somehow seeped into literary and pop culture for all the wrong reasons. Most notably, it inspired the Edward Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest a century and a half later. If you haven't heard of the Bulwer-Lytton Contest, the worst writing wins.
Of Bulwer-Lytton's famous line itself, Wikipedia puts it this way:
The phrase is considered to represent "the archetypal example of a florid, melodramatic style of fiction writing", also known as purple prose.
This may all be true, but as a four-year-old hungry for bedtime stories, Bulwer-Lytton's line—as adapted by my father and his father's father—was the perfect hook.
In two lines, the Captain's Tale, as I'll call it, establishes mood and place, introduces an enigmatic character (the captain) and a problem (the storm). There's tension (why the hell are they telling stories in the middle of a storm?) and the story begins in the middle of the action, i.e. at sea and not while the sailors are in harbor getting syphilis.
Ok, it lacks a climax and resolution, but there's something soothing about the circular motion of the tale. The story itself is like a storm-tossed ship, riding the peaks and troughs of the storm as it blows the sailors to their doom. Forever.
It may be difficult to believe that the Captain's Tale, a piece of bad 19th-century flash fiction without any real action or ending, is actually a blueprint for whatever kind of intro you'd be writing on the web, but it is, and I can prove it, and it's the worst story I ever heard.
• • •
St. James Davis is crying. It's a loud, whooping wail of a cry. He's sitting in the driveway of his childhood home, a sprawling, L-shaped ranch house in West Covina, California, on a sun-drenched day last September.
Rich Shapiro | Esquire Magazine 2009
The worst story I ever heard
In 2009, journalist Rich Shapiro drove out to West Covina, California, to investigate a very odd story about a man who had been attacked and maimed badly by two homicidal chimpanzees earlier that year while visiting his son at a nature refuge.
Shapiro wasn't covering any new ground. The details of the tragedy had been told and retold on national news and in hundreds of magazine and newspaper articles written on the attack. The man himself would eventually make the talkshow circuit as a living breathing tabloid story.
But Shapiro hadn't been hired to write a tabloid story. He'd been hired by Esquire Magazine to write an 8,000-word human interest story. (To give a sense of perspective, most literary magazines set an upper limit of 6,000 words for short story submissions.)
Calling his story The Worst Story I Ever Heard certainly helped. But a title alone can't sustain interest in a story that length, no matter how click-worthy. Shapiro needed an intro that was compelling enough to win his readers over and he had about 200 words to do it.
At this point in our story, if you're a writer, you're probably wondering if Shapiro actually pulled it off. I'm not going to spoil the ending, but I am going to ask you to put your writing hats on backwards and approach Shapiro's text as a reader would so you can answer that question yourself.
I've broken Shapiro's intro (which does in fact clock in at just under 200 words) into five sections. Each section focuses on one facet of Shapiro's technique. I don't believe it's a coincidence that most of these can be found in Bulwer-Lytton's Captain's Tale.
• • •
1. Start in the middle of things
St. James Davis is crying. It's a loud, whooping wail of a cry. He's sitting in the driveway of his childhood home, a sprawling, L-shaped ranch house in West Covina, California, on a sun-drenched day last September. Standing next to him is his wife of nearly forty years, LaDonna.
Like the Captain's Tale, Shapiro's story starts in the middle of things, or in medias res, a technique writers have been using since Homer to trap readers' neurons and hold them hostage. Throwing readers into his story this way isn't so much Shapiro generously inviting their participation in the narrative. This isn't a murder mystery dinner theater in Kenosha. He just knows that this is how stories reel in readers—by speaking to their problem-solving instincts (and disorienting them a little, too.) Shapiro is giving his readers something to figure out because he knows most of them will take his carrot. If you want to grab readers, you should consider doing the same.
2. Situate the reader by focusing on the right details.
Notice that Shapiro doesn't just report the three key facts in the first paragraph—St. James Davis (his main character), a driveway and a sunny day in September (the setting)—he uses them to set the scene emotionally and visually, and he does it economically.
The upshot of this approach is that in a few carefully ordered brushstrokes Shapiro transforms the Davis' driveway into a bizarre riff on Grant Wood's American Gothic. Except the creepy Midwestern stoicism and flat colors of the original are gone. Instead, we have a man crying in high contrast in the bright California sun.
Character, check. Problem, check. Tension building. Carrot planted. Wish you'd written it? So do I.
The truth is, Shapiro sketches his first paragraph out so deftly you might not even have noticed it. To really appreciate how well Shapiro's approach works, just compare his opening sentences to the intro to an article about a different chimp attack from Today Online. (And, yes, domestic chimp attacks seem to be on the rise in the US.)
The brutality of the attack was beyond horrifying. Travis, the chimpanzee that had starred in Old Navy TV ads and lived with Sandra Herold more as a son than a pet, was savagely mauling the face of Herold’s friend, Charla Nash, inflicting grave injuries. In her desperation, Herold had no choice but to stab Travis with a chef’s knife.
Sure, the Today article starts in the middle of the action, too. Sure, it introduces characters and a serious problem, but this writer, Mike Celizic—might as well give credit where credit is due—has chosen the Bulwer-Lytton approach to investigative journalism by starting in a whirlwind of melodrama and violence. It definitely sweeps us along, but it's sloppy, as you can see from the opening line. It also relies on the equivalent of writers' stock footage to get its point across. Adverbs and place-holding adjectives like "savagely", "grave" and "horrifying" aren't actual writing, they only give the impression of writing.
If you want to write a penny dreadful you can reheat in the microwave and forget about, copy Celizic. If you want to inflict the St. James' tragedy on your readers' brains as a stove-cooked meal without the grand guignol, study Shapiro.
3. Pile on the tension
The story continues:
On the brink of tears herself, LaDonna grabs a cloth and gently cradles his cheek with her right hand. With her left, she carefully dabs at his mouth. St. James keeps his head still as she tends to him. He doesn't say a word as he calms down. He doesn't have to—LaDonna knows what he wants now that the sun is beating down on him. She grabs the beige bucket hat hanging around his neck and eases it onto his head.
If you're wondering what's wrong with this couple, you're not alone. We call that tension. Shapiro is deepening the mystery by introducing another layer of detail without resolving the first. Spoiler alert: It gets much worse.
LaDonna tends to St. James because he can't tend to himself. St. James, sixty-six, a former high school football star and onetime Nascar driver, is severely disabled and disfigured. There's a two-inch hole in the heel of his swollen left foot, and he is confined to a wheelchair. He has no nose, only a red, raw, exposed septum, surrounded by narrow openings. At the top are three tiny magnets designed to hold in place a crude silicone prosthesis, which is constantly falling off. His right eye is gone, replaced with glass. The skin on his face droops like candle wax because so many bones around his cheeks and eyes were broken. His mouth, which has been completely reconstructed, is stuck in a frown. On his left hand, his index, middle, and ring fingers are stumps. His right hand is much worse. He has a misshapen hunk of flesh for a thumb, which appears as if it were lumped onto his wrist with clay. His index and middle fingers are gone; his ring finger and pinkie are immobile.
At this point, the tension has reached a breaking point. Readers need some critical information to make sense of the scene now, and unless they have the nerves of a Buddhist monk, their eyes are probably skittering down the paragraph to find it. This is certainly intentional, and it's exactly what you want your readers to do.
A good storyteller, Shapiro is taking his time with the reveal. He's feeding readers just enough detail to keep them busy, but not enough to give his secret away. The pacing will pay off. Because if St. James Davis' story gets more horrific as the word count rises, the storytelling gets more sophisticated as it unfolds.
Let's take a moment to regroup.
We've got our character and he's got a problem. We're situated in the story both emotionally and visually. We've entered through the side door, not through the front, and have been handed a few pretty good carrots.
Now it's time for something to happen.
4. Remember your plot turns.
In stories, the arc (or main action) rises and falls as tension builds or is resolved. The pivotal moments when our stories take new directions are called plot turns, and that's what propels our narratives. Without them, nothing would happen in our stories, and our readers would find something better to read.
When those plot turns are pieces of information readers didn't expect us to give them, we call them twists. Shapiro uses one in his intro to set the story moving forward again in a new direction. Can you find it?
Shapiro's plot turn (below) not only frames what we've read so far in a jarring new light, it also reframes Shapiro's protagonist. If the weeping, disfigured St. James Davis wasn't sympathetic already, he's a character you're bound to care about now. He's not crying about himself, he's crying over his son.
But St. James's crying has nothing to do with his physical condition. He's crying because of news he and LaDonna recently received about what really can only be called their boy. At first, St. James and LaDonna were reluctant to speak about all that's happened to them. LaDonna prefers not to talk to outsiders about their life because, she says, they are so often misunderstood.
5. Think about where your back story goes.
As a writer, you may take it for granted that backstory goes at the beginning of your story. This isn't true. Backstory goes wherever readers are ready for it. For Shapiro, that moment comes when he's already got our full attention, which he's surely going to need. At 7,900 words, his story requires a substantial investment from his readers. Shapiro's banking on the quality of his own intro to pull them through. I'm sure his editor was too.
Here's the beginning of the story, which comes in paragraph four:
To begin to understand, you have to go back to early 1971, when West Covina's "monkey trial" captivated this small California city about twenty miles east of Los Angeles.
Now, I believe, Shapiro has got your ears.
Enjoy the rest of the article.
Max Sheridan's writing has appeared in a number of online and print publications in the US, UK and elsewhere. He's worked as a teacher, journalist, editor and copywriter. He's the founder and director of Write CY, a Nicosia-based platform for creative writing and community storytelling, where he teaches Story Craft, a 10-week short story writing course. His novel Dillo was released by Shotgun Honey in December 2017. Talk to him at: email@example.com.