The Happy Angler

I’m pretty sure we all realize that it’s not enough to catch a reader in the opening line. You can hook a fish with an attractive lure, but that fish can slip its hook and get away if you don’t pay attention. Same thing with readers.

Over this past weekend, between bouts of Olympic action, I watched one of my favorite classic screwball comedies: LIBELED LADY, 1936. It has a super cast: William Powell, Myrna Loy, Spencer Tracy, and Jean Harlow. I won’t go into the plot, but my favorite part of the movie is where Powell’s character is trying to impress Loy and her father and gain their trust. He goes fishing with them, pretending to be an expert fly fisherman, even though he really knows nothing about the sport. Separating himself from the others, Powell positions himself upstream where he can’t be observed. He makes a couple of casts, and surreptitiously looks at his handbook on fishing that he’s hidden in his creel. When a trout snaps his lure, he’s suddenly floundering around in the water with no idea of how to play the fish or reel it in.

[Powell was an actor able to handle dramatic as well as comedic roles. In this film, he displays an ability for physical comedy that’s equal to Cary Grant’s. But I digress.] 

The method is to give the fish enough line to swim and thrash about until it’s tired. Then you reel it in until it resumes its struggle. That’s when you give it line again. Reel in a fish that’s not exhausted and can still fight you hard, and you run the risk of breaking your line. Give too much line to a strong fish, and it will perhaps yank both rod and reel from your hands. Then you’ve lost your equipment and your catch–which is what happens to the character Johnson in the Howard Hawks’s 1944 film TO HAVE AND HAVE NOT, staring Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall (with William Faulkner as one of the screenwriters). Johnson is marlin fishing. He’s brash, stupid, arrogant, doesn’t know what he’s doing, and refuses to be instructed.

Now–to get out of the water and back onto the page–you hook your reader in the opening sentence or paragraph of your story. But then what do you do?

Are you going to lose your reader midway through Chapter 1? Will you lose your reader in the first four chapters? Last night, I starting reading a Robert Crais mystery. I made it to about Chapter 5, but this morning I picked up Raymond Chandler instead and am having a much better time.

Our mission–should we choose to accept it–is to entice, trick, beguile, and intrigue readers into staying with us from start to finish. It’s our job to make readers willing to keep turning pages.

How do we do that?

*Great Plot

*Intriguing & Sympathetic Characters

*Quick but Varied Pace

*More Hooks

I’ll discuss each of these in turn in the series to come.


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5 responses to “The Happy Angler

  1. More hooks, these are important that is for sure.

  2. I’ve found that creating questions makes my beta-readers curious about the next and next installments, and it seems directly related to the page-turning-ness of the work. And the fun thing is that I love creating questions.

    That was perhaps the biggest strength of the Bourne Identity’s opening: you were as mystified as the narrator who he was, what he was doing, etc. This was ripped off to wonderful effect by Zelazny in his opening of the Chronicles of Amber, when Corwin woke in a hospital following a trauma with no recollection how he got there, what his name was, etc. Although my current WIP doesn’t rely on memory loss to create curiosity in the reader, I’ve had a heck of a time with some works when a first-person narrator can’t remember things I would like to tell the reader. Some of those may need re-writing in 3p.

    Question: does 1st person really magnify readers’ closeness to or sympathy with a character, or is that an illusion? Is there any reason to prefer it? There seems to be a lot of urban fantasy in 1st. Butcher says in his case it’s because he was bad at 3rd and you told him to try 1st, but more generally is there a reason to use 1st?

    • First-person viewpoint is considered more intimate or close than third-person. It requires some underwriting of emotion or it quickly goes over the top. Some readers dislike first-person and won’t read it; most don’t care.

      The trend in urban fantasy at present is first-person so it can offer more intensity of experience plus a snarky tone. It’s hard to snark in third-person.

      Trends come and go. I think the best approach is to write in the viewpoint that’s a good fit for you.


      • I just got feedback from a beta reader who’d read both a First and a Third version of a couple of chapters. Interesting:

        In short, he totally believed his relationship with the narrator was closer/intimate/better in First, even when the person was the only difference. So much so, that he put down the Third version after a few paragraphs. After we discussed it, he read more of the Third and reported it wasn’t different after all, but that further reading was colored by our discussion (which included that they were in fact substantially identical). It may of course be ME in third vs first that he responds to, and not third v first in general, but it definitely tells me something about how to continue this particular story.

  3. Um, in Bourne I meant the protagonist, not the narrator. I recall it being in 3rd. 🙂

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