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?
*Intriguing & Sympathetic Characters
*Quick but Varied Pace
I’ll discuss each of these in turn in the series to come.