Saturday, March 3, 2012

Contract With the Reader? What's the Intrigue About That?

Sally Apokedak, a participant of the Christian Science Fiction and Fantasy Blog Tour, recently published a blog titled, Contract With the Reader in which she challenges others to submit the first 150 words of their story’s opening. The purpose is to allow peers to review and critique the writing from the perspective of whether or not they fulfill the ‘contract with the reader.’ Unfortunately, the blog does not provide a precise definition of what that contract is. Rebecca Luella Miller responds in a comment, "If I’m understanding correctly, the contract is more about tone, character, and conflict."

What is this contract? Ed McBain (an accomplished author whom Stephen King thought highly of, and that’s saying something) wrote an article, Nature of the Beast, in which he delineates what he means by a contract with the reader, and is well worth a look. He states the contract as follows:

I know all the rules of mystery writing, and I promise that I will observe them so long as they provide a novel that will keep you fascinated, intrigued, and entertained. If they get in the way of that basic need, I'll either bend the rules or break them, but I will never cheat the reader. Never.

He goes on to explain how that contract works from the perspective of a mystery writer, that is, what it will take for him to keep the reader “fascinated, intrigued, and entertained.”

It was interesting to read the observations made on Sally’s post in response to the several 150-word entries, and it seems to me that most of them were off point. They questioned POV (too omniscient for some), were preoccupied with whether or not the reader could discern the genre, made judgments about the pace the story would likely take on, worried over bringing the character to life, and so on.

I think it is much ado about nothing. Now, I’m not disparaging the importance of the opening, the initial paragraph(s) of a story. They are extremely important. Really, they’re a matter of life or death, figuratively speaking, of course.

What must they do?

Hook by intrigue. Whatever the purpose the author may be investing in these initial lines for the rest of the story, they must above all intrigue the reader. In contradistinction to the concerns expressed by many over the 150 word entries, intrigue is not dependant on signaling what kind of story you’re getting into, introducing the protagonist or antagonist, promising action and fast pace, jerking the heart strings, and so on. It is simply coherent writing that begins a story from point zero, where absolutely nothing is known, and creating an impression that has enough fascination that will keep the reader going because it’s not boring.

I've grabbed two books within arm’s reach, C. S. Lewis's, Out of the Silent Planet, and J. K. Rowling's Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, and in them I find the first 150 words hooking the born reader from the start. They aren’t action-packed scenes; they don’t dazzle with wondrous description, offer any certainty of the importance of the characters, or relate interior monologue. They start out small, as they must, but they pique the interest.

Consider Lewis's Pedestrian. He’s just evaded a drenching by taking shelter under a tree, and is concerned to get to a place where he can stay the night (as evening is coming on) having been denied accommodations in the town he just passed through. The POV is omniscient, the Pedestrian is the protagonist, but we have no clue that that is so, yet. We can't tell if this is going to be a mystery, a fantasy, or a historical novel. Who cares. It's intriguing! It's slow, but again, who cares? The intrigue is the hook and the bridge to what follows.

Rowling's opening starts out with the Dursley's. They’re probably important, but there is no certainty as to what role they will have. All we know is that they are a bunch of fuddy-duddies who, if we knew them, would never expect them to be involved in anything strange or mysterious. Now, that in itself is a strong hint that the story's going to be about the unusual, but you don't know if it is going to be fantasy, science fiction, or simply a series of ordinary events that taken together turn out to be extremely odd. She devotes much to a description of Vernon and Petunia (though we don't know their names yet), which props up their persona as prim and proper, ne'er-do-wrong, snobs. They’re intriguing characters, and you can’t help but keep reading to satisfy that gnawing eagerness to see what’s going on.

Regarding the first 150 words, regardless of what kind of contract you think you have with the reader, the thing you must do is intrigue him with the first sentence or two, and build on it.

Here's Lewis's first sentence:

The last drops of the thundershower had hardly ceased falling when the Pedestrian stuffed his map into his pocket, settled his pack more comfortably on his tired shoulders, and stepped out from the shelter of a large chestnut-tree into the middle of the road.

No power-packed action or breathtaking description. Simple, picturesque, and curious.

Here’s Rowling’s first sentence:

Mr. and Mrs. Dursley, of number four, Privet Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much.

My reaction: a smile and the thought, Whoa, this ought to be good.

Here are more examples where I think intrigue is at the heart of the opening lines. Some give a strong sense of what the genre is. Only two give it with any certainty.

Janner Igiby lay trembling in his bed with his eyes shut tight, listening to the dreadful sound of the Black Carriage rattling along in the moonlight.
--Adam Peterson, On the Edge of the Dark Sea of Darkness.

From a snug in the corner of the Museum Tavern, Douglas Flinders-Petrie dipped a sop of bread into the gravy of his steak and kidney pudding and watched the entrance to the British Museum across the street.
--Stephen R. Lawhead, The Bone House.

It was nearing midnight and the Prime Minister was sitting alone in his office, reading a long memo that was slipping through his brain without leaving the slightest trace of meaning behind.
--J. K. Rowing, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince.

When Mr. Bilbo Baggins of Bag End announced that he would shortly be celebrating his eleventy-first birthday with a party of special magnificence, there was much talk and excitement in Hobbiton.
--J. R. R. Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring.

Most everyone in Utah remembers 1896 as the year the territory became a state. But in Adenville it was celebrated by all the kids in town and by Papa and Mamma as the time of the The Great Brain’s reformation.
--John D. Fitzgerald, The Great Brain.

This is the story of an idea and how it played about in the minds of a number of intelligent peoples.
--H. G. Wells, Star Begotten.

Keryn Wills was in the shower when she figured out how to kill Josh Trenton.
--Randall Ingermanson, Double Vision.

“On a post. In a pond.”
Delaney said the words aloud, not because anyone could hear him but because the words needed saying.
--George Bryan Polivka, Blaggard’s Moon.

The year 1866 was marked by a series of remarkable incidents, and a mysterious phenomenon that excited people everywhere.
--Jules Verne, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.

Here is Edward Bear, coming downstairs now, bump, bump, bump, on the back of his head, behind Christopher Robin.
---A. A. Milne, The Complete Tales of Winnie the Pooh.

The Mole had been working very hard all the morning, spring-cleaning his little home. First with brooms, then with dusters; then on ladders and steps and chairs, with a brush and a pail of whitewash; till he had dust in his throat and eyes, and splashes of whitewash all over his black fur, and an aching back and weary arms.
---Kenneth Grahame, The Wind in the Willows.

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