Cruising the WordPress posts on writing, I happened upon Cliff Burns’s free (pdf) novel, “So Dark the Night.” The writing is well above average for free Internet fiction, I’ll give it that. After a few pages of hugger-mugger to introduce the lead characters, Burns opens the curtain on his first dramatic scene.
In this, the opening scene of the novel, some expensive-looking cars drive into a public park at night. Men emerge from the cars. They haul a man out of a parked car, chain him to a steel park bench, pour gasoline on him, and turn him into a human torch.
No power on Earth could have induced me to read any further.
Transparently, the scene was chosen for the opening in order to “hook” the reader. Burns thinks he’s drawing us into the story, getting a grip on us so we’ll continue, compulsively, to read. And perhaps, for the readership he’s seeking, he made the right choice.
I’m certainly capable of writing scenes of equal savagery. I recently wrote a story that includes a graphic description of cannibalism. My concern is not that Burns’s opener is distasteful, though it is certainly that. My concern is, where is the novel going to go from here? Burns has two choices: He can deploy more and more savagery for the next two hundred pages, culminating in God only knows what farrago of atrocities. Or he can back off and ratchet the drama down by a few notches, in which case the opener is deceitful. The reader who is hoping for a gore-fest will feel cheated. Either way, the novel will suffer.
In my cannibalism story, we first meet the people and get to know them. The cannibalism is at the end of the story, not the beginning. It has, then, a human context. It’s not intended to shock or titillate; it’s intended to make a very specific point.
In a television-saturated age, writing prose fiction presents some challenges. The writer who tries to compete with video’s assault on the senses will always lose, because prose is too slow, too thoughtful, not sensuous enough. What the writer of prose fiction can do that television cannot is provide breadth, depth, context, insight.
Sure, you still need to hook the reader on the first page. But a hook is shaped like a question mark, not an exclamation point.