How To Draw In a Reader
The Humvee exploded in a neon-orange ball of fire, shards of metal launching into the night…
I’m an assassin. But only if you have the kind of money it takes three men to carry.
Every writer has heard the maxim “draw in the reader.” But passages like those above take it a bit too far. There’s a difference between drawing in a reader and making her feel overwhelmed or that her intelligence is being insulted. Further, if the first couple of paragraphs of your short story or novella are too over-the-top, they can cause a reader to disengage and feel there’s nothing to truly grab on to.
That brings us to the question: what do all these textbooks and guidelines and instructors mean when they say you should draw in a reader? If that means making a reader “want to keep reading,” that brings up another question: what motivates a reader and why would a reader want to stop reading after a paragraph or two, anyway?
Motion or Development
I’ve heard quite a few agents and editors say that for short stories or novellas, a writer should provide a sense that something is underfoot, to allow the reader to meet the main character and start to feel the atmosphere – helping to set up a sense of conflict. This is opposed to pure description or aimless discussions of human nature that don’t move anything forward. It allows the reader to step into the story, which is what most readers want. It doesn’t assume they need to be grabbed and shaken in line one. Here’s the beginning of Tim O’Brien’s “The Things They Carried,” one of the most celebrated stories of all time:
First Lieutenant Jimmy Cross carried letters from a girl
named Martha, a junior at Mount Sebastian College in New Jersey.
They were not love letters, but Lieutenant Cross was hoping,
so he kept them folded in plastic at the bottom of his rucksack.
The reader meets a love struck and worried soldier, and the details of plastic and the rucksack begin to draw the reader into the world of the story.
A Contract with a Reader
A problem with explosions or bluster in the first line is that they might embody some false advertising—is your reader to expect balls of flame on every page? One of the things a good intro can do is set the reader up for his or her experience with the narrative voice. Here’s the opener from Denis Johnson’s amazing short story, “Emergency”:
I’d been working in the emergency room for about three weeks, I guess.
This was in 1973, before the summer ended. With nothing to do on the overnight shift
but batch the insurance reports from the daytime shifts, I just started wandering around,
over to the coronary-care unit, down to the cafeteria, etcetera, looking for Georgie,
the orderly, a pretty good friend of mine. He often stole pills from the cabinets.
This allows the reader to get on board with a narrator whose voice is laconic, understated, who likes to pop pills and wander around a coronary unit. It’s no wonder that so many readers stick around, wanting to get into this guy’s mind.
And that’s why I think that drawing in a reader is really about being as genuine as possible, providing a sample of the experience the reader will get for the rest of the story. One doesn’t have to result to sensationalism or tricks. Just be yourself and tell the story the way people want to hear it – they’ll be sure to follow you all the way to the end.