Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Seduce the Reader

By Hilary Davidson

When you're writing the opening scene of a crime novel, there's only one objective to keep in mind: you have to hook the reader so hard that s/he is willing to let work slide, ignore family, and tune out the real world in favor of the imaginary one you've created on the page.

Plenty of writers offer advice on how to do this, so many that I wonder what I can really add to the discussion. I'm not a big believer in rules. My attitude is that you're best off following your instinct and your gut into whatever swamp they lead you to. That old saw about needing a corpse in Chapter One? Forget about it. Suggestions about creating "likable" or "relatable" characters go into the same trash bin. You don't need them.

Ultimately, the writer's job is to seduce the reader.

I use the word seduce deliberately. You can't hit your readers over the head with buckets of backstory and expect them to be intrigued. Think about the last time you went to a party and were cornered by a guy who spilled his guts to you. Odds are, all you wanted to do was get away from him. You didn't want to know more. You wanted to run.

Books aren't really that different. A novel that delivers too much up front is a bit of a bore. It doesn't draw you any closer, making questions spiral through your brain. It kills suspense before the game really gets going. You want to draw your reader in so that, whatever you give them, they crave more.

Enough with the theory. Here are some prime examples of what I mean:

When a fresh-faced guy in a Chevy offered him a lift, Parker told him to go to hell. The guy said, 'Screw you, buddy,' yanked his Chevy back into the stream of traffic, and roared on down to the tollbooths. Parker spat in the right-hand lane, lit his last cigarette, and walked across the George Washington Bridge. 

That's how THE HUNTER opens. Richard Stark (AKA Donald Westlake) draws a scene that gives a strong sense of his anti-hero, Parker, yet leaves the reader with far more questions than answers.

I want the legs. That was the first thing that came into my head. The legs were the legs of a twenty-year-old Vegas showgirl, a hundred feet long and with just enough curve and give and promise. Sure, there was no hiding the slightly worn hands or the beginning tugs of skin framing the bones in her face. But the legs, they lasted, I tell you. They endured. Two decades her junior, my skinny matchsticks were no competition.

The opening of Megan Abbott's QUEENPIN gives you only the scantiest description of the narrator (young, skinny legs), but it speaks volumes about the glamour that she craves, which is far more intriguing.

If she had known she would be dead in another five minutes, maybe she wouldn't have swatted her son so hard. That's just my guess. His balloon had been drifting into my face, that was the problem. It wasn't bugging me, but it was bugging his mother. He was a towheaded kid with a round pink face. The balloon was larger than his head. I couldn't say one way or the other if the kid was having fun, but Mom clearly wasn't.

That's from SPEAK OF THE DEVIL by Richard Hawke. Hook, line, sinker.

*          *          *

I'm back from an incredible week of events in beautiful British Columbia with fellow crime writers Robin Spano, Deryn Collier, and Ian Hamilton. CBC Radio's "The Sunday Edition" interviewed us in Vancouver, and the podcast is now online. It gives a terrific glimpse of how much fun we had together, in spite of our murderous impulses. (We're already talking about our next tour together.)

One more bit of news: the cover and jacket copy for my third novel, EVIL IN ALL ITS DISGUISES, are now online. Take a look!


Meredith Cole said...

I love the idea of seducing the reader. It's much better than telling writers to obey a whole list of rules, which I think often makes people feel stilted and like they're just moving cardboard cuts around on a stage.

Robin Spano said...

Love it! Especially the guy at the party analogy. So true. Ditch the rules of writing, take on the rules of seduction...Thanks!

Hilary Davidson said...

Meredith and Robin, thanks to you both for your kind comments! For whatever reason (pure orneriness?) I resist rules, so when someone gives me a list to follow, I immediately start looking for loopholes and exceptions...

Vicki Delany said...

Good points all, Hilary. I am giving a workshop at Scene of the Crime on starting your crime novel with impact and will be using your tips.

Terrie Farley Moran said...

Nice post. As a reader, I love to be seduced. As a writer I stive to seduce. Although I just call it "getting them interested" but seduce sounds soooo much better.

Hilary Davidson said...

Thanks for stopping by, Vicki and Terrie! Vicki, I'm psyched if anything I've said here will be useful for your workshop. Terrie, you made me smile!