Tuesday, March 23, 2021

Forget Hooks: How to Pull Readers Through a Short Story by Making Promises and Raising Questions

By José Pablo Iriarte, @LabyrinthRat

Part of the Focus on Short Fiction Series

JH: Keeping readers engaged in a story is no easy task. José Pablo Iriarte shares tips on how to keep readers wanting more.

I'm going to talk about story openings in this post, but this isn't a post about story openings. Rather, it's about grabbing the reader's interest and sustaining that interest throughout an entire story. That's important to authors working at all lengths, of course, but I think writing short stories comes with its own special challenges when it comes to reader interest.

You would think that short story authors would have it easier when it comes to pulling the reader through a story. What is a short story but the perfect prose morsel for the short attention span age? But on the other hand, we don't just want readers to finish our stories. We want our stories to be memorable. We want them to lead to something . . . the reader seeking out our other works, or reprint sales, or award consideration. With a novel, you've got tens of thousands of words with which to make an impression, to win the reader over or wear down their barriers.

(And while plenty of readers will DNF a book if it's not doing it for them, I think most readers won't. I am generally conscious of the money I spent on a novel, and I want to at least see that one book through to the end, even if I never buy another from the author. I think it's easier to set aside a short story, because you didn't pay eight bucks or more for it.)

So I think the short story writer has a shorter leashwe've got to grab the reader's attention and keep it and not let go until we've pulled them breathlessly through the entire tale. I think there's a trick to doing this in short fictionget the reader asking questions, and then satisfy some of their curiosity, while letting other questions build up in importance.

Why "Hooks" Are Not Enough

One of the most mis-applied bits of fiction advice out there is, I think, the advice to "Begin with a hook." I've read too many drafts that open with shots being fired and rockets blowing up, and I've found myself more confused or irritatedor even boredthan invested. And it's not just action openings that fall prey to this--there's the opening where some bizarre action is taking place, or the opening that immediately leads to the Page Two Flashback, where suddenly the action goes quiet.

I think where a lot of stories fail is in the area of building trust with the reader. Action isn't engagement. Confusion isn't engagement. I'm engaged when I want to know more and also believe that if I read on, my questions will have satisfying answers. You are raising questions and also making promises.

(Here's more with Why "Start With the Action" Messes Up So Many Writers)  

With an awareness that what intrigues each of us is a very individual question, let me share some examples.

My favorite short story from 2020 was probably Rat and Finch are Friends, by Innocent Chizaram Ilo. My interest was piqued from the very titleI recognized it as an homage to the classic 1970 children's book, Frog and Toad are Friends, by Arnold Lobel. But was it an homage, or was it a clunky copycat title from an author who plucked something from the zeitgeist without recognizing it? (This happens more than you might think.) Here, then, is both the first question and the first promise: The use of this title will pay off in some way.

Here is the opening:
Nobody knows Rat because everybody in school calls him by his real name, Okwudili, but he will always be Rat to me.


The holidays are thinning out. With every new day, the musky smell of old books becomes heavier at the tip of my nostrils, reminding me that school will resume next week. I understand that school may never be the same. I understand that school will never be the same. Mr. Okeke, the Dorm Master, had resounded in my ears that when the new term resumes, I must never talk to Rat, I must never come close to him, that the both of us are not to talk to each other. . . .

Opening with not just a one-sentence paragraph, but a one-sentence, one-paragraph section, intrigues me while raising questions in my mind. Why does the narrator call this boy by a different name from everybody else? Why is this fact so important that it needs to be emphasized like this? Why does the narrator assert that those who do not know Okwudili as Rat in fact don't really know him at all? The statement "he will always be Rat to me" (emphasis mine) also promises that something very important has passed between these two, that our narrator will never forget.

In the next paragraph, the repetition, "I understand that school may never be the same. I understand that school will never be the same" (emphasis mine) promises to me that something momentous has taken place, and that I will discover what it is, and that I will agree that it is a big deal.

Two paragraphs down, we learn that the pastor keeps coming to the narrator's house to pray for him and to talk "about hell and God and Sodom and Gomorrah." Why does our narrator get such one-on-one treatment?

Another two paragraphs down, with the opening of a new section, we finally get an answer to one of our questions:
"Did you like it when you kissed that boy?" Mama asks this morning, during breakfast. She has been staring at her bowl of oats since we said grace.

"I don't know."

I'm not going to go through the whole story like this, but I wanted to break it down up to this point so you could see the interplay between questions and answers. With the line, "Did you like it when you kissed that boy?" we now understand why the pastor is coming around, and we have a pretty good sense of the backstory.

With short stories, it's so important to communicate a lot in a few words, so notice how much more we know than what has been directly told to us. We know that the protagonist is a student in a boarding school. We can surmise that it is here, at the boarding school, where he got in trouble for kissing another boy. And we understand that he comes from a background and tradition where it is Not Okay for a boy to kiss another boy.

(Here's more with The Joy of Discovery: Keeping Readers Hooked Through Story Revelations)

Questions are Promises

But what don't we know yet? We don't yet have answers to 1) Why is the story's title an apparent homage to a classic children's book? 2) Why does our narrator call Okwudili Rat?

This is important and, I think, not obvious: I trust Innocent Chizaram Ilo with my unanswered questions, because he has taken some of my questions and given me answers, and they're answers that I personally find compelling.

In the next section, we see a direct reference to Frog and Toad Are Friends, answering for me the question of whether the title was a conscious homage or unconscious copying, but I still don't know why this book is important in this story. Shortly after that, we get a fantasy elementthe narrator casually mentions that shapeshifting runs in his lineage, and we learn that this is also something that will get him in trouble. But how do these storylines relate?

New facts, coupled with new questions. This is how it's done.

Building Trust

Here's another example, the touching Twenty-Seven Gifts I Saved for You, by Filip Wiltgren:
On your first birthday away, I got you a plant incubator. I wrapped it in jungle-green paper and tied it twice, with an organic silk band the color of wild strawberries. I put it beneath our bed, a corner sticking out, pushing up the dust covers, for you to find when you returned. Mission Control was still saying that it was only a matter of time.

What is a plant incubator? Since when do plants need such a thing? When is this story set? WaitMission Control? Just why exactly is the person we are reading about "away"? What is the relationship between the narrator and this person?

Here are the next two sentences, and look at how powerfully they answer some questions while leaving us wondering about others:
On your second birthday away, I got you a photo album full of prints of Kira. I'd annotated them, so you'd know what our little girl had been up to while you were gone, so you wouldn't be estranged.

Who is Kira? Oh waitthat question gets answered immediately. Kira is "our little girl," which also answers one of the questions that was raised in the first paragraph: our little girl, which implies that the speaker and the missing person were married, or at least in a relationship.

But what don't I know yet? I still don't know why this person is missing. Did they leave intentionally? The mention of Mission Control suggests now. Suggests some kind of accident, maybe in space? But not the sort of accident that leads to closure, because the narrator still hopes for his partner's return. Is this a realistic hope or not? Another question I want the answer to.

And now an example from my own work, from my 2019 story This Wine-Dark Feeling that Isn't the Blues (CW: Suicide and suicidal ideation):
The Odyssey contains over three hundred mentions of color. Black. White. Red. Not a single blue though. Even the ocean is not described as blue, but as "wine-dark." Likewise with the Koran and ancient Hebrew scripture: no blues, anywhere.

This is what I focus on during Savannah's funeral. . . .

Why on earth would the narrator be thinking about whether the Odyssey contains the word "blue" during somebody's funeral? (But also, why is it that the Odyssey, the Koran, and Hebrew scripture don't contain this word? If this question never becomes relevant, if no answer is ever suggested, the reader will be right to be annoyed.)

The second paragraph continues: "Otherwise, if I don't keep my mind busy, I will think instead about how she didn't keep her promise to me. And how I'm free of my promise to her." What promise did Savannah not keep? How is our narrator connected to her?

And the third paragraph:
If you can't trust promises made by two girls in a psych ward, what can you trust?

An answer. Now we know the connection between these characters (and the narrator's gender and the approximate ages of both). But we still don't know why the narrator is thinking about the color blue, or what the broken promise was.

(Here's more with Are You Asking--and Answering--the Right Story Questions?)  

Reader Patience and the Care Factor

There's more to it than just raising and answering questions, though: The reader has to care what the answers are. Look at the questions that don't get answered right away. They are the questions that provoke more than my idle curiositythey provoke my empathy. It's easy to empathize with an adolescent who is in trouble with the authority figures in his life. It's easy to empathize with somebody who longs for the return of a lover prematurely taken from them. It's easy, I hope, to empathize with somebody who's lost somebody to suicide.

As a reader, I will have little patience for unanswered questions that leave me struggling to grasp the basic premise of the storythough my expectations might vary, if I am reading literary fiction or slipstream or weird fiction. These are the sorts of questions that can leave me frustrated instead of hooked.

On the other hand, the questions that tug at my heart will tantalize me, and you can pull me through the entire story looking for those answers, if I trust you to deliver something that was worth my time. It's the questions you have answered along the way that will build that trust.

When I first started studying the craft of writing short stories, I heard a lot of talk about "promises to the reader," and it wasn't immediately clear what people were talking about when they used this expression. I hope this helps you see--just as chapter breaks and disasters can keep the reader turning pages in a novel, it's the doling and withholding of questions and answers that keeps them engaged in a short story.

José Pablo Iriarte is a Cuban-American writer and teacher who lives in Central Florida. José’s fiction can be found in magazines such as LightspeedStrange HorizonsFireside Fiction, and others, and has been featured in best-of lists compiled by Tangent Online, Featured Futures, iO9, and Quick Sip Reviews, and on the SFWA Nebula Award Recommended Reading List. Jose’s novelette, The Substance of My Lives, the Accidents of Our Births, was a Nebula Award Finalist and was long-listed for the James Tiptree, Jr. Literary Award.

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  1. Very well said. Thank you.

  2. A different angle - thanks

  3. Here, at the end of the post, my heart says you're right about all that you said. Thank you. I agree.

  4. I'm currently trying my hand at writing short stories. Thank you for helping with this post.

  5. There is a definite art to writing a short story. There is also that challenge of deciding how short is long enough.

  6. Thank you for the tips, and for the story recommendations, I'll add them to my TR list. I really like the warning about not leaving questions unanswered. As someone still learning to write short stories, I really appreciate the advice.