The Art of Seduction

One of my pet hates is ‘literal’ writing. You know the kind; great descriptions, a well-structured plot, believable characters, fantastic ideas, and absolutely no compelling reason to keep turning the page. The story simply conveys information without plumbing the depths of meaning, giving it a stale, paint-by-numbers feel.

It’s pretty obvious when you’ve picked up one of these technically correct (but depressingly flat) books; the first paragraph tells you everything you need to know. That may sound harsh, but here’s the thing: writers already know that the opening paragraph can make or break a sale. They want to put their best foot forward, so it’s safe to assume they’ve spent a lot of time and effort ensuring that it says exactly what they want it to say. Therefore, if it lacks nuance, wit, and depth, then it’s pretty safe to assume that the entire novel will follow in the same vein.

Where does literal writing come from?

I suspect that this kind of writing is the unattractive offspring of a literal mindset. More specifically, I think it comes from a literal interpretation of the ‘rules’, which we - in our typically reductionist manner – mentally transform into hard, joyless little nuggets. But more on that later.

The Art of Seduction: breathing life back into prose

So how do you break a literal mindset? How can you take perfectly decent, dull writing, and put a twinkle in its eye? Well, that’s easy. We do it all the time. It’s called flirting. However, if that seems a little too lightweight for your tastes, you can always go for dark-and-mysterious allure; it’s harder to pull off, but some writers can do it just fine. I’ll be exploring both.

The Opening Paragraph: A Case Study

Let’s return to the opening paragraph. Given its crucial role in catching the reader’s eye, it’s obvious that this paragraph needs to be the most charismatic of them all. This is where that literal interpretation of the rules comes in. For example, one of the best-known tenets of storytelling goes as follows:

“Your opening paragraph must raise a question in the reader’s mind.”

This makes perfect sense and, on the surface, seems to be consistent with the idea of flirting (as in, “who IS that guy/girl?!”). However, take the rule at face value, and your writing falls as flat as a stale pick-up line. To explore this further, I’m going to look at three different scenarios: one where this ‘rule’ is ignored completely, one where it’s taken and applied literally, and one where it’s applied with sophisticated, coquettish charm.

Scenario One

If we ignore this rule completely, we usually wind up with a hideously dull introduction. For example:

“Behind the solid sandstone desk, a very attractive, groomed, blonde young woman smiles pleasantly at me. She’s wearing the sharpest charcoal suit jacket and white shirt I have ever seen. She looks immaculate.”

Fifty Shades of Grey, E.L. James, Vintage Books (2011)

I don’t think I can fully convey just how little I care about this situation. I really, really, really don’t care. I have no questions at all. If I had something invested in the author, I might be compelled to read on, but that has absolutely nothing to do with the quality of the writing. Obviously, the mere description of ‘stuff’ makes for a pretty poor opening, so unless you have a time machine that can whisk you back to a pre-19th century audience (or a pre-existing fan base), forget it.

Scenario Two

A literal interpretation of the rule yields that flat writing I was complaining about earlier. It’s technically correct, but intensely frustrating to read; we sense the writer’s competence, but she still has an amateurish whiff about her. For example:

“My mother drove me to the airport with the windows rolled down. It was seventy-five degrees in Phoenix, the sky a perfect, cloudless blue. I was wearing my favorite shirt – sleeveless, white eyelet lace; I was wearing it as a farewell gesture. My carry-on item was a parka.”

Twilight, Stephenie Meyer, Little, Brown (2005)

This is a perfectly acceptable opening paragraph. It poses the following questions:

  • Where is this girl going?
  • Why is she going there?
  • Is she really as dull as she seems? (unfortunately, yes)

This paragraph follows the ‘opening’ rule just fine, but has no wit, no sparkle, no magic. If you saw that paragraph walking down the street, you wouldn’t look twice. It’s a plain little thing but, more importantly, there’s just no personality there, nothing to connect to. Here’s a different example:

“When I wake up, the other side of the bed is cold. My fingers stretch out, seeking Prim’s warmth but finding only the rough canvas cover of the mattress. She must have had bad dreams and climbed in with our mother. Of course, she did. This is the day of the reaping.”

The Hunger Games, Suzanne Collins, Scholastic Press (2008)

While the style is not to my taste, this opening is definitely better. The question (what’s the reaping?) is obvious, which is why it falls into the ‘literal’ scenario. However, unlike the preceding example, there’s something that lies beneath the writing, something that communicates to our senses in the same way that body-language does. We associate a young girl climbing into her mother’s bed with fear, and thus her fear is linked to the upcoming ‘reaping’. In other words, this one also has an emotional impact, which adds weight to the basic question and makes it feel ominous. Unfortunately, the narrator’s flip-flopping assumptions prevent the unspoken threat from being truly incisive. We’re not sure whether Prim is scared because of her bad dreams, if she’s scared because of the reaping, if she had bad dreams because of the reaping, or if the narrator just has a disorganised mind. This might raise the curiosity of some readers, but I feel like it’s delivering a mixed message; alluring for some, but just downright annoying for others. I fall into the latter category.

Scenario Three

Now we can step things up a notch. If we apply a little subtlety to our thinking, then, lo and behold, that subtlety emerges in our writing. We have that lovely, elusive thing called subtext, and THAT’S the magical pixie-dust that delivers a page-turner. Of course, that statement is too vague to be of any practical use, so I spent a delightful evening examining the opening paragraphs of some of the most notable works of fiction ever written, all in attempt to answer the following question: How do you get your opening paragraph to seduce the reader?

1. Character

One of the most frequently employed tactics is the use of character in the opening paragraph. For example:

Mr Jones, of the Manor Farm, had locked the hen-houses for the night, but was too drunk to remember to shut the pop-holes. With the ring of light from his lantern dancing from side to side, he lurched across the yard, kicking off his boots at the back door, drew himself a last glass of beer from the barrel in the scullery, and made his way up to bed, where Mrs. Jones was already snoring.

Animal Farm, George Orwell, Secker and Warburg (1945)

This opening simply crackles with energy. It possesses a swagger that catches your eye and a charisma that makes it hard to look away. Of course this is partly due to a masterful use of language, but the fact that this language is applied to character makes a huge difference. Neither the Twilight nor the Hunger Games examples give us a good idea of character, which robs them of a big chunk of appeal. It could be argued that the example in Scenario 1 (the boring one with the immaculate woman) does indeed describe a character, yet it remains dreadfully dull. Why? Is it because the immaculate woman is static, while Mr Jones is active? Is it because we get more information in the latter example? These things certainly help, but they’re not what really gets a reader hooked. This brings me to the second thing I noticed.

2. Collusion

Alice was beginning to get very tired of sitting by her sister on the bank, and of having nothing to do: once or twice she had peeped into the book her sister was reading, but it had no pictures or conversations in it, “and what is the use of a book,” thought Alice, “without pictures or conversation?”

Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Lewis Carroll, Macmillan (1865)

Mr and Mrs Dursley, of number four, Privet Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much. They were the last people you’d expect to be involved in anything strange or mysterious, because they just didn’t hold with such nonsense.

Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, JK Rowling Bloomsbury UK (1997)

These examples still feature characters very strongly. However, they also deliver their lines with a complicit nod and a wink. Nothing is overtly stated, but you just know something’s going to go down, and these people are heading for a major shake-up. In Alice’s case, there’s no way that a restless child with a short attention span and a penchant for asking questions won’t get into trouble. As for the Dursleys, not only will they experience their worst nightmare, but we’re going to have a rollicking good time watching them suffer. Even Mr Jones, ‘too drunk to remember to shut the pop-holes’, introduced the opportunity for some kind of upheaval in the state of things. Basically, the characters don’t know that something’s around the corner, but the reader does. This establishes a kind of ‘conspiracy’ between author and reader, a rapport that feels flattering and inclusive. It’s no coincidence that pick-up artists use this technique to secure interest; it works, and it works well. Even without an actual character as subject, this technique is still effective. A great writer can toy with the reader’s expectations and tease with subtle irony, as demonstrated by one of the most quoted openings in history:

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.

Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen, T. Egerton (1813)

The narrator, with her tongue planted rather delicately in her cheek, sets the stage beautifully; Jane Austen spends the rest of the book mining the comedic gold of societal norms and assumptions. This dry, witty and delightful prose has an allure that’s hard to resist.

3. The tip of the iceberg

There are times when wit, irony, humour and cheek aren’t the way to go.

“In my young and more vulnerable years my father gave me some advice that I’ve been turning over in my mind ever since. "Whenever you feel like criticizing any one,” he told me, “just remember that all the people in this world haven’t had the advantages that you’ve had.”

The Great Gatsby, F.Scott Fitzgerald, Charles Scribner’s Sons (1925)

This opening has a lot more weight than the others. We immediately realise that this book will cover issues like class, wealth, assumption, maturity, wisdom, and perhaps a few other juggernauts. Although the paragraph isn’t really flirting with the reader, it is enticing him/her with the promise of hidden depth; in other words, it’s the centred, confident type who doesn’t seem to care whether you get reeled in or not. This paragraph’s allure lies in its quiet assurance; it knows what it is, and if you’re smart, you’ll stick around for a while. As in real life, this kind of magnetism is rare, but it does exist. It’s also worth pointing out that while it lacks the ‘nod and wink’ feel of earlier examples, this paragraph still implies that initial premise will be challenged. It’s subtle, but it’s there; as is the element of character.

So what about that pesky rule?

I would never refute the importance of the opening paragraph ‘rule’; however, I don’t believe you have to pose an actual question, and would even argue that doing so lends the work a dull, flat quality. If you want to raise your writing to the next level, your goal should be to pique the reader’s curiosity. This opens up a whole vista of subtle, playful, and infinitely more enjoyable possibilities.

The Take-Home Message

The opening paragraph of any book is intended to arouse the reader’s interest. It’s meant to engage the reader’s thoughts, sometimes against his or her conscious will. It’s designed to open a door and beckon the reader to step inside. In short, the opening paragraph is meant to seduce the reader. So if you’re a writer, get out there and start working your magic.

This article originally appeared on Narrative Schmarrative