Word by Word

Practical insights for writers from Jessica P Morrell

Word by Word: Openings make a promise to the reader

Written By: Jessica Morrell - Jul• 11•17

It’s full-on summer. and nights are again growing quiet after the raucous explosions from Fourth of July celebrations. Roses are spilling over throughout town, heat blasts from the sky until it bakes everything below including the miserable clay soil I’ve inherited in this yard, the roads are filled with campers and trailers, vacationers heading to the coast and mountains,  rafters heading to the mountain-fed rivers, and kids in my neighborhood are on an endless loop of scootering down the hill past my house.

I’m starting a series here called Word by Word, because that’s how writing happens and because what I notice and prize most is how writers choose precise words to handle precise jobs that need handling. Sentence by sentence.

Bill Johnson, an author with intellectual heft, wrote a book  A Story is a Promise: The Spirit of Storytelling. In this helpful manual he describes how your opening paragraphs make a distinct promise to readers that the story needs to deliver. Johnson writes, “A story’s opening scenes are vital. If they don’t suggest a story’s promise, that story risks either not fully engaging or losing the audience.” Hang on to that thought.

Summers seem perfect for reading what a friend calls potato chip books. Especially in summer because it seems like summer is when I got to read a LOT when I was kid, although I was always reading. They’re books that are perfect for a crowded  airplane, a beach trip, or a bad cold. You don’t need to think too much, just keep turning the pages and enjoy. Like one potato chip after another. Oh, and make mine barbecue, please.  Lately I’ve been reading Chuck Wendig’s Miriam Black series. Miriam has the unfortunate ability to ‘see’ a person’s exact moment of death if she brushes against his or her skin. It’s not a pleasant gift as you might imagine More like a curse. And while I’m reading this series like I’m gorging on salty junk food, I’m noticing the techniques and devices he uses. And there is lots to admire, particularly the risks he takes with creating a vulnerable badass female anti-hero, an urban fantasy/horror world where there are lonely highways, lots of dive hotels that just might crawl with bedbugs and lice,  language that rockets into your bloodstream, and the nastiest of the bad guys. But I especially like to enjoy Wendig because he’s a demon god on a word by word basis  and his vocabulary for this series is scary, scabby and sassy.

Let’s return to the promise contained in story openings. Here’s the opening to Thunderbird the fourth book in the series: (the language below is R rated)

“Miriam runs.

Her feet pound asphalt. Ahead, Old Highway 60 cuts a knife line through red rock and broken earth, the highway shot through with hairline fractures.Big clouds scattered across the sky like the stuffing from a gutted teddy bear. The side of the highway is lined with gnarly green scrub brush, plants like hands reaching for the road,hands looking to rend and tear. Beyond, it’s just the wide open nowhere of Arizona: electric fences that contain anything, craggy rocks and and distant peaks like so many broken teeth.

Run, she thinks. Sweat is coming off her hair, into her eyes.  Fucking hair dye. Fucking spray gel hair bullshit. Fucking suntan lotion. She blinks back sweat carrying all those chemicals, sweat that burns here eyes. Don’t pay attention to that. Just run. Eyes forward. Clarity of thought and vision. Or something.

Then her foot catches something–a rock, a lip of  cratered asphalt, she doesn’t know, and it doesn’t matter, because suddenly she pitches forward. Hands out. Palms catching the macadam, bracing herself so her head doesn’t snap forward and crack in half like a tossed brick. A hard pain jars up her arms, through her elbows like a flicker of lightning. Her hands sting and throb.

She gets up on her knees and then starts coughing.

The coughing jag isn’t brief She plants her hands on her knees and hacks hard, and between hacks she wheezes, and between wheezes she just hacks harder It’s a dry cough of broken sticks and dead leaves until it’s not–then it’s wet, rheumy, and angry, like her lungs have gone liquid and have decided to disperse themselves up out of her mouth.”

Whew. Not exactly a stroll in the park, right? And it fulfills my first commandment for a story opening: a character must be knocked off balance along with my second commandment: openings must always raise questions that need answering. Like what the heck is Miriam doing running along Highway 60? And it makes a cold-hearted promise of more pain to come.

  • cuts

  • gutted teddy bear

  • electric fences

  • gnarly

  • jars

  • pitches

  • sting

  • rend

  • tear

  • burns

  • throb

  • cratered asphalt

  • knife line

  • wheezes

  • hacks

  • broken sticks

  • dead leaves

  • rheumy

  • craggy rocks

Word by word. What say you?

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