“You don’t have to set a Chevrolet on fire or have someone murdered on the first page to get the reader’s attention.”

Charles Baxter lives in Minneapolis and teaches at the University of Minnesota and in the MFA Program for Writers at Warren Wilson College.

He is most recently the author of the short story collection There’s Something I Want You to Do, of which the stories “Bravery” and “Charity” were included in Best American Short Stories.

Picture this: it’s a dentist’s office, and a young guy comes in for an appointment and sits down in the dentist’s chair. The dentist says, “So. What can I do for you?” and the guy says, “I want you to pull all my teeth out.” The dentist looks at the teeth and says, “I can’t do that. It wouldn’t be ethical. Your teeth are all fine.” The guy replies, “So is my money. Rip ‘em all out.” That’s from John Collier’s “Another American Tragedy,” a story I admire, from 1951.

Anytime I start working on a story, I want to create a condition with an element of mystery in it. I set up a question that I and my readers want to have answered. For example: “Jerry, the best player on our football team, came into the locker room thirty minutes before the homecoming game and told us he was quitting.” OK: why did Jerry quit, and what’s going to happen to the team? The story begins in one place and then goes somewhere else in the main part of the plot. I don’t always know where. Richard Hugo said that the opening of a story or poem uses what he calls “the initiating or triggering subject,” which starts the story and causes the story to be written, and the real or generated subject, is what the story eventually gets to. Maybe you start a story about Jerry, a football player who’s decided to quit, but the real story is about, let’s say, his girlfriend. Or his mother. Or his father’s drug addiction.

A story can begin with a setting (a place) that has something mysterious about it and provokes a question in the reader, or it can begin with a character who has something mysterious or unknown about him or her, or it can begin with a situation that seems slightly odd or mysterious or potentially dangerous. Saul Bellow started one of his stories with: “Yes, I knew the guy.” Obviously these categories can overlap.

Suppose you have a house, a place we can all visualize. How do you create a small mystery? You say something like this: “The house at the end of the block had all its window shades pulled down day and night, and no one ever saw anyone go in or come out of the front or the back door.”

When the trigger is a person, it helps to have a telling detail. “When my grandmother came into the room, carrying her cat, everyone stopped talking.” That combines an action and a person. Flannery O’Connor said that fiction is incarnational, meaning: specific — full of details. Maybe the triggering character is a customer. “A woman came down the produce aisle where I was working and deliberately pushed her cart into the display of apples.”

You don’t have to set a Chevrolet on fire or have someone murdered on the first page to get the reader’s attention.

We've all watched a lifetime’s worth of TV and movies that put big and often violent events into the first five minutes as a hook to get our attention. The assumption is that we have the attention span of chimpanzees. But hooks are hard to live up to; you can’t stay at that level. Besides, screen culture does violence better than written culture — leave the big violence to the movies. Better to start with a small mystery and build up to a bigger one. The truth about a situation is always big enough to sustain someone’s attention.

Stories often start with a situation that is larger than the characters or the setting. Think of a toxic spill: “At five minutes after four o’clock, the warning siren went off near the Chemistry building.” That opening sentence doesn’t give us any characters, really. It just suggests what the new situation is, a situation that has some hazards or possibilities built into it. Or think of a loud party, for example: “Down below my apartment, at street level, a bunch of people were yelling and throwing beer bottles at passing cars.” A triggering situation has in it some prospect for interesting trouble, and is marked by the possibility that someone might get hurt, or lose something, or gain something. Where do we put the interesting trouble? Anywhere. “With a spare one dollar bill, Jerry bought a lottery ticket at the drugstore and shoved it into his back pocket.”

The old ballads used to begin with situations, and the bluegrass ballads in the Blue Ridge Mountains still start that way. They’re often quite violent. There’s a traditional one called “Silver Dagger”:

Don’t sing love songs, you’ll wake my mother.
She’s sleeping here right by my side.
And in her right hand, a silver dagger.
She says that I can’t be your bride.

This has everything. We have the primary characters: three people: the speaker, a young woman; her mother, her protector and jailer; and the young man outside her window who wants to sing to her and to be her lover. We have a situation with conflict in it: the man wants to sing a love song to the girl, but the mother, who may be crazy, will stab either her daughter or the boy or both of them if they try anything. And of course we wonder what’s going to happen next.

If a story is going to be any good, it has to tell the truth about a situation and not just amaze or shock us. The trigger has to take us to a core of meaningful action that’s worth our time. A story turns on a light; beauty and truth are its illuminated products.

This article originally appeared on Biographile.

Penguin Random House

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Penguin Random House, Inc., the world’s largest English language trade publisher, bringing you the best in fiction, nonfiction, and children’s books.

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