Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Nelson Bond's "The First Thousand Words"

Earlier, we took a look at Nelson Bond's 5,000 word pulp formula, where the old pulpster split the story into five 1,000 word sections, and gave advice for each. (Originally posted over at StoryHack, and mirrored here.) Bond would elaborate further on "The First Thousand Words" in Writer's Digest, focusing on the openings to pulp stories.

As a point of comparison, here is Bond's advice from "It's All a Matter of Timing: A Foolproof Fiction Formula":
First 1000 Words. Ends on Page 5. 
Get going with a bang! Remember, you’re writing a short story, not Gone With the Wind. You can’t waste words, nor will the editor permit you to waste his or the readers’ time. Your first thousand words must tell who are to be the central characters of this work-of-art, when the story takes place, where the scene is set, what the problem is, and set the question as to how the hero expects to take care of it. 
Get me straight! I don’t mean you should start off anything like this- 
“John Marmaduke Frasier, tall, blonde and handsome Sheriff of Burp’s Crossing, Arizona, strode down Main Street wondering what he should do about saving the property of his fiancĂ©e, sweet Hildegarde Phlewzy, from the clutches of rich bank president, Phineas Gelt, who threatened to foreclose the mortgage on August 19th, 1904, twenty days hence . . .” 
You think I’m crazy, eh? Nobody ever introduced a story that way? Guess again! I sat beside Harry Widmer of Ace Publications for a full hour one afternoon, reading over his shoulder unsolicited manuscripts that opened in exactly that fashion. Needless to say, the stories were not offered by “regulars,” nor did they come in the folders of an agent. They were the “unrush” mail, i.e., the free-lance offerings that earn pale blue slips reading, 
“We regret to say-” 
But get the thing moving. Start with something happening to somebody; not with mental maunderings, Grab your hero by the neck and shove him smack into a mess of trouble. Then show who started that trouble-and why. Introduce the other persons involved in the problem, make their opening speeches depict their characters. As you write, keep an eye on your page numbers. Remember that this phase of the story must be finished by the middle of page 5. 
End the opening sections with the implication that Our Hero recognizes his difficulty and knows what he’s going to do about it.
And now, Nelson Bond expounds on this advice:


 The First Thousand Words

By Nelson Bond

(Writer's Digest, November 1940)

One of the great faults of the writing profession is that, like any other trade, it tends to get formularized. We within in develop a language peculiarly our own; we start to talk a jargon of catch phrases and keywords which are, or can be, completely meaningless to the outsider and sometimes, worse luck, to ourselves.

Writers get together. They talk glibly of "tagging characters," "the narrative hook," "timing the pace"...

Mumbo-jumbo! Miss Dorothy Dase, presumably a young writer (though I may in my ignorance, do her an injustice with this hazard) wrote a letter to the editor of Writer's Digest. It appeared in the September issue. It asked: "Will you explain just what is meant by the 'narrative hook'? So many writers refer to it--and so help me--I don't know what it means!"

The editor's answer was clear and concise an explanation as, in my humble opinion, can be given:
A "narrative hook" is a literary device employed by many professional short story writers to "hook" the reader immediately into reading the author's story. The trick consists of plunging the lead character into a difficult situation, with definite promised action to come in the first 200 words of the story.
Thus was Miss Dase inducted to the Inner Circle; so she became proud possessor of a Trade Secret. It is now her privilege to use the phrase "narrative hook" whensoever she chooses, to mystify lay friends with the catch-verbiage of the writing profession.

But take down your hair with me, pals! Does Miss Dase know any more than she did before? Does she know how to go about handling the "narrative hook"? Do you? Do I? Or do we just hopelessly confuse ourselves by accepting the premise that a narrative hook is the best way to get the reader's ear?

It is my conviction that the "narrative hook" is a vastly overrated weapon of auctorial offense. Because there exists such a thing, many a good story has been thrown out of gear in the opening thousand words...in the opening hundred...sometimes even in the opening sentence!

Behold ye fretful yonge scrivener! He has an idea for a story. A story of human emotions, say, and human involvements. All nature cries that it must be handled leisurely, deftly, with slow development leading to an inevitable and devastating climax.

So what happens? The fetish named N. Hook perches on the writer's shoulder, looks at Page One and gibbers, "Won't do, Butch!" Gotta drag 'em into the tale in a hurry. Make it snappy! Tear that junk up!"

So the leisurely opening is waste-basketed, the new Page One opens with a gripping situation, the story is thrown hopelessly out of timing--and a good idea gathers rejection slips!

In order to interest the editor, must you start your story with action? "Boom boom" action, I mean. There are stories and stories; some demand a fast-action opening, others call for slow development, still others strike a neutral balance. Every yarn is a different problem; by the nature of the story you mean to tell, you must determine what type of opening is the most suitable.

There exists certain fundamental requirements for the first one thousand words of a story. Your opening 1,000-words "section" should establish the where, when, what, who, why of the story. It should not do so bluntly; these background facts should be insinuated cleverly, plausibly, readably.

Your opening thousand words should also set the tempo for the rest of the story, i.e., if the tale is to be a humor yarn, don't open with fusty dryness. And vice versa. If you are planning a weird story, don't open with commonplaceness--get a hunk of gooseflesh into the first paragraph if possible. And if flippant young love is your objective get flippant right now!

Shortly we shall discuss the various methods of approaching a story. Right now I want to hammer home my point about the narrative hook--

It doesn't do you a darned bit of good to know what it is, to be able to define it, if you can't actually do it! I have a swell theoretical knowledge of the Australian Crawl, but every time I try it in the pool they have to roll me on a barrel. Ditto with the overrated "hook"; if you don't know just what, in your story, is "hooking material," you're as helpless as a sail-fisherman with a fly rod.

Many kinds of stories...many kinds of openings...and only one kind of narrative hook? That's ridiculous, isn't it? Okay. That's just what I wanted to show you. Then the narrative hook is not a "something" that exists per se--it is an elastic tool for gaining reader interest. So now we'll stop calling it the narrative hook. We'll give it the more dignified name, Method of Approach. And we'll break down stories into the various possible methods of approach, with examples of each.

Look 'em over. When you've finished studying, you may be able to write and convince me that there are yet other approach methods. I have determined only six. The Direct, Indirect, Indefinite, Curiosity, Situation and Frame. I admit, readily, that these overlap, merge into each other so smoothly, so subtly at times, as to be well nigh indistinguishable. There are an infinitude of combinations.

Oh, the hell with argument! Here, for my money are the way in which stories are opened.

The Direct Approach

This is the simplest f all; hence at once the most common, most favored, and most difficult to handle property. It brings your reader into the story by a bold, blunt, direct statement of fact, gives him a fact to grasp like a handle, then plunges right on.

Manly Wade Wellman is responsible for an example of this approach, exquisite in its brutal simplicity. His story, "Hok Goes to Atlantis," in one of last year's Amazing Stories, opens with the naive elan of an old Wild West Thriller. You remember, "Bang! Bang! Bang! Three redskins bit the dust!"

Wellman's story, equally terse, begins, "The wolves had been chasing Hok for three days."

Silly, huh? Melodramatic? In your hat, bud. Wellman's not that kind of writer. That paragraph is not intended to shout, "Boo!" It is a simple, unembellished statement of fact, calculated to prove by implication that in the life of dawn-man Hok such incidents are routine stuff. And that Hok didn't even give a dern about the blasted bow-wows.

It is a good opening style--but until you've bolstered your self-confidence and bankroll with a number of sales, don't fling it around carelessly. Its very simplicity is its trap. You can very easily fall into the snare of "William Jones had loved Mary Smith for three years." And then where are you?

Style One. Simple, declarative sentence. Used for setting scene in stories with general tenor of dramatic understatement subdued emotion.

Let's move along to the next one.

The Indirect Approach

You've seen this done in the movies. Camera centers on a village...swoops down slowly, eliminating outside stuff to focus on a house...house melts away to show room...and the room becomes a frame for one person.

That is the indirect approach. It "leads up" to its central character or theme, approaching in such a way as to cleverly, incidentally, show the background, motivation, and raison d'etre for the story. Foggy? Here's what I mean; an example from C. L. Moore's "Fruit of Knowledge" in the October Unknown.
It was the first Sabbat. Down the open glades of Eden a breeze stirred softly. Nothing else in sight moved except a small winged head that fluttered, yawning, across the glade and vanished among leaves that drew back to receive it. The air quivered behind it like a wake left in water of incomparable clarity. From far away and far above a faint drift of singing echoed, Hosannah...hosannah...hosannah--The seraphim were singing about the Throne
 A pool on the edge of the glade gave back light and color like a great, dim jewel. It gave back reflections, too. The woman who bent over it had just discovered that. She was leaning above the water until her cloudy dark hair almost dipped into the surface...She was do quiet that a passing cherub-head paused above the water to look, too, hanging like a hummingbird motionless over its own reflection in the pool.
 "Pretty!" approved the cherub in a small, piping voice. "New here, aren't you?"
The woman looked up with a low smile, putting back the veil of her hair. "Yes, I am, she answered softly.
I don't know what you think of this but I'll toss a bow to Miss Moore, who knew what she wanted to do in this story--and did it. The Indirect Approach, used here, gave her an opportunity to, at one time, set her scene, declare her theme, and establish the tempo for the story.

Style Two. Contractive focus to central character. Used for setting scene in stories with leisurely pace; also to establish atmosphere of horror, listlessness, approaching danger, etc.

The Indefinite Approach

This is a piquant style off opening gaining rapidly in favor. It is perhaps the one adaptable feature (from a frankly commercial writer's viewpoint) that emanated from the garrets of the Art-for-Art's-Sake, or, "Oh, God! What Suffering!" school of writers.

Used by these long-haired gentry to confuse and bewilder the reader, popular authors have picked up the little trick and turned it to good account in establishing an air of combined mystery and curiosity and anticipation. It does not mention the central character by name. It centers on his actions, often inexplicable in nature, withholding vital information, until the reader fairly wants to howl, "Hell, yes! But who is this? I'm interested, but why--?"
There was a sort of game between him and ol' Jeff. When he came off the ice, clumping down the runway to the steamy-warmth of the dressing room, he would strip off his bulky pads and head straight for the showers. But he wouldn't get there. Not quite. For as he passed the rundown table, ol' Jeff would say, oh, so casually, "How about an onstovah t'night, Mistuh Whitey?"
And that was his cue to scowl ferociously. "Why, confound your black hide, Jeff, I don't need a rubdown. I'm feeling fit as a fiddle."
Ol' Jeff would argue, and he would storm, but both of them knew that in the end he would capitulate, growling, "All right, then. But make it snappy!" And he would throw himself face down on the stained, smelly table, relaxing weary muscles, closing his eyes against the hot smart of wintergreen feeling the cool rubbing alcohol probe between encroaching layers of stubborn fat to sooth his exhaustion to the core.
 And so on. It is some time before Whitey is revealed as an old-timer who, by rights, should have stopped playing hockey years ago, but has remained in the game for a Reason.

This is an amazingly effective trick. It surprises me that it is not employed more often, and by a greater number of writers. A psychologist might find it strikingly sound in gripping a reader. Most readers, we are told, read empathically. That is, they identify themselves with the central character--or try to. But if, in the opening paragraph, the C. C. is determined to be a blue-eyed, golden-haired six footer, whereas the reader, a little guy named Joe, has black hair and brown eyes, then, cripes!

But the Indefinite Approach lets the reader empathize to his heart's content; by the time he finds out what "he" really looks like, it's too late to get out from under. The story has him gripped. We hope!

So--Style Three. For use in stories where it is desired to arouse anticipatory interest, delineate action rather than physical characteristics and "personalize" the reader's interest.

The Curiosity Approach

This is the Indefinite Approach stripped of all subtlety. While part of the "first 1,000 words," it is generally the very first part; the first paragraph or, indeed, oftimes the first sentence.

It is calculated to arouse an immediate question in the reader's mind; a question that, demanding immediate answer, and supplying none, requires that the rest of the story be read.

Examples are easy to find, for this is a popular way of opening a story. Take this one, from "The Valley of the Undead" in Weird Tales, by Helen Weinbaum, a young writer, sister of the late Stanley G. Weinbaum, whose untimely death robbed the fantasy and science-fiction fields of a truly great contributor.
Now, on the moors, the name Tiraney is seldom mentioned, and the curious depression called Strath of Tiraney is gone. Myrtle grows thick in the once bleak lowland as if it would cover with living green all memory of the tainted past. No, the name Tiraney is seldom mentioned.
 --demanding the answer, why?

Now, from one of my own jobs:
This sounds silly. At half past three on a Tuesday afternoon, in broad daylight, Professor Hallowell of the Midland University physics department left Jurnegan Hall, strode down a campus path clogged to the gutters with students--and disappeared into thin air.
This sounds sillier. At nine-fifteen the next Friday morning, Travis Tomkins, chief technician of Midland's new observatory, stepped to the platform of Old Main to speak before an attentive crowd of twelve hundred under-graduates--and vanished before their eyes!
--demanding the answer, how?

 We have, then--Style Four. employed to exact immediate curiosity, particularly when the problem involved is one rather uncommon (as in science-fiction, fantasy, or weird stories).

The Situation Approach

Here is an approach in which the fundamental plot of the story is boldly presented to the reader as a reason why he must read. It cannot be done with the average, run-of-the-mill story simply because most stories (pulp or slick) are so highly formularized, so dependent of good writing or amusing incident to carry them over a well-worn trail.

But occasionally a situation, in itself, is strong enough to warrant a story. When so, this type of opening may be used to advantage. It smacks the reader right in the eye with the implied query, "well, here it is! And what would you do or say in a fix like this?" And then, theoretically, he will want to find out what your central character did or said An example from "The Sportsman" in Scribner's Magazine: 
Lanahan was indignant when Gray Margrave's application for membership in the Club was read.
He addressed the executive committee: "Gentlemen, you may count my vote against him! The man is a hopeless cripple! How will it look to have as a member of the Hunt Club a man who never sat on a horse in his like?"
 There's one very apparent danger to this opening. In the ordinary story, you unfold your situation in such a way as to merely stimulate the reader's interest in a problem which, after all, is not his problem. Any plausible solution will satisfy him.

But by defining challenging him at the beginning of the story, as in the Situation Approach, you've got to not only offer a solution but the best solution. You've matched your wits and resources against those of your reader--and your answer had better be good!

Well, Style Five. To be sparingly, and with complete assurance that you have an unusual situation and a satisfying solution.

The Frame Approach

You know what a frame is? Where the story is told by a character in it, or where the author starts off with "This was told to me--"

I will go no farther! Friends, I have my opinion of "frame" stories. I have had it pointed out to me by experts that (1) many truly great stories have been written in a frame, and (2) there are certain stories that cannot possibly be told in any other way.

I have even written "frame" stories. But I still don't like 'em. I think they're a lazy man's way of avoiding auctorial difficulties, an incompetent man's way of introducing a situation--and I cannot, off-hand, think of a single "frame" story that could not have been told, and told better, without the phony superstructure.

And so I merely acknowledge the existence of frame stories. I quote no examples; I don't recommend them. You can write 'em if you wish. I'll take mine straight. With just a lee-eeetle bit of water. Ah! That's enough!

Thus, Style Six--the Frame Approach. Some weather we're having, isn't it?

Which ends our brief discussion of the first 1,000 words of the story--the important thousand, the section in which you get the story under way, set its tempo and introduce its characters, present the problem.

On reading back, I feel that there are still many things I have left unsaid; there are a number of hints on actual writing that would, in themselves, compile to another article the length of this one.

But if in this piece I have convinced anyone that the words "narrative hook" are meaningless unless modifies with an explanation of what kind of hook, I have accomplished my purpose.

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