Corner of Saint and Peter
Just a moment ago I found in my coat pocket a crumpled bit of paper, the stationary of the Hilton Hotel. For a writing workshop at a science fiction convention, the participants were called upon to write a beginning of a story within a short, set period, I think less than twenty minutes.
The tutor urged us to establish, within the first hundred words, a hook to lure the reader in, character and setting, the suggestion of a plot conflict or problem, and to raise the question which would prompt the curious reader to read on. As a professional writer, the tutor was canny enough to ask me to go last, since I had already mastered the technique the others were trying to learn.
More than one person has since that time urged me to finish the story. I give it here so that, should I ever lose the scrap of paper, the opening will not be lost.
It was not that I minded being dead, it was the hours.
No one ever calls me up during the day, and most people decide to wait until after midnight for some reason. I am a morning person, so thse meetings in the still, dark house lost between midnight and dawn make me crabby.
This time, it was not some comfortable seance room or graveyard.
I came to the surface of mortal time on a street corner of some American city, late Twentieth or Early Twenty-First Century. You can tell from the size of the buildings that it is American, and from the fact that the road names are written on signs rather than walls. The main road was Saint Street. The small alley was Peter Way. Great. I was crossed by Saint and Peter. Twenty Third Century buildings are not lit up at night, of course.
I smelled her perfume before I saw her. I could not mistake that silhouette, slender, alluring, like a she-panther as she walked.
“Mike,” she said. “You look well, ah, considering.”
“Angie,” I grunted. My arms ached with the desire to hug her.
She sighed. “Mike, this time, you have to tell me if you were murdered. You have to! They will not let your will out of probate if there is an investigation. And I have bills to pay.”
I took a puff on an imaginary cigarette. I have a good imagination, so the cigarette was just like it was there, odor and texture and all. “I ain’t saying.”
She stamped her foot. “But I can see the wounds! You’re dripping!”
“It could have been an accident, sweetie. Lots of people shoot themselves cleaning their gun.”
“Have you been to the morgue to look at yourself? You took forty five slugs to the head, chest, abdomen, groin area, both legs, and one foot! You were killed with a high caliber machine-gun!”
“Lots of people shoot themselves cleaning their high caliber machine-gun.”
“You don’t own a machine gun, Mike!”
I took another long imaginary puff. It’s not like I have to worry about imaginary cancer, after all. “There is a lot you don’t know about me, baby.”
That’s all I wrote. Being a professional, and uncontrollably longwinded, I went beyond the 100 word mark.
Please note the hook technique, which I stole from Robert Heinlein: the first sentence always contains a bit of self-deprecation where the main character establishes, perhaps in a humorous way, or at least an understated way, the main character problem. Let me use two examples from famous Heinlein novels:
“I always get the shakes before a jump.” (From STARSHIP TROOPERS) Is not a boast, but a confession of fear. While understated, it immediately creates sympathy with the character, and impresses upon the reader the seriousness of the situation. The reader is curious what a “jump” is, or what the situation is that causes the hero to get the shakes: in this case, the magnificently simple and impressive science fictional idea of an orbital-to-surface paratrooper drop.
“You see, I had this space suit.” (From HAVE SPACE SUIT, WILL TRAVEL) Again, mildly self-deprecating, as if the character is confessing something embarrassing, and immediately provocative: the reader is prompted to wonder where the spacesuit came from.
Here I did the same thing as he, introducing a character who is dead and griping about the hours. The reader is informed in the first sentence that this world is far from the fields we know, but not too far. I give the setting merely in a declarative sentence: American city, Twentieth Century, while letting the reader wonder what happens between now and the Twenty Third that they no longer light their buildings at night. The conflict is an old stand-by: a murder to be solved. In this case, the oddity is that the murder victim seems to be covering up the clues. Why?
In both cases, the reader is curious enough to read the first paragraph. If you can keep the reader entertained and interested through the first paragraph to roughly the third page, your chances of losing his attention after that, barring a major mishap on your part, are small.
Whether or not this story will ever have a middle and an end, that I know as little as you. I admit I am a little curious myself.