Starting right: Powerful advice on story openings

From top pulp editor, Arthur S. Hoffman, who edited Adventure for the better part of two decades and made it into one of the top general fiction pulps, comes this advice on story openings. Originally published in Author & Journalist, August 1930.

story openings

THE mystery is: Why aren’t they better? Much has been written telling how to make them better. Yet they go right on causing more rejections than does any other factor aside from general lack of ability.

That is not just a glib generalization. I was a magazine editor for some twenty-five years; the seven fiction-using magazines on which I worked were from three houses publishing from three to a dozen magazines each and naturally I was rather closely associated with the many editors and assistant editors who came and went as their makers; further, one can’t live as part of New York’s magazine world without meeting the other members of that world, and editors, like everybody else, are likely to talk shop.

It is the openings that do most of the killing off. Of course there are exceptions to the usual editorial process in reading. Ray Long, for example, will take with him over a week-end a huge bag of MSS. picked out by his staff, fully carry his end socially during that week-end, and yet, by some super process of his own, come back to the office Monday with those MSS. read. More MSS. than I could read intelligently if I locked myself up with them for every minute of those two days and three nights. He can’t do it, but he does. And if you think he doesn’t know what’s in them, discuss one of them with him and be converted. How fast, or by what processes, he would go through a bunch of “slush” (MSS. not previously weeded out by the staff) is beyond my imagination.

Sometimes an editor will take a bite out of the middle of a story, or perhaps even read the end first, but usually he starts at the beginning. If the opening shows any possibilities he either continues to read or makes a second test by taking some looks farther along in the story. But, unless it is by someone of proved ability, if it doesn’t hold promise, he quits right there. So far as his magazine is concerned, that MS. is dead.

That may seem reprehensible and unintelligent. As a matter of fact it is necessary and highly efficient. No average editor can possibly read word for word all the MSS. he must pass on. Second, only from 1 to a possible 5 per cent of all the MSS. submitted to an average grade magazine are or can be bought—on many magazines, much less than 1 per cent of those from unknowns; only a portion, often a very minor portion, of the average editor’s time can be given to MS. reading; it is certainly not efficient to devote 95 per cent or even 35 per cent of his reading time to “slush” MSS., for the total of possibilities is so small, by either cursory or word-for-word reading, that the possible difference in yield between the two methods could not pay for the tremendously disproportionate time involved.
Third, ability to judge MSS. is distinctly a specialty, and experience is the great teacher. I’ve broken in dozens of editors, watched many more at work, and not one of us had the ability when we began doing it. Only actual experience can give that ability. But when an editor has read long enough he can tell pretty cannily from an opening whether it pays to read further.

That is, he has learned that certain types of openings almost surely mean there’s nothing worth while beyond. You may consider him as fallible as you please, but the cold fact remains that, if you want him to read further, you’ve got to hand him the right kind of opening.

YET the poor openings continue. The most striking part of it is that so many established writers do them, often getting by because being of proved merit, they get a further hearing and make good on the story as a whole.

Furthermore, a good many of these poor openings get published, serving as bad examples for those learning the game. The natural and correct inference is that some editors, even if they recognize a poor opening, don’t know why it’s poor, or at least don’t know how to cure it.

I didn’t for a good many years. There were all kinds of precepts and formulas, from the historic “ ‘Oh, hell,’ said the Duchess” example on up, but, though many of them were sound so far as they went, they apparently left a lot of the ground uncovered. There was something less obvious and more fundamental which they did not reach. It finally dawned on me and proved very useful in straightening out faulty openings. When, a year or so ago, I turned from editing to independent teaching of fiction it proved more useful than ever, for it had become my duty to go very definitely into the hows and whys of things.

After which peroration I now find my self at an embarrassing pass. Perfectly willing to tell you the answer, but afraid to. Because it’s so simple. Haven’t you noticed how hard it is to get people to pay any attention to simple things or attach any importance to them? We all seem built that way. If an idea doesn’t look hard and complex and if its presenter doesn’t use a lot of wise-sounding terms or a brass band or something, we just say “Huh!” and pay no attention to it. Oh well, I don’t lose anything thereby, but I don’t run to brass bands.
“So “Huh!” all you like. But don’t forget the hard little facts that poor openings are steadily producing rejections, that many established writers are doing them, that most editors can’t locate the exact cause of their being bad, and that it would pay a whole lot if you could avoid them.

There’s only one general rule: Anything at all is a good opening if it interests the reader—and hasn’t too strong a back-fire, as is so often the case when a cut-back is used in order to open with a snappy bit.
It isn’t just a matter of being snappy, of hitting the editor at once with a tense dramatic situation, startling statement, catchy bit of dialogue, show of individuality and all that. All these can be good and yet fail to redeem a poor opening; your general takeoff may be from the right spot, on the right key, and meet all the other usual specifications, yet still be bad.

The editor may not know specifically what is the matter, but he does know that the story hasn’t got him into it, hasn’t gripped, hasn’t his confidence—and that’s the end of it for him.

The best way to get at the remedy is this: Stop thinking of the editor and think of the readers. That’s what the editor himself is thinking about if he’s a good editor; if he isn’t a good editor, then he too is just a reader and you’ll reach him if you reach the other readers.
The rest of the remedy I can state very simply to the experienced writer: “Don’t try to take your readers anywhere till they know where they start from.”

Experienced writers know that already? Tens of thousands of MSS. have for years been proving to me that a surprising lot of them do not. There may be some rule to that effect but I don’t remember ever having seen it and I think most of those who do follow this advice do so by unconscious instinct. Of course most writers, being as intelligent as anybody else, do make a try at giving their readers all necessary information, but a surprising proportion do not try hard enough, or understandingly enough, and the results prove it.

Recently one of my clients, having slipped in this respect and had her attention called to it, sent me by way of horrible example a story by a well known writer in what is at least one of our best and best known magazines. She and her friends had been unable to find out what it was all about until they had read most of it and done detective work.
I was equally unable. There was a very good story there, and a simple one, but readers couldn’t get it; weren’t told where they were starting from; had to work their heads off to understand it. The opening was gilded and carved and very snappy indeed, but played havoc with the story, cutting it to less than 50 per cent practical efficiency—to 0 per cent for those who would quit it in disgust. If such a story can be spoiled by ignoring this simple remedy, figure the effect on stories from less skilled hands.

TO beginners, and to amazingly many old hands, the case is best stated thus:

When a reader picks up your story you know all about it but he knows absolutely nothing about it. Obvious, but hang on to it for dear life. He doesn’t know whether it is laid now, twenty years ago, 2000 B.C., or in the future; on land, sea, or in the air; in this country, Europe, or Africa; San Francisco, New York, a country village; high life or low; drawing-room, lumber camp, or tenement. He hasn’t even met your characters ; when he does meet them they are only some more added to thousands of other fiction characters he has met; he’s likely to have trouble in remembering their names and keeping track of which is who and what; he can’t know which is hero, villain, heroine; is still further from knowing even the general situation or relation among them, let alone whatever features and details may make this story different from others. And you can’t take him anywhere till he knows where he starts from.

He can’t know anything whatever about the story except as you tell him or make him infer. The more quickly you give him his bearings, the more quickly you can get him into the real swing of the story. If you leave him up in the air too long or too much, either he quits in disgust or despair, like the judging editor, or he guesses, is naturally almost always wrong, later has to correct his mistakes and start over again, feels fooled, cheated, annoyed. You’ve lost part of his attention and interest, let him waste them on puzzles that shouldn’t have been puzzles at all, and a writer needs every scrap of them on the story itself if it is to register at all fully.

You can’t afford to let him wander from the main path you want him to follow. He’ll wander at every chance. You’re the only guide; it’s your job to see to it that he can’t wander. If you don’t succeed even in starting him on the right path—well, why be surprised if reader or editor doesn’t get gripped enough by your story to go on with it ? Or, going on with it, doesn’t get its full meaning and value?

Don’t give him the needed information in hunks like an encyclopedia, of course. Work it into the narrative, keeping the narrative flowing but not delaying the information an instant more than you have to. The reader, not a sheet of paper, is the instrument you are trying to play on. If he isn’t in tune, he can’t be played on.

Instead of saying that “Huh!” get out some of your dud MSS. and see how much they violate this basic principle. If you can’t judge your own stuff, can’t approximate the reader’s point of view, try another writer’s duds or watch for faulty published openings and see how much of your own attention as a reader is lost in guessing and groping instead of going to the story itself. Deliberate mystery is one thing; leaving a reader to flounder is something else. I’ve seen too many hundreds of stories cured by correcting this fault to have any doubts as to the result of the experiment in most cases.

And if you apply this same test, not just to openings, but to stories as wholes—

Very simple, yes. The writing of good fiction is comparatively very simple, too— if you give most of your study to the simple things and very little of it to the complex addenda.

Given the advice above, I thought it might be interesting to run a survey of my readers and what they think about the greatest pulp stories‘ openings. I’ll publish results later.

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