Throat clearing

This is going to be a post about posts that talk about what they’re going to talk about before they talk about it. Or speeches that announce that they’re going to lead into a speech about a topic, and here’s a definition of the topic, and here’s a joke about the topic, and here’s a bit about the importance of the topic, and ….

Have you turned the page yet?

Often, my writing students tell me they’re big fans of professional writers — novelists or columnists, for example. Then they turn in queries or articles that hem and haw and beat around the bush, so to speak, ahem, ahem, describing what they’ll do and never quite getting around to doing anything. I get out the red pen and explain “show, don’t tell,” and remind myself to remind them how their favorite writers start a novel or a column: not generally with a lot of buildup — “It was always peaceful in Sandyville, California” — but by jumping right in. Heck, even “It was a dark and stormy night” sort of jumps right in.

Not that lots of great literature doesn’t have buildup. But what it doesn’t have is throat clearing.

This semester, one of my students started a query letter like, “Here in the Washington, DC, area, we are rapidly approaching the 125th anniversary of the glumschwatz. On this historic occasion, we must remember the brave men and women whose blah blah blah saved the blah blah blah. I propose to write an article about one blah blah whose blah has gone unrecognized by the history books, although …” snzzzzzzzzh.

Obviously, this semester I had to explain not only “show, don’t tell” but also throat clearing. One of the students having confessed to being a Grisham fan, I put it in thriller terms. Did Grisham start out describing Mitch and Abby as a happy young couple with their whole future in front of them? Did the first chapter have Mitch kiss Abby goodbye in the driveway or drop her at school, then arrive at the law firm with great anticipation? Did it describe the weather as he walked up the steps, then admire the solid letters on the solid door of that solid Memphis firm? No. There’s no one running down the street or dodging a machete, as there is in some novels, but the very first paragraph sounds mysterious, perhaps even creepy. You have a feeling all is not well here, though you don’t know what or why. Grisham is setting up Mitch, and he’s setting up you, but he’s certainly not clearing his throat.

If you propose to write about some brave young man, I advised my student, then write about him. Don’t lose the editor in the first paragraph or even the first sentence. Instead of “we must remember” and “I propose to write about,” start out like this: ” ‘I have a vision of a new creation. It may build us a house one day,’ Jacob Lautmiller wrote his wife from Washington Rehabilitation Hospital in 1887. In fact, the amputee’s invention built them not just a house but a market niche and a fortune.”

Maybe students are worried about giving away the end — why will people read on if you spill the beans? For that I’ll turn to Double Indemnity. Few today have read the book; more have seen the film in which Fred MacMurray (!) first stumbles into the office and dictates a murder confession. Yup, he gave away the end, but now the viewer is dying to know the beginning and the middle.

Let’s go back to books and try nonfiction — say, the Steve Jobs biography. The first two sentences: “When Paul Jobs mustered out of the Coast Guard after World War II, he made a wager with his crewmates. They had arrived in San Francisco, where their ship was decommissioned, and Paul bet that he would find himself a wife in two weeks.” Well! I want to find out what happened next, don’t you?

Lesson: Give away the end; don’t give away the end. Set up the story piece by piece; jump right in with the gunshot wound. Just don’t meander up the garden path, admiring the flowers, preparing to get to a place where you’ll plan to get to a point where you might eventually get to the point.

Copyright 2012 Ellen M. Ryan. All rights reserved.

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One Comment on “Throat clearing”


  1. I wish you would speak to my husband about this. He needs help keeping my attention just in conversation. He insists on giving me all the parentheticals and disclaimers first, ad nauseum, and ten minutes later I still don’t know what the topic is. Bless his heart, he’s a bit of a squirrel chaser. But seriously, this is great advice for writers. Thanks!


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