Sarah’s Spaceship Adventure, by Stan Morris (7:48)

IOD-SarahsSpaceshipToday we see that clarity is crucial for immersion.

What I gleaned about the story: Sarah has hopped in a car with the wrong boy. Only it isn’t a car, it’s a space ship. And this is one joy ride that will not have her back before curfew.

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WTF #1: Sarah thought she could manage him right up to the moment Reggardi slapped her so hard her body spun sideways and threatened to tear the microhooks on the bottom of her slippers away from the grabbit carpet covering the control room deck.

Analysis: That’s a monster of an opening sentence, and it’s being asked to do the job of at least three normal sentences. Cramming it all together like that presents the reader with so many elements at once that it’s hard to isolate the point. I got about half way through it and then had to start again, after adjusting my parsing plan. And having to restart the very first sentence is an automatic WTF.

But since we’ve stopped for the referee’s flag anyway, let’s take a look at the replay. I don’t normally address myself to specifics of wording, but I think this example illuminates a worthwhile issue with opening hooks. The point of the opening is to present the reader with something that catches their attention: an arresting idea, a thought, or even an image. Something that can draw them into the story, and the sooner you can deliver that, the better. So with a long sentence, the reader has to do some work before getting that first mental mouthful swallowed. But by using shorter sentences, you can present each of the same images, and plant them more surely, than you can with the behemoth. Compare the original sentence with this slight rewrite:

Sarah thought she could manage Reggardi. Right up to the moment he hit her. The force of his blow spun her, tearing one microhooked slipper free from the grabbit surface and damn near launching her into a crazy tumble across the control room.

It’s pretty much the same information, but by packaging it into smaller chunks, the focus of each sentence becomes much clearer. And that makes them easier to visualize, which is a powerful weapon in the pursuit of immersion and hook-setting.

WTF #2: Still, all was not lost as far as secrecy.

Analysis: As far as secrecy what? As far as secrecy went? As far as secrecy could run? “As far as” is a comparative, relating to distance, so it has to be concluded by something suggesting distance. Maybe it’s just me, but that sentence threw an anchor of a period at me while I was going by at speed and the sudden halt ripped my undercarriage out.

WTF #3: She pulled her long auburn hair away from her head and stared at the bruise beginning to show against her light brown skin.

Analysis: This sentence comes no more than a single minute after the opening slap. But bruises take a lot longer than that to form. They’re caused by blood leaking into the skin tissue and then coagulating, and thus darkening, which takes time. She might have a red mark at this point, sure, but not a bruise. Not for at least a few hours.

Take the Pepsi Challenge: Want to know if my own writing measures up? Download one of these free short stories, in the format of your choice, and decide for yourself.

Magical Girls, by Jesse Brown (29:47)
The Juice and Other Stories, by Bill Jones Jr. (40:00)

About the author

Jefferson Smith is a Canadian fantasy author, as well as the founder, chief editor and resident proctologist of ImmerseOrDie. With a PhD in Computer Science and Creativity Systems compounded by a life spent exploring most art forms for fun and profit, he is underqualified in just about everything. That's why he writes.