I’ve written several times about conflict in movies and novels. Conflict in movie scenes and book chapters make the story interesting and holds the readers or viewers attention.
So, I’ve dedicated this entire issue of ‘Frank Remarks’ to grabbing the reader.
David Farland talks about this quite a bit in his newsletters. He states that a story must have significant conflict within the first few pages to instantly grab the reader or else it is reduced to tedium.
Farland states these elements that a storyteller needs to deliver in the opening pages or minutes of a movie.
1) a character-preferably one that is likeable or interesting
2) a setting-hopefully one that is intriguing
3) a substantial conflict-one that instantly pulls the reader into the story.
To quote another rule of storytelling – ‘showing is better than telling’. So let’s look at the opening scenes from two of my novels (and an unashamed plug for them) to see if they fit Farland’ three rules.
This is the opening chapter of my techno-thriller CYBERKILL.
The airplane was leaving in a few hours, but Travis Cole still had some unfinished business in his MIT office – one of which was to get his in-law off his back.
“Please, John. We’ve been over this a hundred times,” Cole murmured, leaning forward on his desk to stare down at the computer monitor in front of him. He rested his fingers lightly on the keyboard, his hazel eyes focused on the command prompt on the screen:
DO YOU WANT TO EXECUTE? Y/N
Could he really do it?
Though Cole had made up his mind, it was now formal decision time. Pressing ‘N’ would continue his life as a well-known researcher in eco-biology at the MIT Artificial Intelligence Laboratory. Pressing ‘Y’ would end three years of cutting-edge work and move him and his daughter to a new home in Washington, D.C. and a lucrative research job with the U.S. Army.
Cole’s finger hovered over the keyboard – he felt sick.
John François was, as usual, sucking on the end of an ornately-carved wood and leather pipe. It went along with his academic look: elbow-patched sports coat, baggy brown pants, and loafers.
“It’s not right, Travis,” François implored. “It’s not right to take Shannon away from the environment she knows just weeks after her mother’s death. It’s just not right.”
Cole kept his focus on the task at hand. They had been over this a thousand times. Shannon, Cole’s young daughter, was already in the car, waiting. In fact, all his luggage and many of his important worldly belongings waited there as well. He would return later for the rest of his stuff.
For now …
For now, he had to just get away.
Cole’s finger still hovered. He blinked hard. Could he really do this?
Yes, I can do this.
“And what about this?” François said as he opened the cover of a three-ring binder with the title TERRAN PROJECT written in blue across the front. François gently thumbed through the pages and pointed at the different artificial intelligence programs that Cole had cataloged and tracked while at MIT. “You’re just going to throw away years of work?”
Cole ignored François and turned back to the computer terminal with its blinking white cursor awaiting a reply.
He took in some air – and pressed the ‘Y’ key on the keyboard.
Cole turned to François while the computer executed his command unable to watch. Instead, he looked at his aging in-law with compassion for the man. Since his wife died of leukemia ten years before, François had lived alone. Cole and Shannon were the closest thing he had to family.
“John …” said Cole gently, but François cut him off.
“Shannon’s only five years old, Travis. Taking her away from the surroundings she knows isn’t the answer,” he pleaded. The older man had tears in his eyes.
Damn. Cole gently placed his hand on François’s arm. “John, I don’t know what I would have done without your help after Kathy’s death. But I know what’s best for Shannon. I have to give her a change.” Cole squeezed François’s arm, then looked back to the computer screen. He watched as file name after file name appeared on the screen, all tagged with the same statement:
FILE FOUND. FILE TERMINATED.
Cole looked at his watch. “Jeez. We have to go. You’ll see us off?”
François nodded in resignation.
“Thanks. Shannon will like that.” Cole glanced once more at the scrolling text on the computer screen, turned, and hurried out the office with François close behind.
In the darkness of the vacated room, the program reached the end of its routine, and then stopped on the last file. The text that glowed from the LCD screen turned from white to red and blinked repeatedly insisting on an answer.
FILE FOUND. FILE ACTIVE.
ABORT OR CONTINUE?
So – how did I do? Did it meet Farland’s criteria?
How about this one? Here’s the opening pages of A Taste of the Apocalypse from the Chronicles of Jeremy Nash.
The old aeronautical engineer felt the hairs rise on the back of his neck. He wondered if it was a change of airflow in his room – or trepidation.
It was both.
He turned around in his moonlit 5th floor hospital room at the Walter Reed Army Medical Center to see a slouched silhouette in his open doorway. A cold shiver coursed down his spine, as if it had been dipped in ice.
Henderson squinted, his eyesight failing with age. But before recognition dawned on him, he knew something was going to happen.
And it’s not going to be good.
Particularly for him.
The silhouette slivered towards him. Henderson backed away with fearful recognition.
“Vajda!” he whispered nervously under his breath.
Now fully immersed in a pool of silver light, the tall alarming figure nodded imperceptibly. He continued gliding forward in an unusual, stooped manner, like a jungle cat hunting its prey.
And I’m the prey.
Standing near the wide window, Henderson was suddenly having difficulty breathing. He was acutely aware that he was trapped in a small hospital room with nowhere to run. To make matters worse, Vajda was between him and the nurse call button.
The threatening figure said nothing as he closed the gap between them. Now fully in the moonlight, Henderson saw a tall muscular man with a shock of white hair growing out of a head of dark brown, dressed in a Romanian style silk brocade coat that reminded Henderson of a certain vampire count
“What do you want from me?”
He knew he had little hope he would survive the night. Hell, survive the next five minutes, but he gave it his best shot. “I didn’t tell them anything,” he cried out almost inaudibly.
With stunning speed, Vajda pounced on him, gripping his throat with two strong hands. Henderson’s air supply was immediately cut-off, and with it, any hope of calling out for help.
Vajda calmly watched Henderson with two different colored eyes — one an extremely pale blue and the other an almost colorless brown. A deep, brutal scar ran from under his left ear to his chin.
Henderson thought he was the ugliest son-of-a-bitch he’d ever seen. But then Vajda’s hideous face started to blur before him. Like an encroaching oil spill, darkness crept along the edges of Henderson’s vision. In an amazing feat of strength, Vajda pulled the obese man straight up off the floor, holding him suspended in the air.
“Where is he?” Vajda demanded with a slight lisp from his cleft lip. “Where is Nash?”
Henderson couldn’t speak — hell, he could barely see. Vajda held him up a moment longer, and then slowly lowered the old man to the floor, grudgingly releasing his grip.
Gasping, Henderson would have fallen to his knees if the stooped man hadn’t held him up. He painfully sucked in air through what he believed was a very damaged throat.
“I-I don’t know,” he gasped, stumbling over the poorly formed words.
“So you do not know where to find Nash?”
“I don’t! I swear to you! I think he’s dead.”
“Then you are of no further use to us.”
With that, Vajda grabbed Henderson by the collar and dragged the old man to the window. In one fluid motion, the brutal assassin kicked the barred window open, splintering the window frame and releasing whatever locking device it had. Glass and metal rained down to the parking lot below as a soaring wind rushed up into the room blowing up through Henderson’s hospital robe.
This isn’t happening.
Henderson could hear the sound of traffic below, horns honking, cars rushing by.
“I’ll see you in hell,” spurted Henderson.
And with that, Vajda shoved the old man through the deadly opening. Henderson flipped once, hit his head hard on the outside ledge, mercifully blacked out, and dropped five floors to the pavement below.
Did these meet Farland’s criteria? Drop me a line and let me know what you think.