This simple statement stands as a truism for all storytellers, regardless of platform or genre. Every writer, filmmaker, photographer, illustrator, podcaster, editor and teacher of same should keep some version of it close at hand. Have it cross-stitched and framed to hang over your desk. Tattoo it upside-down on the inside of your wrist so you can read it while you write. Sharpie it on a bright pink Post-it note and slap it on your computer screen where you can’t ignore it.
Of course, as with all truisms, it’s easier said than done. Which is why it’s worth reading in context, as articulated by best-selling novelist John Sandford, who was the featured author in the Nov. 15, 2018, “By the Book” Q&A in The New York Times Book Review. Here’s a fuller version from Sandford:
My longtime editor at Putnam, Neil Nyren, has said that readers want to feel secure in the hands of the author. My interpretation of that, and what I look for, is the author’s ability to induce that reading trance in which you live the story. That requires both a good tale and a facility with language.
Note that Sandford goes from the aspiration – “induce that reading trance in which you live the story” – to the work required to achieve that aspiration: “a good tale and a facility with language.” In his “By the Book” interview, he speaks generously and, in ways some might find surprising, about how he’s learned to do that. In this case, he talks mostly about the writers he has studied and what lessons he has woven into his own writing. He has much to show for that self-education: His “Prey” series, featuring the maverick Minnesota cop Lucas Davenport, became a thriller phenom. It launched an equally successful off-shoot series built around the even less rule-bound Virgil Flowers, who would rather be fishing and is often referred to, in what has become an insider’s meme, as “that f**king Flowers.”
Full disclosure: I was glad that Sandford mentioned his “real name” – John Camp – in the “By the Book” interview. He and I were colleagues in the 1980s at the St. Paul (Minnesota) Pioneer Press, where he won the 1986 Pulitzer Prize in feature writing for a five-part series following a family through a year in the farm crisis, and in 1980 was a finalist for the Pulitzer. I was glad of his disclosure because I think of him simply as “Camp,” and because I know a bit of how hard he has worked – and still works – at his craft. Short version: Harder than almost anyone I know. He may write fiction now, but his reporting remains meticulous.
But back to our chosen sentence, and why it’s so great. What Camp is talking about is what I think of as the promise the writer makes to the reader at the start of a story, whether that’s a newspaper or magazine lede and nut, a book prologue and first chapter, a movie’s opening scene with necessary backstory. That promise: You are in good hands. I know where I’m going, so relax and follow me. I hope to inform, engage and even surprise you along the way. But I won’t mislead or jerk you around for reasons of my own indulgence or incompetence.
Again, that’s easier said that done. It doesn’t mean the storyteller won’t struggle. (Oh, would that were possible!) It does mean the writer knows what the heart of the story is and has a sense of what it takes to get readers there: appropriate structure, compelling and credible characters, revelatory descriptions, well-chosen scenes, and strategic pacing. All that is necessary, and all that starts with the opening – the place where the reader/viewer/listener enters the story, whether it’s news journalism, narrative nonfiction or fiction. That’s what Camp/Sandford is talking about when he passes along his editor’s wisdom, which he has made his own: “…readers want to feel secure in the hands of the author.”
I think of story openings as doorways. It is where the readers are invited in, greeted, welcomed and then guided, room by room with a trusted host, to the interior of a piece. First you need to get them to knock on that door. Once they do, you need to know where you want to take them, why, and how.