Over at AUTHORNOMICS this week, Les Edgerton talks about what it takes to hook a reader on the very first page, and he identifies the key element as creating conflict. From the very first page, he says, readers should have a sense of what the overarching problem of the story is.
During this first week of classes for spring quarter, I’ve been ruminating on how very much this applies to college as well. For the first class meetings, professors tend to put on a show: they wear their best clothes, put together their best power points, and prepare lectures to convince us students to stay in their class. And this week, I noticed a pattern in the lectures that were most engaging and most convinced me to stay in the class: they proposed some sort of central conflict that the professors hope to resolve by the end of the quarter.
The best example is my Middle Eastern Politics class. The professor started her lecture with a story: when she first started the class, she prepared the lectures expecting them to last for the rest of her tenure so she’d never have to prepare for the class again. After getting some feedback the first quarter, she reworked them a little, then taught the class a second time. By the third time she was teaching the class, she was pretty sure she had tweaked the syllabus and lectures to completion.
But by the third week of that third class, the Arab Spring had begun in earnest, and she found she was changing her lectures every day to keep up with what was going on. The problem for us in her class now, she said, is that there is still so much unfolding that her nicely worked course has been thrown for the loop. So by the end of the quarter, she hopes we’ll help her figure out what is important and what isn’t.
By presenting the conflict of “what is important in the Middle East?” she hooks us with something other than readings or a lecture list. Instead of being bogged down in the details of what we’ll be doing every day, we are given the promise of the overall goal. Perhaps it can be called an argument. Perhaps the best word for it is a thesis.
I’ve had a theory brewing in the back of my head for a while now that modern fiction is an imaginative form of persuasive writing. In this world where readers have short attention spans, the five paragraph essay has been expanded and translated for the fiction world.
First, there is the introduction paragraph. In the essay, it is a very few sentences about where the essay is coming from and the thesis, or the main argument being made. In fiction you get a very short glimpse of the status quo and then the catalyst, the conflict that sets everything into motion. The catalyst is the thesis, and the ideas of this thesis will drive the rest of the story forward, just as the idea of the thesis drives the essay forward.
The three following paragraphs in the essay are traditionally supporting evidence for the thesis. In fiction, this is translated as plot, which is persuading the reader that the conflict is still there and still driving the story forward. But the evidence in fiction for the conflict comes from more than just plot. It comes also in language, in character, and in details that reflect this conflict–or other, sub-conflicts–is present.
The conclusion in the essay is supposed to drive home the essay’s point, which is preferably original, and leave some last thought for the reader to chew on. In fiction, this is the climax, which is where the conflict is at its height, and the resolution, when things are tied up or not, depending on what the author wants to say.
The crucial part of the essay is the thesis, and so if a fiction writer wants to successfully persuade the reader to keep reading, they must have a strong thesis. Their conflict must be strong. And in today’s world of readers without much time, who look for the outline rather than the essay, the thesis must be present from the very beginning. This is what my professors do: they present me with the class’s thesis so I know why I want to take the course. This is what persuasive essays do: they put the thesis up front so the reader knows what to expect, what to pay attention to, and why the essay is being written. And this is what modern fiction does: it presents the thesis of conflict at the very beginning so that I know immediately what will keep me interested throughout the book.