One piece of genre fiction writing and submitting advice that has always annoyed me: The speculative element must be introduced right away in a story. I saw this “rule” a lot when I was starting out, and though it’s obviously not written in stone (hence the quotation marks), it usually felt pretty rigid, a semi-official “We’re a genre magazine, so we need to see the genre front and center” mantra. I can see why editors suggest this. It might provide the “hook” or let the reader know what to expect. Editors have to make their way through a great deal of submissions, and they might feel they need to know what’s what on the very first page or else they’ll click “reject.” But I find it very restrictive and even leading to homogeneity. It’s on my mind lately because I’ve noticed I don’t read genre magazines nearly as much as I used to, and when I do, I’m often struck by these thoughts.
Every story has its own blood. Many benefit wonderfully from addressing the supernatural immediately. But there are so many scenarios in which the speculative element should be introduced later, especially in horror/weird fiction. Perhaps most commonly and importantly, the protagonist sometimes doesn’t know anything speculative even exists in the world or is happening to them until a little later in the story, perhaps only in hints at first, and the reader should be able to experience this with the protagonist. If you frontload the story with a speculative hook but then zoom in and follow the protagonist at a close POV the rest of the way, then your beginning could become a detached narrative style that doesn’t stay true to the story as a whole. It’s like the narrative God giving the intro as a Shakespearean aside only the audience can hear, then passing the mic to the protagonist with a “Have fun getting yourself out of this mess!” wink. When the threat and/or central story logic is telegraphed, it’s far more likely to be a story in which the audience knows more than the protagonist, like a perpetual dramatic irony. And by telling the reader what to expect, you might, in some types of stories, be telling the reader what to ignore, which removes some of the enjoyment.
Clearly there are many, many ways to effectively work around this, and tension should be established in some way. But in my opinion, training a generation of writers to get to the speculative meat immediately can lead to a bit of sameness from story to story, both in terms of beginnings and narrative style. And fewer stories where the supernatural is able to exist on the periphery. Often (certainly not always) I find that successful stories in bigger name-brand genre publications rely on cleverness rather than atmosphere in order to get that “hook” in. Perhaps the story is titled “Why the Ghost Spooked” or the first sentence is “The morning before the zombie apocalypse, the sun came up like it had every day before.” It can mean more creativity but also less freedom. And that creativity ultimately can seem like its own box. I also suspect this is increasingly another contentious difference between “literary” and “genre” fiction. The former doesn’t usually have to worry about pointing out “the terror that was to come,” and “indoctrinated” (to use a melodramatic word) readers get bored more easily rather than allow themselves to experience the prose.
I’ve noticed for a long time now that established genre authors are much more likely to allow the horror or uncanny to emerge in an organic way while still making the overall arc of the story as speculative as it should be. (I’m not really talking about stories where the ending is “Aha! These were supernatural shenanigans all along!” here.) They have name recognition and an audience that trusts them to deliver the goods. (The same would apply to anthologies assembled with solicited stories; the editor goes in trusting the invited authors, and there are far, far fewer submissions to read.) But if you’re reading a story that begins with two pages of intriguing, immersive premise and forward momentum but nothing other than atmosphere to suggest a possible spookiness (or fantasy-ness or scifi-ness), are you really going to say, “Gosh, is this whole story just going to be this guy working in a library?” If you’re a very impatient reader, maybe. As I mentioned, an author must give the audience a reason to want to keep reading, some sort of tension/suspense, so a slow, mundane, scene-chewing opening is not what this post is about.
Stories in which the first door doesn’t creak in the middle of the night until page five do find their way into great genre publications. Great writing is great writing, and editors recognize it. But I do wish authors–particularly beginning authors–weren’t given this mantra that can feel too ironclad.
These are my own observations, and I’ve used both approaches myself. (In fact, my collection Greener Pastures‘ stories run about 50/50 in this regard.) In my first few years, I felt I had no choice but to at least concretely hint at the speculative right away. I was a nobody who knew nobody, and I wanted editors to read past page one. Sometimes I would ignore the “rule” anyway because I felt I should. And I still begin a story the way I feel it is asking me to. Hell, I titled my most recently completed story “Vampire Fiction”–which sure seems to say “This is a vampire story!”–but then proceeded to begin by hinting to the reader that it might be a story without any actual vampires. It might. I’m not telling.
These days I’m happy to have a little more freedom to serve each individual story’s needs. Sometimes I want a sign on the door that yells I’M GOING TO TRY TO SCARE YOU! Sometimes I want the door to be handsome but signless. I want it to seem a little…off, somehow, crooked in its frame or too soft to the touch, but it’s such a nice, warm house, come on in, look at the way the sunlight slants into the living room, how could anything bad ever happen here?