Meaningful Explosions: How To Get The Reader’s Attention


If there is a piece of writing advice that is taken too fucking literally–aside from ‘write what you know’–it’s ‘make something exciting happen on the first page.’ You know what that means? That means I’ve read far too many books–and seen far too many movies, because apparently everyone gets their advice from the same place–over the last little while that start with something actually exploding.

This is a problem.

Now, look: I like explosions as much as the next guy. More, probably. And I get that you want to grab the reader’s attention. But having some random tart push a button and explode a mail box doesn’t get my attention. Because, without at least a little context, I don’t give a fuck. For all I know, that’s how you send mail in her world.*

Random explosions, surprise gun fights, being dropped into the middle of a car chase–these are all exciting things. But I could turn on the news and see that shit. Hell, if I turn on Fox News I can get it 24/7, with a side order of wharrrrgarbl. But that doesn’t mean it’s compelling. And it’s a little insulting to your audience to assume that the only way they can be tethered to a story is by having something spontaneous combust.

What I need is story. I need questions. I need things that give me a reason to keep reading. And, sorry to say, explosions are not often it.

You could argue that the explosion provides a question: why the hell did she blow up the mail box? But that’s not a very interesting one. We can do better.

Try this on for size: we see the bomber, feel her nervousness, see the sweat beading on her lip. And she pushes the button. Mail box gets blown to mail box heaven**. Pieces of letters and bills and cards and flyers flutter down from the sky.

And then, instead of running away, the bomber goes toward it and starts snatching handfuls of the mail confetti from the air. Words. Single letters. A phone number, or pieces of one. As sirens approach in the distance, she hunches over on the sidewalk and starts putting the random pieces she collected into some kind of order, reading it like the old shamans would read the future in entrails. Because this is the only way she can find out what she needs to know before it’s too late.

Better, right?

This takes up about the same amount of real estate on the page as just an explosion, so you’re not slowing anything down. And you open up so many more possibilities for questions. The question is no longer why did she destroy the mail box? The question is What is she trying to find out? Or maybe Why does she think she can read the entrails of a mail box? And my personal favourite: Can she?

The difference between ‘things happen’ and ‘everything explodes’ is meaning. I don’t want random explosions. I want meaningful explosions.*** Or at least explosions that hint at meaning.

And, if in doubt, leave out the explosion altogether, and just go with the meaning.

*Side note: I’d mail more letters if this were the case.

**Where all addresses are written clearly with full postal codes, and no one ever tips them over.

***’Meaningful Explosions’ will be the name of my band.