Hook, developing, climaxing

I’ve got my statues against the sky.
—Virginia Woolf, A Writer’s Diary


Why do I want to read your novel? Throw it out there before I even ask. What’s in it for me?

Because you’re a great storyteller. That’s the only reason that has ever mattered. And you can prove it to me in a tiny handful of sentences:

He—for there could be no doubt of his sex, though the fashion of the time did something to disguise it—was in the act of slicing at the head of a Moor which swung from the rafters.
—Virginia Woolf, Orlando

It wasn’t the rain that bothered me.
—Raoul Whitfield, Green Ice

I met my Aunt Augusta for the first time in more than half a century at my mother’s funeral.
—Graham Greene, Travels With My Aunt

The Splendid is not what it used to be since grandmother died. The lavatories always need unblocking. The wallpaper is peeling off the walls because of the damp. The Hotel Splendid is built over an underground lake. It’s grandmother’s fault.
—Marie Redonnet, Hotel Splendid

The Nellie, a cruising yawl, swung to her anchor without a flutter of the sails, and was at rest. The flood had made, the wind was nearly calm, and being bound down the river, the only thing for it was to come to and wait for the turn of the tide.
—Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness

On an April morning in the year two hundred and fifity-eight, a soldier rode eastward across the Syrian Desert.
—Alexander Baron, Queen of the East

Mother died today. Or, maybe, yesterday; I can’t be sure.
—Albert Camus, The Stranger

Reach out of the page and grab me by the collar. Don’t expect me to wait around until you’re done luxuriating in the glory of your imaginary world before you come over and answer the doorbell. I’d better feel your hand yanking me in before I ring, or I’ll probably just go ring somewhere else. This world is absolutely awash in novels.

Why should I—or anyone—read yours?


What is your story? The only story I’m interested in is exciting, unexpected events happening to people I can powerfully identify with. That means they must be three-dimensional people, full of contradictory character traits, passionately determined to do what they believe in their heart of hearts absolutely must be done and to do it HERE and NOW. And they must face nearly-impossible obstacles to accomplishing this in the way of plot twists and surprise developments that keep me ricocheting between intense pleasure and intense nerves. Make me laugh, make me cry, make me willing to sell my brother. Turn my beliefs upside down! Teach me something about being human I didn’t know.


I stuck with you for 200-300-400 pages. I gave you my loyalty, my fidelty, my undivided attention, hours of my life I will never see again. It’s not that I had nothing else to do—I live in the twenty-first century—I have everything else to do. But you I followed. It had better have been worth my while. You’d damn well better have brought me to this place in the most riveting manner possible to show me something I could never have seen anywhere, in any other way, before:

All was still now. It was near midnight. The moon rose slowly over the weald. Its light raised a phantom castle upon earth. There stood the great house with all its windows robed in silver. Of wall or substance there was none. All was phantom. All was still. All was lit as for the coming of a dead Queen. Gazing below her, Orlando saw dark plumes tossing in the courtyard, and torches flickering and shadows kneeling. A Queen once more stepped from her chariot.. . .

But in the roar of the wind she heard the roar of an aeroplane coming nearer and nearer.
—Virginia Woolf, Orlando

One of the flower cars had pulled out of line. The fourth car pulled over near it. Men got out, went toward the hearse. They looked like the funeral-parlor men. They were moving the casket out now, taking it toward the open grave.

Virgie’s voice sounded loudly. “The second car—!”

The oval-faced girl swung around. . .Flowers spilled upward and outward from the flower car that had pulled out of line. Men rose, lifted Thompsons. There were two of them working the guns now.

I shouted toward the oval-faced girl, hoarsely: “Get—down!”

I was on my knees as the bullets tore into the second car. Dirt splattered near my right shoulder, splattered again near my head. It wasn’t machine-gun bullets that kicked up the dirt—Virgie was letting go.
—Raoul Whitfield, Green Ice

They were dancing a slow waltz now and they never saw me enter, two old people bound in the deep incurable egotism of passion. They had turned off the lights, and in the big room illumined only from the terrace there rested pools of darkness between the windows. As they moved I lost their faces and found them again. At one moment the shadows gave my aunt a deceptive air of youth: she looked like the young woman in my father’s photograph pregnant with happiness; and at another I recognized the old woman who had faced Miss Paterson with such merciless cruelty and jealousy.

I took a few steps further into the room as they returned towards me, calling to her. . .”Mother, Wordsworth’s dead.” She only looked over her partner’s shoulder and said, “Yes, dear, all in good time, but can’t you see that now I am dancing with Mr. Visconti?”
—Graham Greene, Travels With My Aunt

The shutters are closed in Ada and Adel’s room. It’s the only room that still has shutters. My sisters never touch their food tray anymore. What can be going on?

The door to my sisters’ room was locked. There was no way to open it. I had to call the locksmith. He did not want to come into the hotel for fear of contagion. He gave me a master key. What I sight I saw when I went into the room. I was right to have a bad feeling about things. I should have known. It had to happen. The big central beam had collapsed. . .Adel doesn’t cry. She is prostrate. She has difficultly breathing. She hangs on to Ada. It’s a good thing the locksmith didn’t come up. What a shock the collapsed room and Ada’s body would have been for him.
—Marie Redonnet, Hotel Splendid

Anything approaching the change that came over his features I have never seen before, and hope never to see again. Oh, I wasn’t touched. I was fascinated. It was as though a veil had been rent. I saw on that ivory face the expression of somber pride, of ruthless power, of craven terror—of an intense and hopeless despair. Did he live his life again in every detail of desire, temptation, and surrender during that supreme moment of complete knowledge? He cried in a whisper at some image, at some vision—he cried out twice, a cry that was no more than a breath—

“The horror! The horror!”
—Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness

There was murder in his eyes. While he talked, she could see him measuring the distance between them, for a leap. She said, “No, I would strike the gong before you killed me. Aurelian would wake. Servants would come. Arelian would live, and you would die. The knowledge you have gained would not reach your people. Now go away.”

The doubt had come back into his face. “You still speak softly. Why don’t you rouse him?”

“Never mind that. Pay heed to me now. My horse is the best in the stables. Take him and go away, tonight.”

She saw the conflict behind his eyes. “Go,” she insisted. “Do not waste time. He may wake at any moment. Your people need you. You can reach the frontier. You are brave and cunning enough to do anything. Go, now, this minute!”

He looked once more at Aurelian, then at her. His shoulders relaxed. He said, his voice still grim but infused with pleading, “He killed my father.”

“Rome killed your father. Rome would have killed your father even if there had been no Aurelian.”

She came swiftly to his side, laid her hand on his arm and pressed him towards the outer door. He did not resist. “Do not kill Aurelian. Go, and come back with your horsemen, and one day you will kill Rome.”
—Alexander Baron, Queen of the East

Then, I don’t know how it was, but something seemed to break inside me, and I started yelling at the top of my voice. I hurled insults at him, I told him not to waste his rotten prayers on me; it was better to burn than to disappear. I’d taken him by the neckband of his cassock, and, in a sort of ecstasy of joy and rage, I poured out on him all the thoughts that had been simmering in my brain. He seemed so cocksure, you see. And yet none of his certainties was worth one strand of a woman’s hair. Living as he did, like a corpse, he couldn’t even be sure of being alive. It might look as if my hands were empty. Actually, I was sure of myself, sure about everything, far surer than he; sure of my present life and of the death that was coming. That, no doubt, was all I had; but at least that certainty was something I could get my teeth into—just as it had got its teeth into me. I’d been right, I was still right, I was always right. . .Nothing, nothing had the least importance, and I knew quite well why. He, too, knew why. From the dark horizon of my future a sort of slow, persistent breeze had been blowing toward me, all my life long, from the years that were to come. . .Surely, surely he must see that? Every man alive was privileged; there was only one class of men, the privileged class. All alike would be condemned to die one day; his turn, too, would come like the others’. . .As a condemned man himself, couldn’t he grasp what I meant by that dark wind blowing from my future? . . .
—Albert Camus, The Stranger