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Polyfunctional prose

Nick and I were on a road trip last month, and got to talking about writing. He’s become interested in telling his own stories, though right now he’s at the “lots of ideas but can’t get them on paper” stage. We were talking about ideas and execution and how to get a story going. Nick threw out a potential opening for something he was contemplating.

“The detective unsnapped the leash, letting his werewolf partner walk past the startled sergeant and into the murder scene on his own,” or something like that.

I thought about it for a few minutes, and came up with “Bob’s partner leaned on his leg, covering the freshly-pressed black slacks with golden-brown fur. He unsnapped the leash, releasing his partner to sniff around the corpse. The sergeant tasked to guard the murder scene shifted uneasily but didn’t interfere. Bob knew his partner could take care of himself.” Not perfect, but remember I was driving.

So what did I do, besides make the opening much longer? Two things. First, instead of telling the reader flat out that Bob was a detective with a werewolf partner, I showed some of the effects of that: fur on Bob’s slacks (also sneaking in character description of both Bob and the wolfie), the sergeant not interfering with something so odd (Bob must outrank her). I showed that there is something intriguing about the canine half of the team, but didn’t flat-out say what.

I also made sure that the opening was multifunctional: a bit of characterization, a bit of description, some background information, and that it advanced the plot. Not every sentence or paragraph has to do all of those things, but if it doesn’t do a couple then why is it there?

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