Start with the Body
September 4, 2015
I begin each morning in a big yellow chair that was once comfortable.
I reach over and grab my 11" Air and check email and Feedwrangler to see what I missed while I slept.
Today was different.
The front window in the living room was open and the person slumped forward in the big yellow chair wasn't bothered by the fact that it wasn't very comfortable any more.
"Oh," I said and stopped ten feet short of the chair.
Kim came up behind me. She held her cup of coffee in her left hand, my cup in her right. She looked at the dead man in the big yellow chair and asked, "Do you know him?"
But Daniel, you say, I don't write that sort of thing. I can't start with a dead body.
Of course you can.
Mostly I write technical books for beginners.
Most technical books are written the way a bad mystery is written. The alarm clock rings. Our hero gropes for the clock on the nightstand and silences the alarm. Stretches. Pads to the bathroom. Looks in the mirror so they can describe them-self physically to the reader even commenting on that scar they got during the case in which blah blah blah. They shower, they get dressed putting their (insert specific type of gun here) in their ankle holster. They take one more look in the mirror and head downstairs.
Two chapters later we meet the body.
Unfortunately, no one is reading two chapters later.
Elmore Leonard's tenth rule of writing is "Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip."
I find that readers skip prose when it is written in the wrong order.
Start with the body. In a mystery the body is the hook. It's the reason we're all here. We're going to meet a cast of characters as the mystery is solved and we're going to figure out what each person has to do with the story. We wouldn't have our story without the body - but the body is not the story.
In a technical book, each section has a purpose. I'm not here to teach you the for loop. I'm here to teach you how you can work your way through a collection of strings and do something with each in turn. To do that we need a for loop. In this section I will teach you about a for loop but my body, my hook, is to start with the problem that a for loop solves.
When I used to edit articles for web sites, my most frequent edit was to take the three paragraphs where the author was winding up to the problem and either eliminate them or move them after the discovery of the body. When I used to edit books, I would try to shorten or eliminate those first chapters where the author talked about them-self or the history of the language. This is the tech book equivalent of the hero assessing them-self in the mirror.
Once we have the body, we can get to the business of telling the story.
... I walked around to the front of the chair and bent to see the dead man's face. I glanced back at Kim, "I don't think so. You?"
She shook her head.
I looked back at the open window. "Did you close this last night?"
She nodded. Then she lifted her arm and said "Hey Siri, text Dave 'we need a detective and an ambulance'."