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This is the beginning of a short story I'm writing (I'm not a native English speaker):

I was lying in the dark, looking at the ceiling, counting spider webs. She was lying right beside me. I was only few centimeters of of her, but it was actually an eternal distance. All I could see was her back. Her long black hair, and her left hand resting on her shoulder. I lifted my hand in an attempt to place it on her waist. Maybe she would feel my warm hand, turn to this side, and wrap her arms around me. I would feel the warm of her body too. I did that, but she didn’t even move. She was just a lying figure. I gave up and came back to my previous position. I’ve never felt so lonely. I felt even lonelier than the time I used to sleep alone in my old apartment. I realized that for me, real loneliness was to loss someone I had, rather than no having anyone at all. Well, I was kind of used to this. After all, it had been the same for more than six months.

I would like to accomplish the following:

  1. It should hook the reader.
  2. The actions should help the reader picture the situation.
  3. It should help the reader feel the atmosphere (dark and silent).

Any suggestions?

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Lying in the dark and counting spider webs doesn't quite seem right. It is hard enough to count spider webs in broad daylight. Perhaps "counting spider webs reflecting in the cold light of the street lamps" or something like that? That way you are providing light but it still feels dark and silent. –  Charles Caldwell Jul 5 '11 at 13:15
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4 Answers

up vote 6 down vote accepted

The first thing that I notice about this passage of writing is the tremendous lack of variety in its sentence structures.

  • Of the 16 sentences, 11 have the subject I
  • Of those 11 sentences, 9 actually begin with the word I. (The other two begin with an adverb.)

This creates a very monotonous cadence for the opening paragraph, and makes it feel repetitive and dull. Try experimenting with different sentence structures and focuses for each sentence, rather than just using I..., I..., I....

The other thing that I would avoid is direct, repetitive presentation of the narrator's feelings. Rather than simply saying "I felt lonely", convey the narrator's loneliness through the details he notices and his choice of words. You're already doing this somewhat with phrases like "an eternal distance", but you could increase the indirect depiction of emotional state and eliminate the direct statements. When it comes to description of internal state, less is more.

Here's a perfect opportunity to expand your opening paragraph with some more vivid description that would help both of the problems mentioned above:

I felt even lonelier than the time I used to sleep alone in my old apartment.

You could replace this with something similar to the following:

This was worse than my old apartment, where I slept with only the cockroaches and the rusty, dripping faucet to keep me awake.

As it's currently written, I don't find this paragraph to be an efficient hook. And to be honest, "some guy isn't getting along with his girlfriend" isn't a terribly original starting point anyway, so if you want to start here the writing needs to be brilliant.

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I like the opening three sentences as a hook. It makes me wonder what the problem is in this relationship. Sure, it may not be the most original idea, but simple ideas are best, especially when you are just beginning. It is also a good concept — you are using the dark and silent atmosphere to express mood and enhance the emotion in this scene without having to detail it in words.

The second part develops unsurprisingly into the protagonist's internal yearning. This is reasonable and sensible. It feels like a nice transition from a scene description to an internal monologue, and it's appropriately moody.

The close of the paragraph, though, feels jarringly different. The writing style shifts toward something much more like casual dialogue; suddenly, rather than feeling how this person feels, it is as though someone just started talking to me. That's because you shift from describing a situation that is painful and lonely to just saying "I am lonely." Let the story explain the feeling of loss and loneliness and the lesson that is learned.

And then the part with "After all, it had been the same for more than six months" just shouts "I'm a very young person who has never had a relationship that lasted longer than a decade!" Although it's possible that something happened in your story six months ago, I'd avoid specifying a time frame in your opening paragraph.

Although I don't know how you will conclude the story, I might suggest one more sentence that foreshadows or alludes to the ending.

Here is a suggested rewrite. I changed the part about the spider webs because it seems like the couple is living in squalor, but maybe this is what you wish to convey though.

I was laying in the dark, watching the moonlight trace faint lines on the ceiling. She was right beside me. Barely a hand span separated us, but I felt it as an eternal distance. Closing my eyes, I let my mind's eye slip along her back. I breathed in the smell of her long black hair, and laced my fingers with hers, tasting the sweat on her skin. The memory of our warm nights was so palpable, I opened my eyes and stretched my hand toward her waist. Maybe in the shadows of her sleep, she would forget and wrap her arms around me. I would feel the warmth of her body again. But as my hand touched her hip, her breathing stayed quiet and regular. She did not turn to meet me as she once did, and I knew that I would never close the distance between us.

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Your opening meanders quite a bit yet your last sentence is a great hook (I wanted to find out why it had been six months). Like the other comments point out, you're too visual - you're not directing a movie, nor are you taking photos as events unfold, so stop narrating that way.

Rather than some abstract advice, I tried to rewrite your paragraph (I'm not yet a fiction writer, and this is a first draft):

"Laying in the dark, the outline of her sleeping figure contrasted against the dark expanse of the room. In bed together we are only a few centimetres apart, yet the distance feels much greater. It has been almost six months now. The darkness reveals just a few details – her long black hair flowing over her back and her hand near her shoulder. I imagined reaching out, holding her by her waist, closing the seemingly infinite gap, and sleeping with her in a warm embrace. Yet, reaching out, my touch had no effect at all. I’m lonely, though not alone. How much longer can it go on like this?"

I'm switching between narrating the event and the character's point of view, trying to erase the distinction between myself as narrator and myself as a character to make the situation feel more immediate and intimate. I moved your hook to the third sentence because I'm an impatient reader - I like to know bits about the point along the way as opposed to waiting for a point that might not appear to stay engaged.

Your original paragraph has some issues with spelling (Lying should probably be Laying), how you construct some phrases (I was only few centimeters of of her...), and word choice (...real loneliness was to loss someone I had, rather than no having...). These problems are relatively minor - an editor can help you correct them.

I suggest you focus on your style by dropping the visuals from your descriptions, then go back and add some visuals to clarify the situation or scene. Get an editor and prepare for lots of revisions - you'll become a much better writer.

I'm not sure what books you have read, but I recommend you try reading the classics plus some more modern books. Reading the classics (in English) will help you construct better sentences and expose you to different styles of writing. If you have already read a lot, perhaps it is a good time to re-read some passages you like (in English) to figure out what you like about them and how they're constructed. Good luck!

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The scene does not sound authentic. That a sleeping person is unresponsive is not that uncommon. Details are missing, what makes this situation special.

There are only visual clues. What does the protagonist smell, feel (skin/fingers, not emotions), taste, hear?

You need to show his emotions. What is the frequence of his pulse? Does he shiver? Did she put a screw clamp around his heart?

You could try to use more metaphors/images.

E.g. you started with nice details like the spider webs. But I expected you get back to them, using them to describe the feelings of the protagonist (She caught me in the web of her apartment.)

To describe his isolation you could use something like:

Only a gap of twenty centimeters separated my hand from the warmth of her waist. It could have been a chasm.

or

My hand fondled her waist. Her body responded as warmly as an iceberg.

Show us the loneliness, the isolation, do not describe it.

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+1 for use of other senses. Also, remember that even if you write them into your first draft and find they don't fit, you can take them out later. But you don't know if they fit until you try them. –  Joel Shea Jul 5 '11 at 14:37
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