Let's talk about penises.
(Everyone awake? Okay then.)
Doing a completely unscientific search of the blogs and twitterers I follow, I note that Getting the Reader's Attention is a top priority. If you don't get the reader's interest early, they are going to put the book down and never look at you again.
I wanted to hop on this Attention Getting bandwagon and talk about how to capture your reader's attention today, and as I was reading The Hakawati by Rabih Alameddine the word 'penis' was what captured my attention.
At first I thought this was because I was immature. But it turns out, upon closer inspection, that the reason this word made me wake up and pay attention was because it served a few different purposes - all of which are key to getting a person's attention.
Here is the passage - on the first page - in The Hakawati that caught me:
[It opens with the story of an emir who longs for a son, and he's talking to his vizier - bold is mine]
"Each of my twelve girls is more beautiful than the other. They have mild-white skin as smooth as the finist silk from China. The glistening pearls from the Arabian Gulf pale next to their eyes. The luster of their hair outshines the black dyes from the land of Sind. The oldest has seventeen poets singing her praises. My daughters have given me much pleasure, much to be proud of. Yet I yearn to see an offspring with a little penis running around my courtyard...."
Why did that catch me?
1. It doesn't fit the tone. The tone of the story has been set - this is a fairy tale time and place. It's reminiscent of 1001 Nights. Throw in the word 'penis,' which is a matter-of-fact word, in a world that's more in tune with the romance-genre language of 'manhood' or 'member' and you've made the reader wake up. Sometimes it's a game to make the reader think: what doesn't fit? something's off? which one of these doesn't match?
2. It is reductive in a buildup situation. This is a little trickier to explain. If you look at the sentences preceding the introduction of the penis, it's a building sequence: each daughter is more glorious than the last, each trait more impressive, more beautiful, more capable, more more more! And then you get penis. That seems to be all the father hopes for in his next child. It's made even more reductive by the word 'little' right before it. So immediately the reader starts questioning: Why is this so important after all? And the reader will read on to find out if there is something more...or if maybe the emir is just kind of off.
3. Sex. I don't think I have to explain this one.
4. It brings in a conflict. Gender conflicts are the oldest in the book - who has rights? Who is in charge? Here is a ruler who apparently loves his daughters (though all he looks at are their looks), but who can't leave his kingdom to any of them, no matter how competent, because they don't have the genitalia designated as the ruling genitalia.
When you want to grab attention in your writing, it's important to look at things like this. If a section isn't keeping your readers it could be because there is no change of tone or direction to emphasize the important bits or add conflict.
(Shakespeare knew this pretty well - whenever he wants to call attention to something there are breaks in the iambic pentameter...and he makes a sex joke.)
Sometimes the answer might be as simple as one word.