In order to get something published, you have to first get noticed, whether by an editor of a magazine, or an agent, or an editor at an academic publisher (these publishers still prefer direct submissions from authors). So when you write a story, you have to catch the attention of the reader—usually, a reader who has already looked at a hundred other submissions that day. This is a process of social evolution.
And it is a process of accelerating social evolution—an arms race of social evolution. As time goes on there are fewer publishers of literary or academic works, and more authors. This means that authors have to keep going to ever greater lengths to get noticed.
To a certain extent, this is good. Take a short story, for example. It has to have an interesting beginning so that the reader, who has many other demands upon his or her time, knows whether to keep reading. It is simple courtesy on the part of the author to have an interesting start to the story. It is truth in advertising: if the story has an interesting middle, it should be visible at the beginning. In chemistry, one would call it activation energy: you have to put a little more energy into the reaction to get it started, and then it will go to completion with its own energy. The publishing arms race is driving poorly-written stories—at least stories with poorly written beginnings—to extinction. But the expectations for what has to happen in the first paragraph are getting excessive, as I here describe.
Unfortunately, one of the unsuccessful approaches to writing a story, which is falling by the wayside, is to begin at the beginning. I recently pulled out of my files a story that I consider one of my better ones. It begins with an interesting scene, in which a food chemist tastes a totally unexpected new kind of honey, and decides to track it to its source. But the beginning does not give any idea of what the story is going to eventually be about (the discovery of a tribe of Homo heidelbergensis people in Madagascar). I realized I had to change this, and start in the middle, where the main male character, the origin of the point of view (which insiders call POV), sees the pre-human woman with whom he develops a complicated and intense relationship. He is in the archaic-human tribe, and thinks back over the events that brought him there. In this way, I offer the reader a glimpse of what they can expect if they read my story. And I have to deliver on the promise in due time.
(As an evolution educator and writer, I consider fiction to be an excellent way of exploring not only the facts of human evolution but questions about what it means to be human—questions that we will never be able to test through direct scientific investigation.)
Getting to know a story is like getting to know a person. It is a relationship. And the most intense relationships, with people or with stories, are the intimate ones. Let us consider the trajectory of a relationship that becomes intimate. How does it develop?
The way such a relationship cannot successfully develop is to begin with the setting—to describe a house, or a neighborhood, or even (despite my botanical inclinations) a forest. In this sense, a story is like a person: if you meet someone interesting, it is not because you saw the person’s house first (unless it is unusual and part of the plot). And the relationship must begin because there is something appealing, to you, about the person. The world is so full of people that you cannot start making new relationships at random. In the case of a potentially intimate relationship, there has to be something romantically enchanting about the person. A good story, therefore, often begins with the appealing person doing something interesting that reveals something beautiful—bodily, or mental, or both. In the case of my story, the main male character looks into the face of a woman who is beautiful but in a way very different from what our species may think. Is her look pity, or is it love?
But as a writer without an impressive list of fiction publications—four of them, all in magazines cheaply published and now extinct—I feel pressured to start with something more compelling. I feel that I have to begin, at least a little bit, with sex. That’s the only thing, it seems, that can make my story stand out among the ten dozen others submitted to the science fiction website that day. The only question is how much sex. My story does, in fact, have a sex scene, though not a graphic one; after all, from the head on down, Homo heidelbergensis was pretty much like us. The other way to start a story these days is with a violent conflict in which the hero or heroine is in the midst of mortal combat—or a chase scene, only my story has no such element in it.
But I refused to begin with the sex scene. Instead, I merely added a little sex—not gratuitous sex, but relevant to the story—to the scene in which the man looks into the woman’s face. He notices her breasts and her strong shoulders. And she caresses him, to help heal his injury. (Stories should not have gratuitous sex or violence because there is no room for any gratuitous anything in a story.)
Getting to know a story is like getting to know a person, as I said. There has to be something appealing to capture attention. But the marketing of fiction by means of sex is unethical for the same reason that it is unethical in the start of a relationship. Try to imagine a society in which the very first step in forming a relationship is for the potential partners see one another naked before even meeting. However common this might be, it is not a good way to start a meaningful relationship, but only as a prelude to a sexual encounter. Open sex is the way to begin porn, not a short story. There are specialized publishers for porn. I do not believe that all short stories will go this far, though, of course, I could be wrong.
So I am going to submit my story with a beginning that has the slight hint of sex but not the full thing. I want my readers to be rewarded with something better in the middle and at the end than they experienced in the beginning. But we’ll see how it goes. My reasonable approach might simply get my story eliminated from consideration.