"For Esme - with Love and Squalor" is a short story (about 8000 words) about a World War II soldier who meets a thirteen year old girl, and her brother, at a tea room in England. After a lengthy conversation encompassing a myriad of topics, the narrator fulfills his promise to the girl and writes a story for her. What the reader gets is an account of the last days of the soldier's experience in Germany after the end of the war.
My goal for when I found this story was to analyze how an author hooks and maintains a reader's interest within the first few paragraphs. In my own writing, I had already convinced myself that my story was worth my time. Once I put pen to paper, though, and read what I had written, even I wasn't sold on my story. Something was missing. What I needed was something to latch onto and invest myself in. In researching some questions I had about point-of-view in writing, I stumbled upon an article by Steve Almond here. The heart of the matter is, as Steve said, "you want readers to care about your characters and understand how they experience the world." So my issue had become one of creating a character that I actually cared for and wanted to know more about.
In the first two paragraphs of "For Esme," I learn enough about the character to place myself in his situation. He is:
1) personable enough to be invited to a wedding.
2) travelled, because the wedding is in another country (therefore he knows people outside of America, Salinger is, afterall American).
3) witty because he explains his desire to "edify" the groom with what may be some uneasy stories.
4) a veteran of WWII.
5) intelligent because of his assignment in the war.
6) a thinker and loner because of his habits during leave.
This is an example of excellent characterization with minimal prose. Salinger does a wonderful job of providing details about his narrator through not only directly informing us, but providing necessary inferential evidence. Within the first three paragraphs, Salinger frames his story as a retelling of his experiences with the bride whose wedding he is invited to, and sparks interest in the reader by raising certain questions: How does this man know this woman? How do his experiences in the war relate?
As a result, Salinger weaves a engrossing story that continually begs the reader to ask more questions. It is not overwhelming because it is kept tightly focused on the two main characters and that is it. Therefore, when we get to the second half of the story, the "squalor" that he wrote about for Esme, we already know the character deeply enough to truly invest ourselves in him and care for him. The experience is visceral.
The take away?
In editing my writing, I look for a hook. I want to invest myself in the character and feel a connection. Without that, the story is flaccid. If I am going to trudge through a story that doesn't have a character I care for, then why do it at all? Salinger masterfully constructs a introduction to the story that not only serves to ground the reader with basic setting information, but essential characterization that makes the reader invest themselves. THAT is the take away. When you are crafting a story, you need to ask yourself whether you believe your character. A simple exercise that I found helpful was to create a bio sheet for that person. What do they do? What do they like? Fears? Talents? So forth... If you know your character as well as yourself, then you can feel for them, and that shows in your writing.