What is the purpose of the fourth line of a short story?
According to author George Saunders, it’s quite simple. “Give the reader enough of a jolt to go on to line five.”
His new book, Swimming in a Pond in the Rain, is explicitly a course on writing and reading short stories. Implicitly it also serves as a metaphor for how we write our own lives.
In this context, the purpose of any day is, at a minimum, to ensure we make it to the next. Moving from the metaphorical fourth line to the fifth.
But the words or actions that jolt us to that next line matter.
Are they ill-considered, selfish or agenda-laced? Or are they urgent, generous and truthful?
Are people engaged in our story because we are graciously inviting them in or selfishly tricking them to look?
We should be more discerning in both the stories we read and those we write. To consider the jolts we give and the jolts we receive that keep us moving forward. Asking ourselves, why did I just move from the fourth to the fifth line?
I know that I prefer those stories that draw me in with their honesty, depth and passion. But if I’m being honest, I more often consume or better yet am bombarded with ones that are little more than “facile, shallow, rapidly disseminated bursts of information.” To again borrow a phrase from Saunders.
So as we move on throughout our day consuming or creating stories, pause to consider the jolts.