At Clarion, the great short story writer Howard Waldrop, he of “Night of the Cooters” and “Fin de Cyclé,” once talked to us about the crucial difference in reader response between “Huh?” and “What?!?” It took us a while, as it sometimes does with Howard, to sort out what he meant. He was distinguishing between two kinds of mystery that a writer can create.
“Huh?” is a good thing. The reader comes to something a little odd, something that raises a question or tickles their interest, and they want to know more. “Huh?” is a forward impulse, and a pleasant one. “What?!?”, on the other hand, is a bad thing. The writer has given too little information or too much or the wrong kind. The reader can’t sort out WTF is going on. “What?!?” is the expression of confusion that stops the reader and throws them out of the story.
I was thinking about the reader’s forward impulse yesterday in the used book shop we frequent. Books new and used hard to come by in the UAE and my son has read through most of his school library. I’ve been looking for fantasy in the adult section of the store that he might get into. What often stops him there is the first page–not necessarily because it is full of “What?!?”, but because there is no “Huh?” Successful kids’ books are usually really good at openings, because kids won’t read through four pages on the history of the royal house of Glomph to reach something interesting. A good opening isn’t necessarily one where something exciting happens–I’ll go out on a limb and say it rarely is. A good opening doesn’t necessarily rest on the first sentence or first paragraph either, but because of space limitations I’m going to focus only on those.
Pulling books off the shelf more or less at random (not too many books on our shelves here, and most of them are kids’ fiction), here’s part of the first paragraph of Megan Whalen Turner’s Newbery Honor winner, The Thief, which as I remember my son sucked down in a single sitting.
I didn’t know how long I had been in the king’s prison. The days were all the same, except that as each day passed, I was dirtier than before… I reviewed over and over the plans that had seemed so straightforward before I arrived in jail, and I swore to myself and every god I knew that if I got out alive, I would never never never take any risks that were so abysmally stupid again.
In clean, uncomplicated prose, Turner has not only given us a character with a problem–he’s been incarcerated for weeks or years–but has also hinted pretty strongly that it was part of a risky plan. The narrator had intended to land in prison. There’s very little more description of the prison cell in this paragraph than I’ve given–a bit about the light–and nothing more about the king or the city or the jailers or the rats or the food, none of which I care about at this point in the story. I do want to know what the thief was sentenced for, my first big question upon reading it, the second being why he wanted to go to jail. The questions are what make me want to read on. They are the “Huh?”
Here’s the opening to Diana Wynne Jones’ Howl’s Moving Castle. The chapter is titled “In Which Sophie Talks To Hats,” which already raises questions in the reader’s mind.
In the land of Ingary, where such things as seven-league boots and cloaks of invisibility really exist, it is quite a misfortune to be born the eldest of three. Everyone knows you are the one who will fail first, and worst, if the three of you set out to seek your fortunes.
Sophie Hatter was the eldest of three sisters. She was not even the child of a poor woodcutter, which might have given her some chance of success! Her parents… kept a ladies’ hat shop in the prosperous town of Market Chipping.
These sentences tell us the story will be about a girl who has the deck stacked against her and will have to struggle to find her fortune–genre standards–but also that, in this world, the expectations of genre are some of the very things Sophie will have to battle. It raises not just the standard question of “How will she do it?” but also, how will genre expectations be stood on their head (or will they)? Another “huh?” here has to do with the nature of objects–clothes, especially–in this world. Seven-league boot are cloaks of invisibility are staples of the set of genre expectations that have been invoked. Sophie’s life, however, is with ladies’ hats–no magic and no possibilities there…. the chapter title, though, makes us ask: or are there?
Less well known is Michael Molloy’s The Witch Trade. This book actually does begin with a page and a half of more or less straight description of a shop and a town and the people who live in the town. The first sentence, however, makes you read all the description that follows very carefully:
Abby Clover lived with her friend Aunt Lucy and Uncle Ben and a friend called Spike in a small seaside town called Speller, which Abby had never been able to find on a map of England.
The passage that follows doesn’t answer the big question raised here. It does eventually tell you that Abby lives with her aunt and uncle because her parents disappeared. The second to last sentence in the opening section gives you two more mysteries:
Apart from Spike, who was a sea foundling, there were no other children living in Speller.
What’s a sea foundling? A kid who floated in on the tide? What happened to the other children? I’m not at all confused, but I’m very curious.
Again, in none of these story openings does anything actually happen. All of them do four things: tell us where we are physically, tell us who the protagonist is, tell us the protagonist’s situation, and raise questions about one of the previous three. These openings all give the reader a “Huh?”, but provide enough solid ground to forestall a “What?!” To translate what Howard was telling us that day, you want the reader to have questions and to look forward eagerly to learning the answers. But the reader has to know enough about the story for the questions to be engrossing rather than alienating. Actually, there’s a fifth thing: none of these openings gives us a lot of information, particularly information that doesn’t connect to the other four. Settings are “in the king’s prison,” a town not on any map of England, the land of Ingary where seven-league boots are real. We aren’t told what characters look like.
I don’t mean to suggest that there is only one successful way to write the first few lines of a story. Only that, as I know from much first-hand experience, that writers have a fine line to walk between giving too much information and not giving enough, and it is also far too easy–to stretch the ambulatory metaphor beyond the bounds of physical possibility–to do both at once.