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. …