Foggy first page

On March 31, 2011, Jill wrote, How confused do you think readers are willing to be in the very beginning of a story? Most of the time the reason I quit on a book is because I can only handle so much confusion on the first page. I like to be ambiguous in my stories to keep readers interested but I am afraid to do that at the beginning. Any thoughts?

Tastes differ. I’m with you, though. I’m daunted if I have to contend with too much on the first page. I’ll probably hang in a while unless the grammar is bad. If it is, I’m out. And if the confusion doesn’t clear up by the second chapter, I’m done – unless something in the incomprehensibility has charmed me.

Recently I began The Good Son by Craig Nova, definitely a serious novel for adults. I don’t read much literary fiction and the jacket copy got me worried that I’d be in over my head. But the beginning of the book was so welcoming that I jumped right in. Here’s the first sentence: My father is a coarse, charming man, a lawyer, and a good one, and when I was flying over the desert and the German pursuit pilot began pouring round after round into my plane (a P-40), I was thinking of how I learned to drive, and how it affected my father.

What an achievement this sentence is! Three topics are introduced and I want to know about all of them: the father, the war, and the driving. I’m not far into the book, but the learning-to-drive incident does not disappoint.

Some readers are perfectly content not to understand immediately. Some like the challenge and don’t want anything straightforward. When such readers are also writers, they’re likely to write prose of the sort they like to read.

This is fine. Fortunately, nothing is for everybody. It’s a losing proposition to try to write a book that no one will fail to love. You’re doomed to frustration.

However, some books succeed with millions of readers, and some of these are great books, Pride and Prejudice, for example. Some bestsellers may not be beautifully written or the characters well developed, but the theme is universal or the subject fascinating.

If events are very exciting at the beginning of a story, I’ll probably stick around. For instance, I’d keep reading beyond this: Marisette gizoxed down the previo at zyonga speed. If the ashymi didn’t boosheg, she’d find herself and her precious kizage in the boiling svik and all would be owped.

I’d understand that Marisette was in trouble and I’d want to know what the precious kizage and the hot svik were and why I should care. But if the crazy words went on much longer without an explanation in standard English, I’d give up.

Jill, I’m not sure what you mean by ambiguous in your question. If you mean you like to misdirect your reader for a purpose, I’m all for it. Suppose a drapery tie is the murder weapon in a mystery and you’re describing the living room where the drapery tie stays when it’s not strangling anyone. The victim, a high school student named Hope, is only a missing person at this point, but she’s beginning to be presumed dead. Detective Rosalie Swift has been talking to Hope’s teachers, and right now she’s in the living room of Algebra teacher Max Kilcannon, who will turn out to be the murderer. It’s the detective’s curse, Rosalie thought, to look for murder weapons everywhere. She scanned the room, a fuddy-duddy place, she thought – over-stuffed chairs, the couch with cloth protectors at the ends of the arms, side tables in dark wood, a coffee-table book on the coffee table, still lifes of flowers hanging on the walls in ornate frames, heavy green drapes tied back with cream-colored, ties, and a gas fireplace. Why a poker for a gas fire? How pretentious! The poker could be the weapon, except that a poker appeared in so many detective stories that no self-respecting murderer would use one. The coffee-table book, too, could bludgeon someone to death. The good teacher would also have his pick of cushions to suffocate poor Hope with. Or he could just leave her alone in here for a few hours and she’d die of boredom.

There. The drapery ties are shown, but they’re buried in the rest of the description. When the murder weapon is revealed, the reader can page back to this spot and find it.

In The Two Princesses of Bamarre I used specters more than once to misdirect the reader, and what fun that was!

But in Two Princesses and in the example above, the writing is clear, nothing ambiguous about it. Clarity is a sine qua non (an essential condition) of good storytelling. We don’t want to throw mud in the reader’s eyes. If you’re worried about catching the reader’s interest from the outset, go with action. Excellent beginnings can open many ways, but action is the most direct, the glucose of storytelling.

Here are some misdirecting prompts:

∙    Hope is in Jim Kilcannon’s living room. Her parents have hired him to tutor her to get her grade up. In this version he may or may not be the murderer; you, the author, haven’t decided yet. Write a scene in which you make Hope and the reader alternately creeped out and reassured by Kilcannon .

∙    On her way home from her first tutoring session, Hope passes a psychic’s shop and goes in. Being behind in Algebra isn’t her only problem. Write the scene with the psychic and mislead the reader about the source of Hope’s danger.

∙    Hope is now a baronet’s daughter in the Kingdom of Kestor. She’s been warned that her life is at risk, and has been invited to tea at the palace of the king’s youngest brother. She has reason to suspect that one of the other guests intends to kill her. Write the tea and make the reader suspect several guests.

Have fun and save what you write!

  1. I like being intrigued, even tricked- it pulls me further into the story. But confused? It's hard to settle into a story if I can't find my place in it.

  2. I like being confused, being thrown right in and expected to figure everything out. I just read along until I'm up-to-date. Besides, secrets are fun to find out.

  3. From Jill on my website: For the blog :)-

    Thank you for answering this question, because I have always been so confused by this!
    On inkpop (thank you for suggesting it by the way!) there is this story on it that I love that is called Extraordinary. We know that Hunter did something to the character that pretty much ruined her life, but we have no idea what and neither does Hunter (for whatever reason). This kind of confusion, where there is a secret waiting to be revealed, I really like.
    But there are books like The Book Thief, I couldn't read at first because I was so confused about what was going on. Finally I persevered and loved it! I guess it just really depends…

  4. I love a mystery at the beginning of a book–and I love holding back crucial information from my readers!–but I prefer it to be ONE mystery in an otherwise clear story. If everything is a mystery or confusing, then I don't have anything to hold onto in the story.

    I agree with Jill about The Book Thief–it was pretty baffling at first, and I only kept reading because it had been highly recommended. I think it's the kind of opening that normally doesn't work for me. Whereas, if it had all been clear EXCEPT we know the girl has a special book and we have to keep reading to find out what it is and where she got it…that I'd love.

  5. I agree that it's fun to get secret information a little bit at a time and that I will give up on a story if I get too confused. I have read many mysteries and am always fascinated by how the author ties everything together- even in seeming simple children's mysteries which are usually what I'm reading. How does one come up with all the details that lead to solving the mystery?

  6. Mystery-writing, sadly, is still mysterious to me. It's as if the author must have a chart detailing the positions at any given time of every person and thing ever mentioned in the entire book! I keep trying to finish mysteries, but I fear I don't have the right kind of mind at this time.

  7. I love leads that intrigue or confuse, but I agree with Sarah and Marveloustales on the difference between mystery and confusion. One is intended, and the other is just frustrating.

    @Rina: if you're having trouble realizing all the intricacies of mystery-writing in your first draft, I wouldn't worry about it. I tend to find that a lot of complexity in writing comes with revision, so maybe you could try just writing to have a story first, and then going back and layering on clues and red herrings later?

    Ellen Raskin went through this process when she wrote The Westing Game, which is a phenomenal mystery. They've published some of her early drafts and notes online, and you may find them hugely encouraging:

  8. @ Sophie
    I love The Westing Game! That's really cool that they did that with Ellen Raskin's earlier drafts, I'll have to check out that link. I am just in awe about how she could weave such a complex and intriguing plot-I could never have done that.

    I am perfectly able to muddle through confusion to read a good story, but the one thing I can't stand is when some questions you have are never answered. That just kills me inside.

    Thanks for the post, Ms. Levine. 🙂

  9. A good reminder about people's different tastes! I often get a bit discouraged when not everyone I hand my stuff to 'gets' it. I have to keep reminding myself that not everyone likes the same things X3
    And the timing on this post was awesome, I was getting worried about one of my beginning and how it seemed to jump and flirt with bits of information. I love not exactly knowing what's going on until later in a book, gives me something to look forward to. :3

  10. From Charlotte: comment for the blog–

    @Grace– I totally agree with you on hating when the information is never given up. I just finished The Chosen One by Carol Lynch Williams, and I liked it until the end came all too abruptly, and none of the loose ends were tied off at all! I was really disappointed. Suddenly I know what my friend meant when she said that the draft of my story didn't have a proper ending! I'm actually glad that happened, so now I can keep it in mind when I do my own writing!

  11. This is a great post about something that can really be a challenge. Thanks for the useful suggestions!

    I have a question suggestion for a future blog post: I am a very introverted person. But I've read in a lot of places that self-promotion is just as much a part of being a successful author as good writing is. Do you agree with that perspective? Is there any hope for someone like me that would rather not be in front of people?

  12. Hi!
    This is an interesting post!
    I am writing this one story and it's kind of mysterious in a way- a lot of things are unanswered. The thing is, I don't even know some of the answers! Is that okay?

  13. Welliewalks – I have always said that generally, in the beginning, I only find out things at the same time as my characters do. This is probably one of the reasons I have trouble with writing mysteries. 🙂
    Sometimes a story works that way; I go on writing it and things fall into place. A lot of time, though, it doesn't, and that's another beginning with no end to go into my Beginnings folder.

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