Learning from Bellairs

Consider what we can learn from the first paragraph of the first chapter of John Bellairs’s The Face in the Frost. Here it is:

Several centuries (or so) ago, in a country whose name doesn’t matter, there was a tall, skinny, straggly-bearded old wizard named Prospero, and not the one you are thinking of, either. He lived in a huge, ridiculous, doodad-covered, trash-filled two-story horror of a house that stumbled, staggered, and dribbled right up to the edge of a great shadowy forest of elms and oaks and maples. It was a house whose gutter spouts were worked into the shape of whistling sphinxes and screaming bearded faces; a house whose white wooden porch was decorated with carved bears, monkeys, toads, and fat women in togas holding sheaves of grain; a house whose steep gray-slate roof was capped with a glass-enclosed, twisty-copper-columned observatory. On the artichoke dome of the observatory was a weather vane shaped like a dancing hippopotamus; as the wind changed, it blew through the nostrils of the hippo’s hollow head, making a whiny snarfling sound that fortunately could not be heard unless you were up on the roof fixing slates.

The first sentence includes at least one implied question. If readers know Prospero from Shakespeare, they are likely to feel congratulated for their knowledge and wonder who this other Prospero might be, if it’s not the one they’re thinking of. If readers don’t know Shakespeare, they will wonder both who this Prospero is and who the one they don’t know is as well. In either case, readers begin the story with an implied question, one they may not even be completely conscious of. They are likely to read on, hoping for an answer. There’s also in the very last phrase of the first sentence an effort to connect, without being smarmy, with readers.

The rest of the paragraph describes the house this character lives in, in ways that create a little bit of distance between the narrator and the character. The description of the house also lets readers know a little bit about the genre or at least suggests it. It helps shape expectations. At the least readers expect a story about eccentricity. The Face in the Frostquickly lets readers know it is a fantasy that does not take itself too seriously.

We might try the following similar techniques in our own work:

  • Begin with an implied question. 
  • Begin with a classical allusion and compliment readers who understand it while creating curiosity in readers who do not. 
  • Write a description of a place that matters to a character and let that description characterize the character. 
  • Write a description of a place that matters to a character but let the description create distance between the narrator and the character. 
  • Use an abundance of details and sensory language and unusual images to create interest in anything you are describing.

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