Mystery vs. Confusion
By Sarah Stone
In writing fiction, we’re always looking for ways to manage the release and restraint of information, introducing our characters and situations while avoiding the dreaded exposition junk pile at the beginning (many of us do have a great fondness for exposition junk piles when they’re intriguingly full of bright objects). When we’re writing the first draft of a story or novel, the process can feel like an unsettling dream: we’re attending a party in the dark. Is it a funeral? A wedding? The birthday party of an old friend or enemy? What are we doing and why? We fumble around trying to figure out who else is in the room as we trip over the furniture and bump into walls.
When we finally find the light switches, we feel such joy in discovering who the characters are and what they’re up to that we may be tempted to try to recreate for our readers this sense of being utterly lost, followed by the delight of figuring out what’s happening.
We may also fear that we’ll lose our readers’ fragile attention if we don’t create enough of a sense of mystery. Sometimes we fear this so much that we make every element of a beginning mysterious, so that readers have no idea who the characters are, what’s happening, what matters, or what they should be focusing on.
In revision, we have to decide which of our mysteries are useful and which are needlessly confusing for our readers. It’s almost always more interesting for readers to have enough information about the characters and situation that they’re wondering how the situation will turn out, rather than trying to puzzle out exactly what’s happening. The sense of coming into the light after flailing in the dark is much more of a pleasure when we’re creating our own fictional dreams than when we’re inhabiting someone else’s.
In Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower, Lauren Oya Olamina, a dangerously empathic fifteen-year-old, becomes the informal leader of a group traveling across post-apocalyptic territory. The novel works in both literary and genre terms, combining the pleasures of fascinating characters in an urgent situation with an investigation of meaning. Butler also has the challenge of creating a new, believable society while letting the reader know what’s already happened to the characters and what particular risks they now face.
She manages a large cast of characters, many of whom the book must lose along the way, and shows their movement across the landscape. This ambitious novel needs an opening that serves as an entrance point into a large, richly peopled, and complex world.
The book begins with a creed:
All that you touch
All that you Change
The only lasting truth
Next comes an invented attribution that underlines the incantatory, prophetic quality of the beginning, “Earthseed: the Books of the Living,” and then a date, “Saturday, July 20, 2024,” which in 1993, when the book was published, was the far-off future, though some of Butler’s dystopic inventions now seem all too prescient.
Butler’s beginning establishes religion as a primary subject matter in the book, though it’s not any religion we know. The capitalization of “Change” underlines the statement of the final line, that God is Change. The writing is philosophical but simple enough that when we discover we’re in the diary of a teenage girl, we’re likely to accept it and also to appreciate the abstract-but-specific information in the opening paragraph:
I had my recurring dream last night. I guess I should have expected it. It comes to me when I struggle—when I twist on my own personal hook and try to pretend that nothing unusual is happening. It comes to me when I try to be my father’s daughter.
Today is our birthday—my fifteenth and my father’s fifty-fifth. Tomorrow, I’ll try to please him—him and the community and God. So last night, I dreamed a reminder that it’s all a lie. I think I need to write about the dream because this particular lie bothers me so much.
The novel is filled with dramatic, violent action and could well have started in the middle of a scene of visceral dread or terror, fulfilling the command to start when the action is already taking place. This opening, though, starts with Lauren at a choice point. She wants to please her father and community, but her dreams push her to reveal the lie. Readers don’t know what the lie is, so there’s the opening mystery. Readers do know, however, that she trusts her dream, and that there may be some kind of rupture coming, in which her role in her family and community is at risk.
There’s more narrative tension in her human, understandable predicament than there would be in watching unknown characters run through dystopic streets at risk of their lives. In Parable of the Sower, by the time we get to the dystopic streets, we’ll know the characters well enough to care what happens to them. The details of the world then become meaningful rather than confusing because Butler has already firmly established the emotional reality and stakes of the book.
Even if we’re writing a more domestic or realist novel, in which the world has not altered beyond all recognition, no one is being murdered, and the structures of society still appear to be more or less continuing, we still have the challenge of letting readers know enough about what’s happening that they become curious to know more. At the same time, we want to refrain from pouring out information before it’s wanted or needed.
Elena Ferrante’s Days of Abandonment, a domestic drama of the end of a marriage and the emotional aftermath, begins with a very clear picture of the situation:
One April afternoon, right after lunch, my husband announced that he wanted to leave me. He did it while we were clearing the table; the children were quarreling as usual in the next room, the dog was dreaming, growling beside the radiator. He told me that he was confused, that he was having terrible moments of weariness, of dissatisfaction, perhaps of cowardice. He talked for a long time about our fifteen years of marriage, about the children, and admitted that he had nothing to reproach us with, neither them nor me. He was composed, as always, apart from an extravagant gesture of his right hand when he explained to me, with a childish frown, that soft voices, a sort of whispering, were urging him elsewhere. Then he assumed the blame for everything that was happening and closed the front door carefully behind him, leaving me turned to stone beside the sink.
Ferrante might have given the direct dialogue between them and described the room and characters’ actions in detail, but she’s chosen to compress all of this into vivid summary, filtering everything through the consciousness of the narrator. We have no idea whether the narrator was able to say anything at all to her husband or what it was. But we do know the season and time, that this is a domestic story, and that the couple have children who will be caught up in events as they unfold. The uneasy detail of the dreaming dog, “growling beside the radiator,” also grounds the story in a sensory reality, one in which the animal self may pose an unexpected danger or be endangered. Without plunging us so far inside the character that we have no sense of a world outside her emotions, Ferrante still makes a promise of rich interiority. The narrator’s perceptions and her voice will almost certainly be central, and, at the same time, there will be discernible events and actions.
There are two mysteries in this opening. The first is the mystery of the past: what has gone wrong between them? Why is his leaving such a surprise? Ferrante hasn’t fallen into the common trap of starting with a long stretch in the family’s domestic life before the change, a chapter or six in which nothing happens except for the depiction of an ordinary life. Any necessary information about their past life can show up as backstory details at the moment when the story needs to supply them.
After this, there’s the mystery of what the narrator will do next. Now is the moment she’s going to reveal herself—who has she been and who will she become? What will she have to do, for her children and herself, and what relation will she have, or try to have, with the husband leaving her, so suddenly, after fifteen years?
Narrative urgency, whether in daily life or grand catastrophe, often comes from specific tasks that everyone is trying to carry out—the practicalities of trying to figure out how to save a self-destructive teenager, the desire to unravel the hidden history that affects the dynamics of an entire family, or the need to learn new ways to survive in a world where everything you ever counted on has been destroyed.
In Parable of the Sower and Days of Abandonment, there’s enough happening in the beginnings that readers want to know about the characters and to inhabit them. The characters’ survival may affect the larger world, or the ways in which they come through emotional or physical traumas may be a revelation of what’s possible. Both books provide an education about a variety of ways humans behave under extreme stress. The stories matter in a larger sense, beyond the individual lives they depict. The amount of information revealed in the beginnings rescues readers from being lost in the dark, giving instead that hopeful moment of the blue half-light just before dawn, when anything is possible, when no one is irretrievably altered by what they’ve had to live through and the acts they’ve witnessed or committed along the way.
SARAH STONE’s new novel Hungry Ghost Theater will be published on October 10 by WTAW Press. Her previous novel, The True Sources of the Nile, was a BookSense 76 selection, has been translated into German and Dutch, and was included in Geoff Wisner’s A Basket of Leaves: 99 Books That Capture the Spirit of Africa. She’s the coauthor, with her spouse and writing partner Ron Nyren, of the textbook Deepening Fiction: A Practical Guide for Intermediate and Advanced Writer. Her stories, essays, and reviews have appeared in Ploughshares; StoryQuarterly; the San Francisco Chronicle; The Believer; The Millions; The Writer’s Chronicle; Dedicated to the People of Darfur: Writings on Fear, Risk, and Hope; and A Kite in the Wind: Fiction Writers on Their Craft, among other places. She’s written for and taught on Korean television, reported on human rights in Burundi, and looked after orphan chimpanzees at the Jane Goodall Institute. She teaches creative writing for the Warren Wilson MFA Program for Writers and Stanford Continuing Studies. Visit her online at www.sarahstoneauthor.com.