One of the false lessons of writing is that ‘you should start as close to the action as possible’. Like a lot of the false lessons, that’s sorta true. It’s certainly better than starting too far from the action, and taking a few pages to get to the point.
But, especially in speculative ﬁction, you also have to give the reader time to attune to what you’re doing in your story, and empathise with the main character.
For example, see the opening of Nebula-winning, many-things-nominated “Open House on Haunted Hill” by John Wiswell, from Diabolical Plots:
133 Poisonwood Avenue would be stronger if it was a killer house. There is an estate at 35 Silver Street that annihilated a family back in the 1800s and its roof has never sprung a leak since. In 2007 it still had the power to trap a bickering couple in an endless hedge maze that was physically only three hundred square feet. 35 Silver Street is a show-off.
133 Poisonwood only ever had one person ever die under its roof. Back in 1989, Dorottya Blasko had refused hospice, and spent two and a half months enjoying the sound of the wind on 133 Poisonwood’s shingles. 133 Poisonwood played its heart out for her every day.
There’s a choice here: we could have started closer to the action - at the open house that starts the plot of the story. But because it’s such an unusual perspective, Wiswell takes his time here.
And these paragraphs do a heck of a magic trick. They make us empathise with a haunted house, by capturing no less than three very human emotions: aspiration (“would be stronger if it was a killer house”), annoyance (“35 Silver Street is a show off” - and nobody likes a show off), and most of all, compassion (“133 Poisonwood played its heart out for her every day”).
That last is most important because it establishes that, despite the title, 133 Poisonwood is the character that we want to cheer for, and also establishes the tone of the story itself. This is not a scary haunted house but the opposite, which those three emotions above build into: it just wants to be loved.
Read the story, or listen to it on Levar Burton Reads.
(Full disclosure: As of time of writing, I’m a First Reader at Diabolical Plots.)