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.)