craft review by Anne-Marie Strohman
Last week, we looked at the first chapter of a YA thriller, Sadie by Courtney Summers, to see how priming the reader to ask specific questions can make them turn pages through the opening chapter until they get to the story question, and how those initial questions can make background and information have meaning.
Today, let’s look at a middle grade novel–one very different in style and tone–to see how well framed questions can guide the reader through the first chapter.
Question 1 (plus some hidden questions)
The first chapter of Pay Attention, Carter Jones is titled “The Players” with a definition under it: “Cricket teams, both batting and fielding, may have up to eleven players each . . .” (1).
It presents readers with a wondering question to start, and some information. We learn a little bit about cricket, we presume the chapter will introduce the main characters of the story, and we wonder how the game of cricket will play a role in the story. It’s a little question that readers can keep in the back of their minds, but it isn’t the kind of question that will lead readers into the story. It’s just a chapter title and definition, so it doesn’t need to do more.
The first sentence is a long one, and leads to a big question that engages us with the story right away:
If it hadn’t been the first day of school, and if my mother hadn’t been crying her eyes out the night before, and if the fuel pump on the Jeep had been doing what a fuel pump on a Jeep is supposed to be doing, and if it hadn’t been raining like an Australian tropical thunderstorm–and I’ve been in one, so I know what it’s like–and if the very last quart of one percent milk hadn’t gone sour and clumped up, then probably my mother would never have let the Butler into our house. (1)
First, we get information and context: it’s the first day of school and his mother had been crying the night before. That leads to the first question: why had the narrator’s mother been crying her eyes out? Because it’s the second thing in the list and incorporated into general information, it’s not a question that leaps out at the reader, but it’s hidden there. The list of information goes on: the fuel pump on their Jeep is broken, it’s raining a lot, and the milk has gone bad. In this section there’s another hidden question–one that will be relevant later, but is just a little spark for now: when was he in an Australian tropical thunderstorm? It’s similar to the question about the mother. On a first read, you might not notice these questions because they’re presented as information that provides context for the main question: WHY IS THERE A BUTLER AT HIS HOUSE?
This very long first sentence mimics the mayhem we find when the narrator describes the situation more fully. It’s got a bunch of introductory clauses piled up, which amps up anticipation for the end of the sentence. And the surprise at the end of the sentence works because a BUTLER is so incongruous with cars that don’t work and sour milk.
A point of return
Like Sadie (see the last week’s post), Pay Attention, Carter Jones begins by centering on a character. In Sadie, it’s the unnamed dead girl. Here, it’s the butler. Carter opens the door to the butler, then closes it to get his mom. He returns to the door without his mom, then goes to his room. Then he answers the door when the butler returns with milk, and closes the door to deliver the milk to the kitchen. Finally, the mom heads to the door.
In this case, the butler is a central figure in the story, while the dead girl in Sadie turns out not to be the main driver of the story at all.
By introducing the butler in the first sentence, Schmidt lodges the central question of the chapter in the reader’s mind and returns to it regularly. We find out more information about Carter’s family, and a little bit more information about the butler–he wears a funeral suit and a bowler, he speaks formally, and he knows who Carter is and calls him “Young Master Jones.”
Schmidt delays the answer to the question why is there a butler on the doorstep? until the second chapter. He has used the first chapter to build up the question and make readers really want to know the answer.
In the second chapter, we find out why the butler is there, and then Schmidt introduces another question: is the butler a safe person? Carter introduces this doubt at the beginning of a new section:
Can I just say, I wasn’t so sure about this. I mean, he said he was a gentleman’s gentleman–which, obviously, is a dumb way to say “butler”–but he could have been some kind of missionary in disguise. Or someone selling satellite-disk umbrellas. Or someone casing out our place for a burglary. Or a serial killer. Anything. (11)
The questions, Is the butler who he says he is? And is he safe? launch us into the next part of the story.
The Story Question
The Story Question in Pay Attention, Carter Jones is more subtle than in Sadie. In the first chapter, the butler has ordered Carter to go pack his backpack and attend to his mother, and Carter responds, “‘Are you trying to convert me or something?’” The butler says yes. Then in Chapter 2, when the butler drops off all four kids at their classrooms (their mom is in the car too), the butler tells each child in turn, “‘make good decisions and remember who you are’” (13). Carter responds, “‘You think I’m going to forget who I am?’” The butler replies, “‘You are entering middle school now. . . . I think it quite likely’” (14).
These two brief exchanges get at the main story questions: How will Carter change because of the butler’s influence? Will Carter remember who he is?
My co-editor Kristi Wright described this book to me as a modern male Mary Poppins, and she’s right. The butler magically appears, and his very presence and strong personality change the way the family members approach the world. There is change for Carter, and it requires him to move forward and to look back at the events that have made him who he is.
The magic of Gary D. Schmidt is that he can package that rather serious story into a hilariously voicey one that brings as many belly laughs as it does tears.
Now it’s YOUR turn
Take a look at your main chapter.
- What one question or character–like the butler–can you return to again and again? Can that return also be to the same physical space in the setting?
- What events and descriptions can amplify the question, making readers want to know the answer even more?
- Try introducing a few hidden questions, stuck into introductory clauses or little throwaway moments.
Where do you introduce the main story question? Do you have a bold external question, like Sadie? or a more subtle character question, like Pay Attention, Carter Jones? Make sure the question is clear and is introduced in the first or second chapter.
Here are more posts on openings!
Anne-Marie Strohman (co-editor) writes picture books, middle grade novels, and young adult short stories and novels. She is trained as a teacher, an editor, and a scholar, specializing in Renaissance Literature. She holds an MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults from Vermont College of Fine Arts and is an active member of SCBWI. Find her at amstrohman.com and on Twitter @amstrwriter.