When I was a younger writer new to workshops and first discovering the kind of stories I wanted to write, a well-intentioned peer advised me that if my stories were going to contain magic, I needed to let my readers know right away. If a story is magical, it needs to be known by the first paragraph (or, at least the first page). Otherwise, you risk alienating your readers by making them feel duped. And this makes sense. Reading is not a one-sided activity, and most readers start a story with their expectations shaped by real-world experiences. If you don’t offer a place for the reader to ground themselves, they will make their own assumptions, and by the time you get to the magic, a reader might be pulled out of a story if their sense of the already-established world doesn’t align with the events presented.
But what if the story couldn’t begin with magic? What if part of the story was about the discovery of something new and strange that neither the main character nor the reader consciously knew was going to be there? Can the narrator introduce a fantastical world without stating right away where they’re going?
The first paragraph of my favorite novel, The Weirdness by Jeremy P. Bushnell, does not have a hint of magic in it. It’s only just a little weird, and reads like the set-up to a joke: “Billy Ridgeway walks into a bar with a banana in his hand.” The line does exactly what I expect the opening of any story to do: set the tone, introduce the main character, and begin the story. The Weirdness does not open with magic, but with an action — a choice that hooks the reader by pulling them into the scene. Because it reads like a joke, I know the tone of the novel is going to be light and fun. The action is not unrealistic or fantastical, but it does raise some questions that prompt me to keep reading: who is Billy and why did he bring a banana to a bar?
On a technical level, I agree with the sentiment, “Don’t pull the rug out from under your readers (pull it out from under the characters instead).” Even if the magical world cannot be known by a story’s introduction, there should be something tipping the reader off, making them aware of the weirdness, an implicit awareness that something is just a little bit strange. (There are exceptions to this, of course. There are always exceptions). A reader’s trust in the author is essential in keeping them grounded in a story. But the awareness of magic and strange worlds doesn’t have to be explicit — not right away. Consciously, the reader can stay grounded in the concrete facts and images given in a scene and feel comfortable that the information given is the truth. It’s by the way a story is written, how the facts and images are presented, that shapes a reader’s expectations and tells them that not everything is as it seems. That some things are going to get weird.
The next paragraph sets the scene and establishes the tone, which builds mood and atmosphere. While The Weirdness sets a light tone with the opening line, the mood of the following paragraph feels a little grimmer. “It’s November, and gloom has settled over Brooklyn, but this bar generates its own warmth, running forced heat over a narrow room crammed full of humans.” This sentence builds setting, grounding me in a cramped bar. The present tense provides a sense of immediacy, drawing me closer to the moment and expressing the sense that there is no other part of this story that is taking place simultaneously. The narrator is not telling us this from somewhere in the near future. Everything that is happening is happening in the here and now.
I can buy a crowded bar in Brooklyn, but the precise word choice develops the scene, giving me an intimate understanding of what this world is like. The narrator could just as easily have added the word “crowded” before “bar” in the opening line, and I would have gotten the same idea without much convincing, but I wouldn’t have understood the feeling of the bar. This is a place that is not just crowded, or cramped, but crammed. The room is so crammed that the bodies “generate its own warmth.” The nature of the heat is forced, in a room that is not just small, but narrow. The word choice and immediacy of the present tense pull me closer to the story, into the bar. The mood has shifted from a place of lightness to a space that is a little more uncomfortable, and I feel prepared that the rest of the story will fluctuate in this way.
Though the tone is dim, the scene captures a moment that feels ordinary and realistic. It tells me about my characters and the world they inhabit. “They generate friction, these off-duty waitresses and delivery guys and dog walkers. They rub elbows and bellies and backs, and together they hold winter and its wolves at bay.” The presence of these people suggests that this bar caters to the lower-working class, and the fact that Billy is now entering this bar hints that he is one of them. The words “winter” and “wolves,” and the idea that these things must be held at bay, create tension and tell me that there is something about this scene, about these people being there, that is necessary to their lives. And the pairing of “winter” and “wolves” connotes something fantastical, as if the veil between normalcy and fantasy is thinning here, that soon we’ll be stepping into a world that resembles a fairy-tail. Although the wolves are metaphorical, the sentence suggests their presence is close. They can only be held at bay for so long. By now, I’m completely absorbed in the story by the sensory descriptions. I understand the novel’s tone and what’s being set up by this introduction.
The tone oscillates between light and dark in the second paragraph. Words like “November,” “gloom,” “crammed,” and “narrow” cast a shadow over the atmosphere, making the moment feel claustrophobic and uncomfortable. The mood continues to shift the further the paragraph goes, getting light in some places, dark in others. “Someone picks out old L.A. hardcore songs on the jukebox to correct for the sins of the person who picked out a block of Texas swing. Someone else picks out masterpieces of East Coast hip-hop to correct for the sins of the person who picked out the block of hardcore songs.” The repetition of these two sentences lighten the mood and contribute to the voice of the novel. The choice to describe certain genres as “sins” shows what the narrator thinks of those specific types of music, pulling me into the narrator’s point-of-view. By the end of the second paragraph, I have a sense of where the novel is going to take me. While I sensed from the first sentence that this book is going to be fun and light, it’s also going to take me down some darker paths. The atmosphere will seem bright in places, and gloomier in others. The world is going to shift, the lighting is going to change. That is the contract that the narrator discloses from the first page. There’s no magic yet, but the first two paragraphs build a world.
Within the next few pages, I find out that Billy didn’t buy the banana because he was hungry. He uses it to express that reality, to him, is weird. The ability to buy a banana at the local corner store despite the fact that the fruit is not native to New York is proof enough that he lives in a strange world. Weirdness begins here, with Billy and his unique point of view that pushes the story forward. The third page affirms for me that he often searches for the strange in things that are seemingly mundane, such as when he grapples with the idea of pets — once wild beasts, now turned into accessories for humans. The narrator shows me the extent of Billy’s quirks in this example when he loses hours to the internet by looking up the definition of “dog” on Wikipedia, then watches videos of “fighting Madagascar cockroaches.” He becomes distracted by his thoughts so much that he struggles to act. In the first chapter, I learn that his roommate is missing and his girlfriend is upset with him, and yet, Billy’s anxious and airy nature causes him to avoid action, and instead, he becomes more invested in the evolution of pets and commerce. These tendencies echo throughout the novel, and this first moment with Billy and the banana enables me to infer that the events moving forward could get—forgive me—bananas, due to his propensity for distractions, his avoidant nature, and his curiosity with the strange. This understanding allows me to make the choice before turning to the next page: do I want to continue this journey with Billy? For me, the answer was easy. Yes. Yes, I do.
The reveal of magic in the story is delayed because I need to know Billy first. I learn that Billy’s life is not what he wants it to be, that he’s insecure and anxious, and that, if he weren’t so flaky and distracted, he believes his problems could be solved. So, when the devil, Lucifer Morningstar, appears in Billy’s apartment near the end of the first chapter, I’m already invested. I want to see how Billy reacts when forced to face a world that is actually a lot more dark, and a lot more fantastical than he could have imagined. When the devil offers Billy a deal that could change his life, he initially rejects the offer. Eventually, after failing to avert the strange occurrences that move the story along, he’s forced to go against his avoidant nature and act. While he struggles to maintain normalcy, he falls deeper and deeper into a magical realm, until he discovers that magic had been present from the very beginning.
I still come across this debate: how do you tell a story that uses magic without being too explicit? A peer of mine once stated that readers tend to know what kind of story they’re about to read before even opening the book. I feel this rings true. There are a few factors that contribute to a reader’s expectations: the shelf on which the book is found, the title, the cover, the synopsis on the back of the novel or sleeve. I found The Weirdness in the Literary Fiction section of a local indie bookstore. The title itself hints at a playful quirkiness between the pages. The cover is bright red, a large Lucky Cat taking up most of the front with an evil grin, angled eyes, and a reverse pentagram on its collar. It’s a striking book, and the front cover accurately captures the story’s personality: playful, yet sinister. While these aspects are usually the first characteristics a reader will notice, they’re the last to be developed. How a title sounds or what the cover might look like does not influence the writer the way it influences the reader. The writer cannot lean on the cover art or title to attract and ground them in a story, or develop their understanding of the world, because it does not yet exist.
As a writer, even the expectations I hold of myself might change, and each story will evolve with me as a result. Perhaps I’ll hang onto an idea for a long time before I find I’m ready to put it on a page. Or perhaps I’ll get to the end of writing something only to realize magic should have existed in the story all along. I can’t worry about where my novel will be found in a bookstore or what the cover art is going to look like when I’m in the process of writing. I only have control over the words, how the magic is introduced in the words, and the world I’m building with them. I’ve read The Weirdness at least three times, and will likely read the novel sometime again in the near future, soaking up the lessons of how to implicitly shape a reader’s expectations, introduce and build magic using precise language, build a world with mood, and show the nature of the strange through the eyes of the character as they struggle to make sense of their story. As my stories develop, these are the lessons I will hold onto as I, like Billy, face the weirdness in my life, as my own expectations change, and as I begin to weave the weird into my own writing.