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I'm writing a short story. I decided to opening it in the following way:

We were in Y, doing Z when she mentioned X. I wasn't sure whether she had misheard X's name or had gotten the wrong place...(and so on).

Here is the original text:

We were in the hotel room, sipping a cheap Italian wine when Limei brought the subject. I wasn't sure whether she had misheard its name or had gotten the wrong mountain. Of all the times I'd come to Yangmingshan, I'd never heard about the existence of such a mystical object. It sounded to me like something she had taken from an ancient Chinese tale, or a bad marijuana trip. Surely, not something that belonged to this world.

"The Flying Stone?" I asked, frowning at her.

Limei gave a single, quick nod. Her own little way of confirming something.

I thought about it one more time, but reached the same conclusion: "I'm pretty sure there isn't anything like that in the mountain. Are you sure you heard right?"

"Yes," Limei said, "I'm very sure."

I stared at her in silence for a moment. An owl started hooting at the distance.

"It's right up in the mountain," she continued, "we just have to go to the hiking trail number six, and follow it all the way until the end. The Flying Stone should be resting on top of a nearby cliff."

"Hey, wait a minute, how come you're so sure?"

"The monk we met this morning told me," she said. "Remember him? The tiny old man in the Buddhist temple?"

"Oh, him," I said, though I didn't remember him very well, "he was kind of...weird. Sure he wasn't joking around?"

Limei laughed. "Monks don't make jokes like this," she said. "Its just not a...monk joke. Believe me, I can tell. And besides, why are you so convinced this stone doesn't exist?"

The question caught me off-guard. She was right: why I was so sure about my statement? I couldn't disprove the existence of this mysterious stone. In fact, it is impossible for anyone to disprove the existence of anything—for instance, the existence of God. However, I couldn't disprove the existence of unicorns, demons, and fairies, either.

I let out a sigh. "Okay, okay, if you really wanna see it, we can go tomorrow morning."

I'm not sure whether this will hook up or annoy the reader. If it is the first, am I doing it effectively?

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Couple of tangential grammar points: 1. I think you mean "brought up the subject", not "brought the subject". 2. Not "reached to the same conclusion", but "reached the same conclusion". 3. Not "stared her", but "stared at her". –  Jay Apr 11 '13 at 14:45
    
@Jay Thanks a lot (Funny, I wrote brought up the subject in the first draft and removed up in the second). –  Alexandro Chen Apr 11 '13 at 14:45
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For good use of omission of information, have a look around scp-wiki.net - the copious use of [data expunged], [REDACTED] and blackouts adds to the mood of quite a few stories. Take scp-wiki.net/scp-087 and consider the impact of the lack of the 4th record. –  SF. Apr 11 '13 at 15:06
    
I finished the story (in case someone wants to read it): alexandrochen.quora.com/The-Flying-Stone –  Alexandro Chen May 3 '13 at 14:58
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5 Answers

up vote 2 down vote accepted

I like the concept of what you are doing, and I think the concept could work well. It looks like you are intending to build a brief bit of mystery about the Flying Stone, but you also create a brief mystery about their location. The double-confusion was too confusing for me.

I suggest making their location clear BEFORE you bring up the stone. A hotel and a cheap Italian wine do not, to me, suggest China. Perhaps you could mention the Chinese mountains (or the specific name of the mountain) as creating a beautiful view out the window in the opening sentence/s. As a reader, I am much more willing to accept one mystery at a time. Not only is it less confusing, but it also builds my trust that the writer is creating mystery on purpose.

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I concur; this setup works nicely for me. It's anti-cabbagehead: the narrator obviously knows what The Object is and doesn't have to explain it to himself in his own thoughts. –  Lauren Ipsum Apr 11 '13 at 14:23
    
Seconding. Keep the big things secret but dispense trivialities immediately. There's one more thing missing in it for me: a time anchor. Cheap Italian wine limits it to after IIWW but I have no clue if it's contemporary or the 60s or near sci-fi. –  SF. Apr 11 '13 at 16:41
    
@SF. Which wine will immediately tell the reader that he/she is reading a contemporary novel? (so I ca use it in the future). –  Alexandro Chen Apr 12 '13 at 14:10
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@alexchenco 4-year-old 2009 vintage ;) International transport got cheap and ubiquitous enough after IIWW that importing cheap Italian wine to China became economically viable. If you want a contemporary novel, have the protagonist "slide to unlock" the phone. If you want it around 2000, they'll listen to the music on a discman, 80s will be casette walkman and VHS video player. Fashion, cars, electronics, appliances, this all can anchor the story in time. Actually on second thought, strongly communist China wouldn't import cheap Italian wine. It must be past 80s or 90s... –  SF. Apr 12 '13 at 21:33
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@alexchenco: No, my knowledge of wine is very minor. For 2009 vintage to be 4 years old the action must occur in 2013, just like for 2000 vintage 13 years old... And it's the matter of communist china not importing cheap goods from capitalist countries. Some expensive wine could be imported for dignitaries and luxurious hotels for foreigners, but the iron curtain held most of imported goods away with high customs and bureaucratic restrictions, and exceptions were made only for wares unobtainable locally - one could get cheap Chinese wine, so why import any from Italy for 5x the price? –  SF. Apr 16 '13 at 10:43
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" It sounded to me like something she had taken from an ancient Chinese tale, or a bad marijuana trip. Surely, not something that belonged to this world. "

My personal opinion as a somewhat would be writer and reader, I don't like the line 'bad marijuana trip' in this context. You talk about something taken from an ancient chinese tale, then use the line 'bad marijuana trip', then use the line something that didn't belong in this world.

If its your intent to portray something that didn't belong in this world I would say rather that line is doing the opposite effectively grounding us in this world. I think its anticlimactic.

I liked the rest :)

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I like it. I would want to read the rest of this.

I think it makes sense for the narrator not to be thinking about what the Flying Stone is immediately, when she's known about it for a while and is focused on something else (news). So it works for me. If it went on about how amazing the thing is without telling you about it, that would be irritating, but it doesn't.

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This does not work for me at all. It feels highly inconsistent to be invited deeply into the character's head for almost everything, but not for this one thing. It feels like a storyteller's trick. The storyteller is trying to manipulate me.

Most of the time it feels condescending. When I see this trick, I've come imagine some storyteller telling a story to a bunch of kids. "And can you guess what happened next, kids?" And we (kids?) are all supposed to lean forward, wide-eyed with wonder, hanging on whatever the storyteller says next.

Also, storyteller's tricks make me wonder why they are necessary. Isn't the story interesting enough without this manipulation?

This trick bothers me more when the narration is third person. It means that the person pulling the trick is not the POV character, but the narrator. It tells me that the narrator is going to try to manipulate me with storyteller's tricks. If I have a strong interest in the story, the storyteller, or the POV character, I might keep reading. But when the storyteller opens with tricks, before I have a reason to invest in anything, I have no confidence that this story will be worth my time.

With first person, I can at least attribute the manipulative, condescending style to the POV character. This might be an interesting bit of characterization. But again, if this is the opening, then the first thing I learn about the character is a desire to manipulate me with children's storytime tricks.

I have ranted about this before, so clearly this is a hot button for me. Perhaps the key for me is not so much the desire to keep something secret, but the deliberate inconsistency in POV. I can see everything in the character's head except this one thing. There had better be a very good reason that I can't see that one thing in the character's head. The desire to manipulate me, to coax me to lean forward in wide-eyed wonder, is not a reason that endears me to the storyteller.

So the problem is not that this is a storytelling trick per se. All storytelling is trickery and manipulation in some way or another. It's that this trick feels condescending. It does for POV what melodrama does for plot.

I often forgive this kind of trickery, but only once, and only at a certain moment in the story. In a mystery, it looks like this: And suddenly Lily knew who had killed Baron Stimpypants. In other stories, it looks like this: And then Winston knew what he had to do.

It's still a trick, and it's still manipulative. (Why am I privy to Winston's every thought except the most important one?) But I can forgive it... if I'm deeply invested in the character and the story. And then only one time. And then only if it's not horribly clumsy.

These nearly-forgivable instances have a few other common characteristics. First, the thing that's being hidden from me is not only crucial to the story, it is the answer to the main story question. Lily's identification of the killer is the main story question. How Winston will save the day (or whatever) is the main story question. Second, if I were told this hidden thing, it would diminish my enjoyment of the rest of the story.

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I think it's a good technique. In my opinion, to resolve the mystery too quickly. If you're going to create a mystery, resolving it in one paragraph just seems too fast for me.

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Well, after the first paragraph finishes, there's a new mystery: is the stone really up in the mountain? (I guess this is more obvious later). –  Alexandro Chen Apr 11 '13 at 14:48
    
I added another chunk of text. I hope it's enough to expose the new mystery. –  Alexandro Chen Apr 11 '13 at 14:52
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