Commentary: Now You Know Everything

What’s the point of reading a whole novel if you know everything on the first page?


Think about the openings to your favorite novels. A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens is the classic, with its “best of times” “worst of times” passage. Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye has another great one, with a Dick and Jane primer passage that disintegrates into madness: “hereisthehouseitisgreenandwhitewithareddoor….” Other media do this also; who can forget “A long time ago, in a galaxy far far away,” or “Space: the final frontier”?

One of my English teachers once told me that a truly great story will tell you everything that the story is about within the first page, or even in the first paragraph. Parsing the opening of a work of literature can reveal all the important themes, many significant symbols, and sometimes even key character relationships.

So what, then, is the point of reading a whole novel if the first page tells you everything? Then again, the first page doesn’t tell you everything. It’s more like a teaser than a spoiler. Does the first passage of the novel show you something that you like? Does this sound like a story and a writing style that you’ll enjoy? The trick is to tell the reader everything while keeping almost everything a secret. One of my favorite novels, The Dream of Perpetual Motion by Dexter Palmer, starts at the end of the story. The fun is finding out how a greeting-card writer ended up trapped on a zeppelin with the frozen body of a brilliant inventor and the disembodied voice of his insane daughter. Now you want to read it, right?

This is a lesson that I’ve tried to enact here in Angelfools. If you’ve only read the prologue, I would imagine that you’re very confused. I’ve given you the name of our protagonist, a very bizarre scene of him falling to an imminent death, and pretty much nothing else story-wise. But I’ve tried to weave in some important images and themes that will recur throughout. Nonlinear time is key to the plot structure of Angelfools, and I want to make that clear to the reader right at the beginning. Maybe I can even introduce some camaraderie between Alex and the reader, as he is clearly as confused about his situation as the audience is, if not more so. Unlike comparable novel openings where we don’t start at the beginning of the story, Alex doesn’t know how he got to this point(s) in time. We get to experience the journey along with him.

Astute readers will also figure out my primary inspiration for this story, and perhaps will know a bit more about where we’re going as a result.

Side note: this story is based on a long poem that I wrote about four years ago, and I’ve preserved the images here that I used in the opening of that poem. One of these images was the “blossom of cream in coffee,” which inspired the sketch that accompanies the prologue.

Author: Ben Ginsburg

I'm a writer, a storyteller, and a dreamer. As a recent graduate of UC Davis with a shiny new B.A., I decided its finally time to start writing that novel. So join me as I write, rewrite, and talk about it.

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