This is the opening of a short story I'm writing (second draft):

A deep silence enveloped the room as the words escaped from my mouth. I turned to the side to look at Akiko. She was staring vacantly at the ceiling, with eyes that didn't reflect disgust, shock, nor anger. None of the reactions that I had expected. She wasn't saying anything, either. It was as if my words had sealed something within her, in the very core of her soul. I felt miles and miles away from her. Maybe what I was looking at wasn't my wife—only her dead, empty container. She was probably in a very distant place; somewhere I didn't and would never have access to.

“You really want that?” Akiko finally said, her tone was neither cold nor indifferent. Just neutral.

“Yep,” I said. “I'm been thinking about it for a while. But if you don't want to, it's OK. I don't wanna force you into anything.”

The room fell quiet again. Suddenly, I regretted bringing the topic up. What was going on with me tonight? What made me think she would agree with the whole thing? I gazed out the window. Under the moonlight, the zelkova trees were taking all kinds of strange shapes. They looked eerie, sinister, like ancient creatures from the forest. Perhaps that was what Akiko saw in me now; a monster that had been hiding in the darkness, and that had finally decided to come out. The thought was unbearable. Even worst than I had imagined.

Without being able to stand it anymore, I jumped out of bed and went to the kitchen to pour myself a glass of Scotch.

I'm afraid that I'm not providing enough information to keep the reader gripped (or even worst, annoying him/her for the lack of clues). I only reveal what the husband told his wife in the next scenes (the following one starts with something like: "The thought first came to my mind a few months ago..."). So the reader is left with a feeling of vagueness until then.

Will this work? Should I make the opening more explicit (e.g. directly stating what I'm hiding from the reader)?

  • 2
    Nothing major but my first thought was change 'container' to 'shell'. Container makes me think that whats inside used to be food, or snacks, shell makes me think it used to house something living that has since vacated. Not sure if anyone would agree to that or if its just my personal preference though
    – user5881
    Commented Jan 5, 2014 at 18:54
  • " Even worse than...".
    – SF.
    Commented Jan 6, 2014 at 10:46
  • Along the same line as SF. 'Even worst than' I presume you meant worse
    – user5881
    Commented Jan 6, 2014 at 12:38

2 Answers 2


I wanted sensory details in the first few paragraphs. I had no idea what kind of room the characters were in. At first I thought it was some kind of operating theater, where some kind of weird procedure would happen--the MC on one operating table, and Akiko on another. When I learned that it was their bedroom, I felt jarred. I had to re-imagine what I was looking at.

So: More sensory details.

As for keeping secrets from the reader: That's hard to do in first person. In order to play fair with the reader, you must say what's on the character's mind.

Another way of saying this: In order to hide something from the reader, you must arrange for the character not to think about it.

In any novel, I'll allow you exactly one occurrence of "And then I knew what I had to do," without revealing the plan. Or one occurrence of "And then I knew who the killer was," without revealing the killer. And in each case, you have to do a chapter break or a scene break and jump forward in time. Otherwise the character will think about the plan or the killer, and you'll have to tell us.

But you can't make it a habit, or I'll yell at your book. I'll say truly horrible things and your book will feel bad. Just ask any of Dan Brown's books how mean I can be.

I have a theory that most of the things an author wants to hide from the reader aren't really worth hiding. And that any time you try to hide information by jumping to abstraction ("What he saw next made his blood ran cold"), you're cheating. Give us whatever sensory details the character is experiencing. Give us the character's thoughts. Play fair.

  • Why would first-person past-tense prose need to include the author's stream of consciousness? Present tense, sure, but past-tense first-person implies a journal or memoir, which almost automatically implies an unreliable narrator.
    – DougM
    Commented Jan 7, 2014 at 14:49

I'm less dismayed by the lack of sensory details than I am the disagrement within the details you did provide.

A deep silence enveloped the room as the words escaped from my mouth.

This implies that the silence enveloped the room while you were speaking, as if you were suddenly placed under a cone of silence and couldn't complete the phrase. Some split in the time would be nice.

She was staring vacantly at the ceiling, with eyes that didn't reflect disgust, shock, nor anger. None of the reactions that I had expected.

You should use "or" there, not "nor". Perhaps:

... with eyes that reflected neither disgust, shock, nor anger. Not one of the reactions I had expected.

I could see "None of " were it a grammatical quirk, but it feels flat to me.

Maybe what I was looking at...

Be definitive in your subjective opinion. "It was as if" is better than "Maybe", here.

You could try trimming some of the subjective interpretation, and instead add an image to enforce how sudden the silence is. You could hear a heartbeat, or the echo of your own words, or, if you want to improve your flow, you could hear the wife's breathing, and tie that into her mood.

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.