The Face in the Frost

Consider what we can learn from the first paragraph of the first chapter of John Bellairs’s The Face in the Frost. Here it is:

Several centuries (or so) ago, in a country whose name doesn’t matter, there was a tall, skinny, straggly-bearded old wizard named Prospero, and not the one you are thinking of, either. He lived in a huge, ridiculous, doodad-covered, trash-filled two-story horror of a house that stumbled, staggered, and dribbled right up to the edge of a great shadowy forest of elms and oaks and maples. It was a house whose gutter spouts were worked into the shape of whistling sphinxes and screaming bearded faces; a house whose white wooden porch was decorated with carved bears, monkeys, toads, and fat women in togas holding sheaves of grain; a house whose steep gray-slate roof was capped with a glass-enclosed, twisty-copper-columned observatory. On the artichoke dome of the observatory was a weather vane shaped like a dancing hippopotamus; as the wind changed, it blew through the nostrils of the hippo’s hollow head, making a whiny snarfling sound that fortunately could not be heard unless you were up on the roof fixing slates.

The first sentence includes at least one implied question. If readers know Prospero from Shakespeare, they are likely to feel congratulated for their knowledge and wonder who this other Prospero might be, if it’s not the one they’re thinking of. If readers don’t know Shakespeare, they will wonder both who this Prospero is and who the one they don’t know is as well. In either case, readers begin the story with an implied question, one they may not even be completely conscious of. They are likely to read on, hoping for an answer. There’s also in the very last phrase of the first sentence an effort to connect, without being smarmy, with readers.

The rest of the paragraph describes the house this character lives in, in ways that create a little bit of distance between the narrator and the character. The description of the house also let’s readers know a little bit about the genre or at least suggests it. It helps shape expectations. At the least readers expect a story about eccentricity. The Face in the Frostquickly lets readers know it is a fantasy that does not take itself too seriously.

We might try the following similar techniques in our own work:

  • Begin with an implied question. 
  • Begin with a classical allusion and compliment readers who understand it while creating curiosity in readers who do not. 
  • Write a description of a place that matters to a character and let that description characterize the character. 
  • Write a description of a place that matters to a character but let the description create distance between the narrator and the character. 
  • Use an abundance of details and sensory language and unusual images to create interest in anything you are describing.
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Including alternative/opposing solutions

To include alternative/opposing solutions, consider this template.

  • Write something like:
    • In sharp contrast with [restate/paraphrase your proposal’s solution or most recent reason], [introduce a source that actually disagrees with your solution or that states an alternative solution using an attributive tag] states [quote or summarize language that disagrees.] [Paraphrase language that disagrees for several sentences to indicate a thorough understanding of the alternative. Present it fairly.]
  • Then, in the next paragraph either refute:
    • However, [restate disagreeing attributive tag] is incorrect in this statement because [present reason or sources.]
  • or concede:
    • While [restate disagreeing attributive tag] is correct in his or her assertion, [state, quote or summarize the greater advantage or outweighing factor that supports your solution.]

An example:

Naturally, not everyone agrees with this idea. In sharp contrast with the preceding argument that free markets corrode moral character, Rick Santorum, a former U.S. Senator and member of the U.S. House of Representatives who is currently a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center states, “In fact, markets require moral character if they are to be truly free, and truly free markets, in turn, promote moral character. But free markets are no guarantor of moral character. As today’s cultural environment shows, the free market tends to heighten certain moral risks.” To paraphrase, Santorum suggests reciprocity between free markets and good character. He doesn’t go so far as to claim that the freer the market, the better the character; he won’t make that guarantee, and in fact allows that markets create opportunities for ethical risks.

While Santorum is right to stress the value for markets of moral character, he dangerously understates the threat to moral character that free markets provide when they encourage the “certain moral risks” he mentions. These risks, coupled with ingrained materialism and a negligent lack of regulation, apparently tempt participants in the market beyond their ability to resist, as the 2008 stock market crash (and other similar crashes) indicate. Reducing or controlling the possible risks within a market is possible without impeding markets dramatically. In fact, some measure of control over risk can help ensure the long-term stability and health of a market. To quote Paul Samuelson, the first American to win the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences, “Today we see how utterly mistaken was the Milton Friedman notion that a market system can regulate itself… Everyone understands now, on the contrary, that there can be no solution without government.” In the same way drivers are asked to obey laws to protect their health and the health of others, it is reasonable to expect financial markets and institutions to obey regulations. Certainly meeting these expectations is one way, perhaps the best, that moral character can be exemplified.

Another example:


Paintball is a fun, athletic, mentally challenging recreational activity that builds team work and releases tension.

Introduction of an opposing view:

People who object to paintball criticize its danger and violence. . . .

Reply to opposing view (refutation):

But the fact is that Guttman’s article says that only 102 cases of eye injuries from paintballs were reported from 1985 to 2000 and that 85 percent of those injured were not wearing the required safety goggles. . . .

Introduction of an opposing view:

The most powerful argument against paintball is that it is inherently violent and thus unhealthy. Critics claim paintball is simply an accepted form of promoting violence against other people. . . .

Reply to this opposing view (concession):

What I am trying to say is that, yes, paintball is violent to a degree.  After all, its whole point is to “kill” each other with guns. But I object to paintball’s being considered a promotion of violence. Rather, I feel that it is a healthy release of tension.  From my own personal experience, when playing the game, the players aren’t focused on hurting the other players; they are focusing on winning the game. At the end of the day, players are not full of violent urges, but just the opposite. They want to celebrate . . .

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We don’t create . . . to escape . . .

We don’t create a fantasy world to escape reality, we create it to be able to stay.

~Lynda Barry

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Work to be influenced

[F]or the practicing artist influence requires a more active engagement. We must work to be influenced, not merely wait.

~ Margot Livesay

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You have to finish things . . .

You have to finish things — you learn by finishing things.

~Neil Gaiman

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Is it fiction? Is it interesting? Will the reader want to begin the story? Will the reader want to finish the story? Is the author’s discipline evident in the editing? Is it a finished product?


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The writing has to stand for itself

If the writing is unclear, we’ll read it a second time and make it clear to ourselves and then let the writer off the hook, when, in fact, the writing has to stand for itself . . .  You want to work on the writing until it is good enough that the writer doesn’t have to be in the room explaining and interpreting.

~Wally Lamb

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What we expect

[It] does what we expect the work of our best writers to do: reflect our world from a surprising perspective so that we might better see its beauty and contradictions, it comforts and aches.

~Paul Temblay

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Fiction is the art form of human yearning

Fiction is the art form of human yearning. That is absolutely essential to any work of fictional narrative art—a character who yearns. And that is not the same as a character who simply has problems. . . . The yearning is also the thing that generates what we call plot, because the elements of the plot come from thwarted or blocked or challenged attempts to fulfill that yearning.

~Robert Olen Butler

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To describe the world . . .

To describe the world more fully is to change it. To let the world go undescribed is, in some way, not to know it, at one’s own peril.

~Elif Batumann

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