The main job of a story opening: To invoke reader curiosity. Curiosity takes various forms. Psychologist Daniel Berlyne has proposed terminology for talking about different types of curiosity. He proposes two separate axes.
Axis 1: PERCEPTUAL VS EPISTEMIC CURIOSITY
Perceptual Curiosity: Gawping at a car crash. We are drawn to novelty. Something makes you want to look. We feel puzzled or drawn to ambiguity of a situation. After we learn more, we look away, no longer drawn to the novelty.
Epistemic Curiosity: This type of curiosity has been described by philosophers. Immanual Kane called it “appetite for knowledge”. Thomas Hobbes called it “lust of the mind”. This is the sort of curiosity which drives scientific research, philosophical enquiry and spiritual quests.
Axis 2: SPECIFIC VS DIVERSIVE CURIOSITY
Specific Curiosity: When you’re watching a film and you’d like to know the name of an actor, so you look it up on IMDb and that’s the end of it. This kind of curiosity drives investigators, who want to know potential solutions to problems.
Diversive Curiosity: When you’re bored and restless, so you’re flicking through Twitter. You keep refreshing your feed. This type of curiosity describes a restless desire to explore. You’re seeking novelty to deal with boredom.
Why did I mention all that? Well, today’s story opening is a good example of a story which first appeals to our ‘perceptual’ curiosity, then moves gradually into ‘epistemic’ curiosity. First we want to know why this main character has no arms. The author deals swiftly with this, then, by means of a fascinating and humorous voice, encourages readers to learn more about her as a person.
INSIGNIFICANT EVENTS IN THE LIFE OF A CACTUS
Aven Green loves to tell people that she lost her arms in an alligator wrestling match, or a wildfire in Tanzania, but the truth is she was born without them. And when her parents take a job running Stagecoach Pass, a rundown western theme park in Arizona, Aven moves with them across the country knowing that she’ll have to answer the question over and over again.Marketing copy for Insignificant Events In The Life Of A Cactus by Dusti Bowling
Her new life takes an unexpected turn when she bonds with Connor, a classmate who also feels isolated because of his own disability, and they discover a room at Stagecoach Pass that holds bigger secrets than Aven ever could have imagined. It’s hard to solve a mystery, help a friend, and face your worst fears. But Aven’s about to discover she can do it all . . . even without arms.
This is one of those novel openings where the entire first section is backstory.
There is also very little description of setting. That’s because the reader is assumed to be familiar with the settings mentioned in passing. When the author says ‘the park’, are you able to imagine a park? (I’m talking to the phantasics here, but even if you’re aphantasic, you’ll know all about parks, even without visualising one.) Likewise, the vision of a small child in a car seat is not something that needs describing.
Instead, the opening to Dusti Bowling’s middle grade novel, Insignificant Events In The Life Of A Cactus, is notable for its lists.
When I was little, a kid pointed at me on the playground and shouted, “Her arms fell off!” then ran away screaming in horror to his mom, who had to cuddle him on her lap and rub his head for like ten minutes to get him to calm down. I think, up until then, I hadn’t thought about the idea that my arms must have actually fallen off at some point in my life. I had never really thought about not having arms at all.
The voice of the first person narrator is young, so when this young person says ‘little’ they mean literally little. This is a child (maybe adolescent?) looking back on their toddler self. Right there, in the first paragraph, our main character has an epiphany: They are not like other kids. Handled badly, this new discovery could be the end of her childhood bliss. Let’s find out how it goes.
My missing arms weren’t an issue for me or my parents. I never once heard either of them say, “Oh no. Aven can’t possibly do that because that’s only for armed people,” or “Poor Aven is so helpless without arms,” or “Maybe Aven can do that one day, you know, if she ever grows some arms.” They always said things like, “You’ll have to do this differently from other people, but you can manage,” and “I know this is challenging. Keep trying,” and “You’re capable of anything, Aven.”
By listing parts of dialogue, the reader very quickly gets a sense of the main character’s parents, and their approach to raising a child. We learn the main character’s name (but not yet their gender).
I had never realised just how different I was until the day that horrible kid shouted about my arms having fallen off. For the first time I found myself aware of my total armlessness, and I guess I felt like I was sort of naked all of a sudden. So I, too, ran to my mom, and she scooped me up and carried me away from the park, allowing my tears and snot to soak her shirt.
In case we missed it, once again we are reminded of the significance of this epiphany. But because the character is so young, the epiphany is only partial, and leads into a ridiculously humorous one: If she doesn’t have arms, they must have fallen off. Perhaps she has a Mr Potato Head at home.
As she drove us home that day, I sat whimpering in my car seat and asked her what had happened to my arms and why they’d fallen off. She told me they hadn’t fallen off. I was just born like that. I asked her how I could get some new ones. She said I couldn’t. I wailed in despair, and she told me to stop crying because having arms was totally overrated. I didn’t know what overrated meant at the time because, like I said, I was really little and so was my brain. I kind of figured it out over the next few days, though, because my parents were constantly saying things like, “Coloring this picture with my hands is okay, but if only I could color it with my feet like Aven. Now that would be fantastic,” and “Eating spaghetti with my hands is just so boring. I wish I could eat it with my feet,” and “The only person I know who can pick their nose with their feet is Aven. she sure is a special little girl.” Dad even went so far as to ask Mom if there were any arm-removal services in the area.
We get more into the voice and humour of this character, and also the humour of the parents. The humour is self-deprecating: “I was really little and so was my brain.” Most kids have arms, but all kids can relate to looking back on early childhood and realising they are being manipulated (even if positively) by their parents.
This is the second paragraph comprising listed dialogue.
Each sentence equals an entire scene. This is a very good way to achieve fast pacing.
Growing up, I could do most everything everyone else with arms could do: eating cereal, brushing my teeth and hair, getting dressed, and yes, even wiping my own bottom. I know you’re instantly wondering how I do it, and maybe I’ll tell you later… maybe. Until then, you’ll just have to live in suspense.
Middle grade novels are all about the bums sometimes, so we have mention of bum wiping. I suspect this is one of those questions people with no arms are sick of hearing, as well. The promise to (maybe) tell us later how that is accomplished isn’t so much a suspense build, but paints a rounded character who hasn’t yet decided if they trust the reader enough yet. The narrator seems to reach out through the page.