Opening with Dread

In her Sentence to Paragraph interview, Karen Thompson Walker talks about the way she sees openings, and how she works hard at making those first pages as flawless as possible to give the novel a foundation to stand on as things get messier along the way. Let’s take a look at the opening three paragraphs of her novel, and see if we can figure out some of what she’s doing.


“At first, they blame the air.

“It’s an old idea, a poison in the ether, a danger carried in by the wind. A strange haze is seen drifting through town on that first night, the night the trouble begins. It arrives like weather, or like smoke, some say later, but no one can locate any fire. Some blame the drought, which has been bleeding away the lake for years, and browning the air with dust.

“Whatever this is, it comes over them quietly: a sudden drowsiness, a closing of the eyes. Most of the victims are found in their beds”

(Karen Thompson Walker, 3).

What’s Thompson Walker doing here?

These three paragraphs are working hard.

  1. They establish the world we’re in—the smoky air, the drought, the disappearing lake.
  2. They tell us a bit about the history of the place—the “old idea,” of ether, “for years” of the lake’s “bleeding away,” and the fact that this is taking place some time after, with “the night the trouble begins” and “some say later”
  3. They create the premise—“a sudden drowsiness, a closing of the eyes,”
  4. They give us the focal characters—they/them, and most importantly,
  5. They give us the emotional state Thompson-Walker wants us to be in, unease, by creating a hypnotic atmosphere.

So how does she do it?

Sentence and Paragraph Level:

Let’s take a closer look at the flow of these paragraphs.

Paragraph 1: One short, catchy sentence. It contains the focal character, and the emotional place the author wants us to be in.

  • A book or story should center in on the main character in the first sentence (by the very most, the first page) to let the reader know immediately where they should place their interest and sympathies.
  • The word “they” establishes this large cast of characters effortlessly. By the third word of the first very short sentence, we know this novel is going to focus on a group, rather than a single character. The opening sentence establishes an epic narrative voice that is able to dive into characters’ minds and lives at will.

Making these paragraphs so short—1 sentence, 4 sentences, 2 sentences—creates quick pacing. Our eyes move faster when there is white space. They sweep through this text like the sleeping sickness that they describe.

Paragraph 2: Longer than the first—Four sentences, with more complex and compound structures.

  • These give us a vague sense of a location—a town, a lake, and some of the environmental concerns—we are somewhere with a drought, it’s dusty, hazy, the lake is shrinking.

Paragraph 3: Two sentences long, moves to the concern/premise of the novel.

  • The sleeping sickness.

This ordering of information creates suspense. By the end of paragraph three we know ‘the main thing’ of the novel: the drowsiness. We don’t know what caused it, and we don’t know how the characters will react, but we have a sense of impending doom that makes us want to keep reading.

Deeper dive:

But let’s get back to this hypnotic atmosphere.

The very end of this passage leaves us with the words—“are found in their beds.” There’s something sinister about this phrasing. It feels very campfire ghost story.

A lot of this feeling comes from the Passive Voice of the verb “are found.” She could have used regular past tense, and said the police found them, or their mother’s found them, but Walker doesn’t write that. She doesn’t give the finders names, yet, at least. In these first sentences, they have as little control as the victims do. Everyone has been completely stripped of action and agency. Spooky!

On re-reading the passage, Thompson Walker’s choice of the passive voice appears throughout: “carried in by,” “is seen,” “it arrives,” “it comes over them.” She’s been building this atmosphere of powerlessness from the very start.

Reading the sentences aloud, we can even hear the hypnosis seep in. There’s something about the sound of the sentences that are doing work too. Walker repeats these clarifying clauses: “poison…” her narrator suggests, but that isn’t enough. “a danger…” the narrator adds. And again, “like weather, or like smoke…” and a third time: “a sudden drowsiness, a closing of the eyes.” Nothing says “you are getting sleepy” like the repetition of a clock, the swinging of a chain. She’s managed to bring the sleeping sickness to the structure of her sentences.

And let’s take a closer look at her words!

Check out this list of nouns she employs: blame, poison, ether, danger, strange, trouble, smoke, fire, blame (again), drought, bleeding, browning, dust, drowsiness, victims.

All of these words have uncomfortable, decaying connotations, which really add to the feel.

Okay, we’ve dissected the heck out of these paragraphs. Let’s get to work and write our own disaster narratives! (If you’re not a fiction writer, feel free to use some of the same ingredients in your non-fiction!)


An inexplicable disaster (natural, or supernatural) has invaded. You decide what it is! Write three paragraphs of how your characters first notice the disturbance. Imitate Karen Thompson Walker’s structure! Try out the passive voice! Reveal some sense of the location without giving away exactly where it is, and choose words to amplify your atmosphere.

Walker, Karen Thompson. The Dreamers. Simon & Schuster UK, 2020.

Brought to you by Leah Velez, Wordcrafter’s Content and Curriculum Coordinator.  


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