Learning from “Coraline” by Neil Gaiman

Building a world

(This essay also appears as a video on YouTube.)

Some novels hit us right in the gut with how true-to-life they feel. Then there are novels that take us away from our everyday world to a new one we’ve never been to before. For anyone who’s ever wondered what’s around the corner, or what’s behind a closed door, or what’s over the rainbow, the urge to explore new places is an irresistible draw. Knowing that, great writers build spaces for compelling stories and settings that capture our imagination.

I’m learning about how successful authors hook readers in the opening chapters of novels, so I can apply those lessons to my own writing.

Today, I’m looking at how author Neil Gaiman hooks us using exploration and discovery. Let’s dive into Chapter One of his 2002 novel Coraline.

Summary of Chapter 1

The novel starts with a quote:

Fairy tales are more than true: not because they tell us that dragons exist, but because they tell us that dragons can be beaten.

We turn the page and find Coraline Jones and her parents moving into a new home. They’ll live on the main floor of a large old house that’s split into apartments. The house has an attic, a cellar, and a huge, overgrown garden with old trees.

The tenants under Coraline’s floor are two kooky old ladies — actresses, apparently — with a horde of Highland terriers.

Meanwhile, on the top floor, there lives a strange old man with a big moustache. He complains about the difficulties he’s having training his mouse circus.

After meeting her oddball neighbours, Coraline explores the grounds by the house. There’s an ancient grass tennis court, now in disrepair. Elsewhere, there are rocks, rosebushes and rings of toadstools. The actresses warn Coraline to be wary of the boarded-up well that’s hidden among the grasses. So, naturally, Coraline goes looking for it — to know what to avoid, of course.

She finds it and drops a rock down a hole in the boards, and listens. Eventually, there’s a faint plop.

Later she comes across the various animals that live on the untamed grounds. Among them is a snobbish black cat that watches her curiously. When she tries to catch it, it runs away.

One day, it rains, and the grounds by the house turn to a muddy soup. So, Coraline is forced to stay inside the house. Her mother suggests Coraline read a book, watch a movie, or go chat up the neighbours.

“No, I don’t want to do those things,” Coraline says. “I want to explore.”

So, her father tells her to make a game of exploring the house. Count the number of windows and doors. Find the water heater. List everything blue. Coraline grudgingly starts her expedition, and eventually discovers a locked door in one of the rooms. Her mother finds an old black key, and they open the door together to find…a brick wall? The door would have led to the rest of the house — at least it would have before the house had been split into apartments.

That evening, Coraline goes to bed. She hears a creaking sound down the hall. A shadow scuttles past her door. She follows it to the room with the bricked-up door; the shadow dashes inside. Coraline runs after it and opens the door. Oddly, there’s nothing but the same old bricks.

She goes back to bed, and dreams of black shapes with red eyes and sharp yellow teeth. They scurry about and sing to her in high-pitched voices:

We are small but we are many
We are many we are small
We were here before you rose
We will be here when you fall

Two traditions

Like a lot of great opening chapters, Coraline’s opening chapter seems deceptively simple: bored kid finds door, basically. But Neil Gaiman’s Chapter One actually does a lot of heavy lifting.

It introduces us to a curious, poised, and relatable character. She finds herself in a familiar childhood transition: moving to a new house. There’s a hint of conflict between Coraline and her parents. And the chapter ends with the mystery of the door.

But before that, Coraline spends the entire chapter exploring the shape of her new world. The story isn’t afraid to show that a child’s world can be an endlessly fascinating one.

There’s a tradition of stories that take us to distant magical realms for grand adventures. You know, settings that bombard us with big, flashy spectacle. Compared to far-off lands like Uriel in A Wrinkle in Time, or Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, a house is just a house.

Then I remembered something — and this is kind of embarrassing. I hate walking in front of mirrors at night. Like, I’m absolutely convinced my reflection will pull me into the mirror. I know this is a superstition. I should have outgrown the idea that monsters live under my bed. But, even as an adult, I try not to look at my reflection when I walk in front of a mirror in the dark. I can’t even watch my shadow move against the wall in the light of the hallway.

And, that made me think: anyone above the age of maybe four years old knows what a haunted house is. Just hearing the words haunted house, our minds fill in the blanks. It’s old, dark and dusty. You can hear the wood creak and the wind howl — if that was just the wind.

So, even a four-year-old knows on some level that place defines story. Kids argue on the playground about what is and isn’t allowed to be imagined in such a place. And our first impression of a story, Chapter One, does the same thing. It’s where the rules of the world are told to us. It’s where we, as readers, decide if this is a game we want to play.

But we don’t always need to go to Narnia or Neverland to find a rich world. There’s another tradition that explores the world right under our noses; we only have to find the way in. Sometimes that leads to a bright, hopeful world like the one in Calvin and Hobbes or My Neighbor Totoro.

Other times, we just have to turn the lights down and walk in front of a mirror. We enter a layered, nightmare world, like a haunted house. There’s an almost Freudian battle of wills between dark forces and the inner self. We see that in stories like The Shining. We’ve seen it more recently in Jeff VanderMeer’s sci-fi novel Annihilation. And, yes, we definitely see it in Neil Gaiman’s Coraline, too.

Trajectory through the world

In the first chapter, Coraline tours the space that serves as the arena of the story. It’s almost like a stage play. Everything happens on this stage. The house is this concentrated setting with layers of depth.

It’s never shown to us through a lump of passive exposition, though. Neil Gaiman keeps his main character in motion. Wherever something blocks the path of her exploration, she resolves to find a way to the other side of it. Sentence by sentence, page by page, she solves small problems and finds new ones, and keeps moving through her world.

Neil Gaiman builds the chapter like a puzzle made of concentric circles, starting with the outer one.

First, Coraline finds the edges of the puzzle: the grounds around the house, the little animals, the old wells and weird neighbours. She tests the limits and boundaries of the space.

Then, the spiral tightens a little. She explores the inside of the house. The rooms and corridors, the shadows.

She finally makes her way to the very centre of the puzzle, but when she gets there, a piece is missing. She thinks, “There has to be more to this.”

When she opens the door, she stares into the abyss, and something stares back. She’s opened a door that shouldn’t have been opened. It was locked for a reason, and we’re about to find out exactly why.

Why this place?

The opening chapter is a bit like a five-year-old Neil Gaiman we meet on the playground. Our parent drops us in the sandbox with Neil. And little Neil looks over at us. He shows us his dump truck and his bucket and his shovels and he says, “Do you want to play?”

But why are we drawn to some sandboxes and not others? Why do some stories only happen in certain places? What is it about a space that hooks us? Why did we want to climb Everest, or now go to Mars? Why do we stay in the haunted house when everything tells us we should turn around and get out?

Well, every setting is about a story that can’t happen anywhere else but there. And when it comes to Coraline, Neil Gaiman builds a world with a kind of haunted house. And a haunted-house story is a story of how we face, and overcome, our darkest fears and inner demons. And who wouldn’t want to read a story where that’s possible?

I hope this look at the opening of Coraline gives you ideas about using space and exploration in your own work. If it does, I’d love to hear how. Write a response, or even just click the Applause icon. And be sure to follow me to be notified when I upload new essays, where I’ll look at opening chapters from other great books.

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