Monday, May 4, 2009

Short Story Openings

I never intended to become a short story writer. In grad school, I didn't even bother with short stories, knowing they were the slow road to publication in the shadows of the more prestigious novel publication. Every serious writer usually wants to be known as a novelist, ultimately. There's just a stigma to short story writing. Of the successful short story writers I can think of, I'm sure there is still some ambivalence for them in that they have staked their reputations, however unwittingly, on short fiction.
Nevertheless, here I am. I did set out to publish as much short fiction as I could two years ago when I saw that the traditional approach to attempting to get a novel published (get an agent, get a book deal, etc.) was taking forever. So I decided to work on a level that I could see the results, and I'll admit, I am further along in two years than I could have dreamed. Awards, publication, a life changing trip to Thailand, and meeting some amazing writers along the way have been some of the payoffs. I think I can say I now know a little something about writing short fiction.
When I began, I had no idea what to do with a short story. I did what I always do, I make the attempt, and I try and try until something happens. This involved reading a lot and experimenting. If nothing was going to happen within a few months with those first stories, I thought for sure I'd know I had failed. My first serious attempt was "What You Catch a Glimpse of, Forget as Soon" (available to read in pdf here, page 44) which was, in my mind, not so much a story as an exorcism of energies around so many things I was struggling with at the time. That story just carried me in the writing of it, and I thought it might resonate with others. It did. Along with that story I tried to revive some earlier stories (mostly unsuccessfully) and took a chapter from my thesis novel and transformed it into a story which then received a place and was picked up (for a time, by two magazines--see here) and got me invited to Thailand. As for "What You Catch a Glimpse of", it received enough favorable response that I saw that it had something in it that worked. When it works, you try it again, maybe altering it a bit as you go. But this is about how to begin.
Story openings
The first problem is always the beginning (not necessarily the first problem you have writing a story, but the one you have when you want to get it published). This is a successful example in journalism, of a beginning, also known as a lead:
Back in the heady days of the dot-com boom, casual Fridays seemed to lead to casual weekdays and, in short order, a re-definition of the entire concept of "dressing for success." Call it the anything-goes dress code, where flip-flops and Lynyrd Skynyrd T-shirts were often the sartorial norm for highly educated, well-paid professionals in the Bay Area.
("Dressing for Success: Follow the Dress Code to the Top." The San Francisco Chronicle, Jobs Section, 8 April 2007.)
That's a zinger of a lead, that first sentence, and it's what propels a reader into the piece. The same approach can be applied to short fiction. That opening has to start a fire of some kind. Here are some examples of first sentences (in bold) with their follow up sentence or sentences, more or less at random:
Underwater, there are many ways to die. This was the first thing I learned. Today we are doing our safety checks. The scuba instructor points to the board, he goes down the list, nitrogen narcosis, he says, carbon monoxide poisoning, hypothermia, air embolisms, the bends, blackouts. My son suffocated in the womb. The cord was stretched too tight and he died. I have a pain in my ears every time I dive. I can't go past ten feet without feeling the pressure in my head. The doctors say that in the womb babies learn to breathe liquid before they learn to breathe air. I think it's beautiful to think of my son this way.
(Urban Waite,"Open Water", Agni)
I could say, for example, "There is no amount of money that will bring the six-year-old girl back to life, but even so, our company will provide a reparation to the family." I could say these words in English, Hindi, and Arabic—but not Urdu.
(Matthew Quick, "Do Not Hate Them Very Much", Agni)
To go back to my own stories, this is what I devised for openings:
There are gestures, unmarred by the words put to them after all has failed. When Y. stopped you from talking to apply lip balm to your dry lips. Or she sidled up to you to read what you had written for her. When you lay on the grass together she put her head on your chest and curled her body around you. In the night you watched her sleeping, you heard her teeth tapping as if taking little bites of number twelve spaghetti, so quietly. Her hand gripped your shoulder. Gestures cannot be undone, incomparable.
("What You Catch a Glimpse of, Forget As Soon." 21 Stars Review, March, 2008.)
The last words I called to Maren, My darling, please take hold of me!
In the water she did not hear me.
("It Was a Tree That Saved Me"Evergreen Review, Issue #115, January, 2008.)

These openings throw you into the world of the story, and clue you into what the story is about. I would even go so far as to say they encapsulate their stories. How?
Underwater, there are many ways to die. : A man who attempts to master his fear of dying after his own son dies. To take it a bit further, the parallel to the unborn child's experience is metaphorically related to that opening sentence.
I could say, for example, "There is no amount of money that will bring the six-year-old girl back to life, but even so, our company will provide a reparation to the family." : A truck driver rationalizing an accident in the urban strife of the Iraq war complicated by ethnic divisions.
There are gestures, unmarred by the words put to them after all has failed. : A man coming to terms with a relationship in light of reflection and self-knowledge.
The last words I called to Maren, My darling, please take hold of me! : A man loses his partner in a tsunami and wanders the beach looking for her.
This is a good approach if you have a powerful story to tell and you want it to be read--isn't that what all short stories should aspire to? I'm not saying short story openings can always be interpreted this way, and I doubt every writer would agree with this approach, but if I can find examples of it in a handful of successful stories, then I believe it must have some truth.

Interested in reading more? Check out a recent post, on Philip Roth's First Person Point of View in Operation Shylock 


  1. About first line, I agree with you one hundred percent.