On First Lines in Fiction

For further insight into what we tend to look for in a fiction piece here at the minnestota review, please see Joe Truscello’s excellent post from this spring.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about what makes a good beginning to a story: a good first line, a good first page, a well-set lure for the reader.  I don’t want to gore anybody, though.  An open-palmed invitation, then: just a firm, literary handshake between consenting individuals.  A trail of breadcrumbs through the forest – no, that’s not right: that would mean the kids got started without us; I guess the reader is the birds that eat the breadcrumbs; where are those kids, anyway; they must be shepherd’s pie by now, or whatever you bake kids into these days.  This is why people hate forests.  Maybe I’m not cut out for metaphor (or is it analogy?).  You get the idea: this stuff is hard to do well.    

When you’re reading short story submissions, you tend to have a lot of variations on this conversation: what makes you want to keep reading?  What makes you lean in, anticipate what’s to come, absorb the rhythms of the prose without hesitation or distraction?  Is there some kind of sluice gate that gets opened in the mind?  What opens it, exactly – is it a one-time thing?  I hear some folks aren’t big on the word moist.  Will the poorly-timed use of the word moist lower the sluice gate for good?  

Hell if I know.  Let’s look at some lines.  

If these passages have anything in common, it might involve the solicitation of trust.  The beginning of a story is a chance for the author to communicate that the reader is in capable hands.  This can be a demonstration, however brief or exhaustive – Stick with me here.  Look what I can do – or it can be a promise, a dare – Look what I’m going to try to pull off.  Don’t you want to see if I can do it?  As readers, we hope that the author will fulfill her part of the bargain.  The sooner we have reason to hope, the sooner we start to believe.


Chang-Rae Lee opens his first novel, Native Speaker, as follows: “The day my wife left she gave me a list of who I was.”  Lee will spend the rest of the book trying to answer one of the simple questions this opening elicits: Well, who are you?  In a more utilitarian sense, the line economically engages our curiosity and propels us forward: Why did the wife leave?  What did she write on the list?  We want to read at least far enough to find out.

Deployed with skill, allusion can be a powerful shorthand.  Even a brief line like “Call me Ishmael” is imbued with a faint echo of Biblical resonance that would not be present in, say, “Call me Gary”.  This device doesn’t need to be high-handed or pompous; in the famous opening to The Catcher in the Rye, J.D. Salinger establishes a conversational, cynical voice for his narrator with the aid of a dismissive reference to Dickens:

CatcherintheRyeIf you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy
childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don’t feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth.  

Ralph Ellison employs both modes in Invisible Man, recalling the opening of Dostoyevsky’s Notes from Underground (and possibly H.G. Wells) in his first line while defining his marginalized, alienated narrator in negative relation to the macabre in the next:

I am an invisible man. No, I am not a spook like those who haunted Edgar Allan Poe; nor am I one of those Hollywood-movie ectoplasms. I am a man of substance, of flesh and bone, fiber and liquids — and I might even be said to possess a mind. I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me.

RalphEllison

Stylistic homage, parody, or pastiche can also help a writer make a quick impression.  In “How to Be an Other Woman”, Lorrie Moore borrows some of the atmosphere and terse-yet-florid language of the private eye genre to establish a tone of wry, playful intrigue:

Meet in expensive beige raincoats, on a pea-soupy night.  Like a detective movie.  First, stand in front of Florsheim’s Fifty-seventh Street window, press your face close to the glass, watch the fake velvet Hummels inside revolving around the wing tips; some white shoes, like your father wears, are propped up with garlands on a small mound of chemical snow.  All the stores have closed.  You can see your breath on the glass.  Draw a peace sign.  You are waiting for a bus.

The second-person instructions suggest a covert mission, but its seriousness is undercut by the self-aware tone, the friendly diction of phrases like “pea-soupy night”, and near-non-sequiturs such as “Draw a peace sign”.  Meanwhile, the closed stores and the artificial wintry display windows provide a melancholy, reflective quality that complicates our internal picture of the narrator.  Which mood will win out?  

Denis Johnson’s “Dirty Wedding” takes us on a jittery, near-literal roller-coaster tour through the city and the narrator’s psyche in one breathless run-on sentence:

I liked to sit up front and ride the fast ones all day long, I liked it when they brushed right up against the buildings north of the Loop and I especially liked it when the buildings dropped away into that bombed-out squalor a little farther north in which people (through windows you’d see a person in his dirty naked kitchen spooning soup toward his face, or twelve children on their bellies on the floor, watching television, but instantly they were gone, wiped away by a movie billboard of a woman winking and touching her upper lip deftly with her tongue, and she in turn erased by a—wham, the noise and dark dropped down around your head—tunnel) actually lived.

If we haven’t already been keyed in by the adrenaline-fueled (among other substances) rhythms and the rambling, parenthetical tangent that hijacks the main line of thought, the startling interruption of the em-dash and italicized wham underlines the narrator’s volatility and jars us out of the hypnotic lull the long run of descriptions initially produced.

A minimalist like Raymond Carver can convey an off-kilter personality by using short sentences and plain language, often achieving a deadpan humor in the process, as in this opening from “Mr. Coffee and Mr. Fixit”:

I’ve seen some things.  I was going over to my mother’s to stay a few nights.  But just as I got to the top of the stairs, I looked and she was on the sofa kissing a man.  It was summer.  The door was open.  The TV was going.  That’s one of the things I’ve seen.

More succinctly, Carver opens “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love” with these two low-key, disarming lines: “My friend Mel McGinnis was talking.  Mel McGinnis is a cardiologist, and sometimes that gives him the right.”

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Alice Munro doesn’t resort to any linguistic or conceptual pyrotechnics in “The Bear Came Over the Mountain,” but she establishes a lived-in world with skill and purpose: 

Fiona lived in her parents’ house, in the town where she and Grant went to university.  It was a big, bay-windowed house that seemed to Grant both luxurious and disorderly, with rugs crooked on the floors and cup rings bitten into the table varnish. Her mother was Icelandic—a powerful woman with a froth of white hair and indignant far-left politics.  The father was an important cardiologist, revered around the hospital but happily subservient at home, where he would listen to strange tirades with an absentminded smile.  All kinds of people, rich or shabby-looking, delivered these tirades, and kept coming and going and arguing and conferring, sometimes in foreign accents.  Fiona had her own little car and a pile of cashmere sweaters, but she wasn’t in a sorority, and this activity in her house was probably the reason.

Writers of short stories, especially those looking to publish in literary journals, are often advised to avoid opening with gobs of exposition.  Whether or not you go in for “all that David Copperfield crap”, though, it doesn’t hurt to take a page out of Munro’s playbook here: establish an entryway into your world; let the story unfold through this perspective; make sure every sentence tells us something new.  

julio-cortazar-centenario

Sometimes an opening doesn’t even need to make any sense at all to be compelling.  Here’s Julio Cortázar in “Blow-Up”:

It’ll never be known how this has to be told, in the first person or in the second, using the third person plural or continually inventing modes that will serve for nothing.  If one might say: I will see the moon rose, or: we hurt me at the back of my eyes, and especially: you the blond woman was the clouds that face before my your his our yours their faces.  What the hell.

What the hell?  Let’s see where this is going.

— Daniel L.

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