If, like me, you keep a notebook just for recording the beginnings of short stories you read, after a while you begin to notice just how much some writers can get into the first line or two. Some go for the grab and hook the reader’s attention with an arresting first line, others go for a slower burn. Recently I have recently been amazed at the increased sophistication of some openers which really do seem to accomplish more than should be possible in such a short space.
It could be that the normal requirements for the opening few lines just work harder in the hands of a master but by comparing a few beginnings, it becomes possible to see the difference in technique between authors who hook the reader and draw them in, and the stories where the reader is immediately placed in the middle of everything, the performance has begun, we are beamed onto planet story and we hardly notice the Gs.
The well tested techniques of beginning in media res, having an arresting first line, using the title to launch the reader into the story, all these things have not gone away and they are not new. Consider Chekhov and ‘The Lady with the Little Dog’:
People said that there was a new arrival on the Promenade: a lady with a little dog. Dmitry Dmitrich Gurov, who had already spent a fortnight in Yalta and who was by now used to the life there, had also begun to take an interest in new arrivals.
Here is that arresting first line, a visual image (not very strongly drawn), the physical setting and the main protagonist. The title gives us a massive clue and after these two sentences there is some momentum, but not much colour. Modern writers are doing much more than this, but not all of them.
In her collection Other Stories and other stories, Ali Smith uses the opening paragraph of her short story ‘Small Deaths’ to set a languid tone through a text rich with assonance and alliteration, but withholds much else:
Halfway through the summer the weather suddenly got better, hotter. For nearly a week the air was hot, hanging in the house as thick as smoke, hanging around the garden curling and deadening the leaves. I love it, you said. I love this weather. I love you.
Seen in isolation, it would be possible to think the reader knows very little indeed at this point, but there are other cues. The title is one. The light bulb motif is another – each story has a line sketch of a modern light bulb, echoing the cover, reminiscent of the lightbulb in Picasso’s Guernica. The story also come a third of the way into the collection, so the reader has already formed some expectations.
In a couple of punchy sentences, Jhumpa Lahiri takes it up a step. She lets you know exactly what’s going on, what the dilemma is, although in her short stories the setting and characters usually take form a few lines further on. Here’s the opening of ‘Sexy’ :
It was a wife’s worst nightmare. After nine years of marriage, Laxmi told Miranda, her cousin’s husband had fallen in love with another woman. He sat next to her on a plane, on a flight from Delhi to Montreal, and instead of flying home to his wife and son, he got off with the woman at Heathrow.
I definitely do want to know the gossip, and somehow this opening feels colourful and full but all we really know about the characters so far, is a little about their attitudes and their social class. In other words, we have been treated to some characterisation as well that first powerful sentence. There is also a strong sense of the tone of the story, which serves in lieu of setting in these few sentences. Clever isn’t it? And so natural sounding.
In the first short story to his collection Young Skins, Colin Barrett sets out his stall more fully. The opening paragraph gives insights in to the character of the first person narrator and raises expectations of a dystopian, dysfunctional Irvine Welsh-like set up whilst playing with associations to Clockwork Orange, Catch 22 and I challenge anybody not to read on. The Clancy Kid begins like this:
My town is nowhere you have been, but you know its ilk. A roundabout off a national road, an industrial estate, a five-screen Cineplex, a century of pubs packed inside the square mile of the town’s limits. The Atlantic is near; the gnarled jawbone of the coastline with its full-infested promontories is near. Summer evenings, and in the manure-scented pastures of the satellite parishes the Zen bovines lift their heads to contemplate the V8 howls of the boy racers tearing through the back lanes.
For understated beginnings that operate on many different levels, it is Carys Davies that the quiet master. The opening of ‘The Redemption of Galen Pike’ (winner of the RSL VS Pritchett prize 2011) gives us mood, tone, setting (geographical and historical) and two characters. The scene is also highly filmic:
They’d all seen Sheriff Nye bringing Pike into town: the two shapes snaking down the path off the mountain through the patches of melting snow and over the green showing beneath, each of them growing bigger as they moved across the rocky pasture and came down into North Street to the jail-house ̶ Nye on his horse, the tall gaunt figure of Galen Pike following behind on the rope.
There is a whole community in the two words ‘They’d all’ – rustic American townsfolk who watched what the reader sees when this prisoner is brought down from the mountain by the sheriff and we fully expect that the protagonist, Patience Haig, was watching with them. The pace of the words suggests the plod of the horse’s hooves coming down the hill, all told in a slow country drawl.
The second paragraph adds specificity, saying there were a hundred and ninety-three inhabitants of this town in the foothills of the Colorado Mountains, but we almost already know that from the opening paragraph, it is so rich in meaning:
The current Piper City jailhouse was a low cramped brick building containing a single square cell, Piper City being at this time, in spite of the pretensions of its name, a small and thinly populated town of a hundred and ninety-three souls in the foothills of the Colorado mountains. Aside from the cell, there was a scrubby yard behind, where the hangings took place, a front office with a table, a chair and a broom;
By the time we get to the scrubby yard where the hangings take place, we have the whole story in microcosm and sit back to watch how it’s done.
I asked Carys about her writing, in particular about her recent collection The Redemption of Galen Pike, including the title story. Her answers were characteristically rich and layered. Because it takes her such a long time to write the short stories, they are so thoroughly distilled. By the time the finished article is published, she has lived with them for so long that she really knows what they are saying. One phrase particularly struck me and this must be the key to why the openings of her short stories are able to multitask so effectively: ‘Every paragraph in a story should in some way have something of the whole story inside it.’
What draws you to short fiction as a form?
Their intensity, their capacity to take my breath away – to conjure an almost unbearable image or moment or feeling that burns, in the heart and in the mind, long after I’ve finished reading. All my favourite short stories do that – whether it’s the man and his two boys in Lawrence Sargent Hall’s The Ledge waiting, in the rising water, to die; or John Cheever’s lonesome swimmer wandering through the gardens of his suburban neighbours until he reaches his own abandoned house; or the nightmarish half-skinned steer stalking the old man through the wilds of Wyoming in one of Annie Proulx’s greatest stories; or the moment when someone picks up the first stone in Shirley Jackson’s The Lottery – or when Joyce’s Eveline pulls backs from the barrier and from her young man and from an entire future to stay home in Dublin. I could go on and on! These moments or images are freighted with such extraordinary power and resonance they seem to drop like stones straight into your heart, the ripples spreading outward as the reverberations and implications of the moment begin to take hold.
With a short story, this effect is so, so important. There are so many ways to write a short story, as many ways are there are stories, each one has its own form and I think that with a story you can do anything as long as you can pull it off, as long as it has an effect – if it delivers this pulse to the heart or the head or both, it’s almost certainly doing its job. Even if – in fact especially if – you can’t explain how it’s done it.
Can you say how you approach your short stories please – do you have a whole story arc worked out before you embark on a story? At what point do you write the opening of a story?
I never know where a story is going when I begin. Even the word ‘begin’ is a bit of a misnomer because I almost never start with what ends up as the beginning of the story.
The title story, The Redemption of Galen Pike, for example, was written over a period of about ten years. All I had in the beginning was a man in a cell. I didn’t even know what he’d done wrong. Later, I began writing about another man who came to visit him and they talked. And much later, that male visitor turned into a woman, Patience, and she and the prisoner hardly spoke at all….for me it’s always a long, long process and for a great part of the time, as I write, I have no idea what the beginning or the middle and certainly not the end, are.
I certainly never set out to write about anything.
The opening emerges as I write. It takes a long time for the beginning to emerge – the exact moment when the story I’m telling should begin, because of course any story reaches back before the first word on the page. It’s a very important step for me, finding that moment.
Do you know the ending before you start out?
Absolutely not. I love what Nell Freudenberger says, that ‘a story begins as a blind groping in the dark for something, both resonant and concrete’
You have a particular gift for using the opening to do so many things at once. What do you start with when you write such layered openings? How do you add the layers?
I think the answer is that by the time I have what will become the opening of a story, I’ve been writing the story for a long time. I think it’s all the earlier writing that allows you to bring together things like mood, tone, character, setting. Every paragraph in a story should in some way have something of the whole story inside it.
The second paragraph of Galen Pike is fantastic in the way it shows so much of the town in such a distilled and small amount of text as we are led into the story.
Although the short story form is always tight, this level of distillation suggests something akin to extended flash perhaps, and there are a couple of flash-length stories in the collection. Is this something you would recognise or are conscious of as you write?
Yes – inasmuch as what I said in my last answer is true. A short story is made up of sentences and paragraphs, all of which are doing their job of advancing and deepening the story. Individual paragraphs, or groups of paragraphs, will often grow and build and end in the same way that a whole story does. This gives a story its shape, its ebb and flow, its drama – it’s how it exerts its effect upon the reader.
The author is grateful to Carys Davies and Salt Publishing for their help with this article. The collection entitled The Redemption of Galen Pike won the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award in September this year.
Tamsin Hopkins writes short fiction and poetry. SHORE TO SHORE , her first story collection will be out in February 2016 with Cinnamon Press. Find her at Tamsinhopkinswriter.com and on Twitter @TamsinHopkins