Art of the Opening: Melissa Ragsly
Welcome to our new occasional column exploring the art of openings!
First impressions matter. The opening lines, paragraphs, and pages of a story or novel must not only hook the reader, they must ground us in the world of the story, in place, in time, in character. Landing an effective opening is no easy feat. At CRAFT we focus on writing craft in the fiction we publish. With this column, we’ll be exploring the art of the opening in an interactive way, discussing openings with their writers, peeking behind the scenes at the revision process, essaying about what we find striking. With any luck, no two pieces will look exactly the same.
In 2018 we published Melissa Ragsly’s short story “Mannequin,” which is included in her new collection, We Know This Will All Disappear, out now from [PANK]. Led by short fiction section editor Suzanne Grove and contributing editor Albert Liau, working together on behalf of CRAFT, we explore the openings of several of Ragsly’s stories via an essay, a Q&A, and a look at some editorial notes from the collection’s revision process, shared here as images. —CRAFT
In a 2015 review in The Los Angeles Times, the late Pulitzer Prize–winning restaurant critic Jonathan Gold describes an amuse-bouche at Le Comptoir in Koreatown as “a course that takes a cook 10 minutes to plate and that you scarf down in about a second and a half.”
Can’t the same be said of writers and their readers?
This singular line from the beloved Gold translates perfectly to the relationship between a writer’s precise crafting of literary openings and a reader’s swift imbibing of those first sentences, paragraphs, and pages. Those initial words function much like a chef’s amuse-bouche, whetting our appetites and preparing our palates for what’s to come. Writers can spend days, weeks, or even years sliding the words around the page—adding, substituting, deleting, shaping, and seeking the exact linguistic rhythm that will carry a piece to its conclusion. As readers, we often then devour it in one euphoric gulp.
When we stand in our favorite bookstores or scroll through our favorite literary journals online, we are seeking the spark that will keep us turning the pages. We become voyeurs, witnesses, and even silent confidants to narrators who reach out and invite us inside.
Graham Greene writes, in the opening lines of his 1951 classic The End of the Affair, “A story has no beginning or end: arbitrarily one chooses that moment of experience from which to look back or from which to look ahead.” The best works of both fiction and nonfiction accomplish what often feels like an immense trick that is anything but arbitrary—a slick shuffling of the cards in order to pull an ace: giving us a captivating point of entry into a particular story while also creating a sense of that story’s larger universe that has spun itself perfectly into this moment and will surely tumble forward after the conclusion of the final page.
Melissa Ragsly performs such magic in her collection We Know This Will All Disappear.
Remember when you’d hang out with friends, maybe in someone’s basement or backyard, and everyone would tell stories that were so engrossingly… out there? Things they’ve done, seen, or heard about that exude intrigue even as they lean over the precipice of plausibility. We Know This Will All Disappear welcomes us into that fold. With all the magnetism of a longtime buddy or a charming stranger saying, “Let me tell you about this time when…,” Ragsly’s stories exert a distinctive, even urgent pull upon our curiosity right from the get-go.
In each of the sixteen stories, Ragsly manages not only to hook readers with succinct and gorgeously fluid prose that elicits emotion, but also to garner our interest by raising questions to which we crave answers. It seems these stories must begin as they do; the opening ideas and images quickly cement themselves in our minds, feeling more like unalterable facts than fictional details. In other words, the places, people, and events of her fiction become supremely real to us.
In the collection’s opener, “All You’ve Heard is True,” we are immediately struck by Ragsly’s diction and active language, which produce an almost surreal sense of place and ask us to follow along just as her first-person narrator does:
This is the most alive I’ve ever felt, sun all dialed up to white and a breeze from the ocean leading me by the shoulders. The end of the country, California, the beginning of the Pacific. I follow the boy out to the pool.
There is a sense of being on the edge of the world, of inhabiting a new, liminal space. Only a few short paragraphs later, we see this played out quite literally when the central character describes her near-death experience at the age of six.
Later, in the penultimate “Mannequin,” the opening paragraph washes in with a heavy wave of nostalgia. I am in the moment. I am sixteen. I am driving with my best friend, the music rapturous and loud. But quickly, the story evolves into something darker, and we are swept along. The sense of foreboding is palpable. This swift passage from adolescent joy and longing to a nightmarish scenario is reminiscent of Joyce Carol Oates’s “Where are You Going, Where Have You Been,” which creeps forward before exploding with violence. By the conclusion of Ragsly’s story, her two central characters are caught, both figuratively and literally, between the light and shadows, between youth and adulthood.
Throughout the collection, Ragsly accomplishes this balance with such a deft hand that we, as readers, don’t recognize the mechanics behind these brilliant openings unless we begin interrogating them with an eye for craft elements. We are simply absorbed, pulled back into the world of each story again and again, page after page, as captive to her words as even the most adept swimmer caught in an undertow.
In the following interview, we aim to shed light on the construction of those craft elements in the hopes of inspiring CRAFT’s audience to embrace rather than fear the challenging task of writing palatable openings. Common writing advice tells us that we all should also be avid readers—that we learn best by absorbing and studying those who have come before us. Reading Ragsly’s striking prose, her characters and the situations they encounter, will surely help hone your sense of what makes short fiction work, even if you’re too busy simply enjoying the stories to notice.
—Suzanne Grove with Albert Liau for CRAFT
Albert Liau with Suzanne Grove for CRAFT: Your opening lines in We Know This Will All Disappear often bring the reader right into the world of the story, dropping us in medias res amidst characters’ thoughts. As you begin writing a story, do you find your way in through openings, or do your opening lines tend to take shape later, perhaps after some brainstorming or drafting offers a sense of how you want the reader to enter the story?
Melissa Ragsly: While every story has its own gestation process, more often than not, it is the opening, either the line, the opening paragraph or the first scene, that take shape first and the rest of the story blooms from there. I don’t usually think about plot or what I want to try to say. Most stories I write start with an image in my head of a character in the middle of something, yes; I think it’s true because if you’re writing literary fiction and the idea of plot isn’t at the forefront, opening with a character in the midst of action gives an immediate layer of tension, of conflict with the reader themselves even. What is going on? is a more intriguing way to be seduced into a story than a setup that can become tedious and boring. I might start writing the middle of a scene and write to figure out what’s the purpose of it.
AL: Your openings swiftly lay out many of the fundamental choices you’ve made for each story—what Christopher Castellani calls the narrative strategy, the “set of organizing principles that (in)form how the author is telling the story” (which includes decisions regarding tense, point of view, tone, etc.). Do you seek to deliberately tip your hand in the first few sentences or to work more from an intuitive approach to presenting the key mechanics of the story?
MR: In beginnings, in the entirety of writing really, I take a more intuitive approach. To read a story and not feel assured of those elements, the POV, the tone, is to read a story coming from a less authoritative place. Especially if you are asking the reader to be dropped in medias res to an unknown plane.
If I’m asking someone to be swept into something, they have to trust that I can direct them. In other words, make a reader feel comfortable even if they have no idea what the fuck is going on. If they trust me, which is accomplished by that swift establishment of the narrative strategy, and I trust them to figure out what’s happening—not only on the page, but in the white space—then we are truly working together. My main goal is to establish an intimate relationship with the reader. Intimacy is bred from intuition.
AL: Your work reminds us of a concept Mary Oliver discusses in A Poetry Handbook: diction builds tone, in turn building voice, to roughly paraphrase. How do you think about these craft elements and their relationship with each other?
MR: I’d never heard that before, but my goodness, yes! The tone and voice, absolutely, so intricately braided together, are what drives me.
And to hark back to an intimacy between and writer and a reader, that is the lifeblood of it. Voice is everything, it’s the seduction. The beauty of a story or a novel is that it is always consumed one-on-one, the writer directly to the reader; visual art might be able to do that as well, but films, plays, music, they either need to be consumed in a group setting or passively. They work on different levels than writing does.
Voice feels to me like the nakedness of the work, the vulnerability of it. Whatever the cells are that make it, whether it be word choice, the meter, the attitude, what it comes down to is like Julia Roberts in Notting Hill. I’m just a story on a page asking you to hear my voice.
AL: A number of your stories launch right into unexpected, idiosyncratic, even extraordinary starts. For example, “Tattoo” opens: “It took a while for him to tell me he was God.” How much do you think about setting and managing reader expectations at the outset and throughout a story like “Tattoo”?
MR: That opening came pretty quickly and I don’t think I rewrote much of that opening after the first draft. The image came first, what you’d see in the scene. There were white walls, brown leather chairs where an austere man and a teenaged girl wearing a prim semi-religious dress sit across from each other. The image to me felt like it was about the power inequality; the man in charge, making the girl answer questions to prove something to him. The opening helped me understand the relationship between these two characters. Where you start in a story ultimately determines where you head next. Starting with an image, I was forced to figure out who these characters were, what is their relationship?
A reader has to follow the path after you have pulled away all the brush, flattened the ground and paved it for them. It’s a smoother way, but it’s ultimately the same one the writer took. You get a piece of information which leads to the next.
All that led to the setting. In that first scene, I didn’t come out and say this story is set in a modern world but in a rural place, in a house where a thirtysomething man takes in runaway teenaged girls and makes them live purely and simply under his rules, where they don’t interact in modern society. But all that is there somewhere, and ultimately, they feel concretely of their world, which is partly of their own making.
And in the end, I think you see a character, Nora-Lynn, who is complicit in giving away her own power because it’s more important to her to feel safe than it is to feel free. I wrote this story before the 2016 election. Reading it afterwards, it felt extremely relevant to that time, to all the white women who voted for Trump. The setting is a house in the middle of nowhere Pennsylvania, that’s on the page, but the setting is also left fluid enough—a sketch surrounding the characters—that it really feels like a placeholder for America and the patriarchy at large.
AL: The opening focus of “Mannequin” differs from others here in the degree to which it sets up the story by establishing the circumstances and time period, foregrounding the car and the music playing within it. How did you decide this had to be the starting point for this story?
MR: I wanted the opening of that story to be about the main character, Jen, and her relationship to her friend Tara. I wanted to show the intimacy of a close teenage-girl relationship. So many girls had that one platonic friend who was almost the schematic for all their future romantic relationships. I wanted them to be alone together before other friends or boyfriends or adults come in later to the story, and I wanted it to be nighttime as they’re leaving their homes because I didn’t want this story to even involve parents. I wanted it to feel as intimate as it could be.
This is about how they navigate the world together and how they start to begin to understand how they are seen as objects. With each other, they can be subjects, but outside that safe space, they don’t know how to be more.
And that’s also why it felt important to have them listening to a Guns N’ Roses song on a jammed cassette, not just to give us a time reference, but because I have always been fascinated with this song, “Rocket Queen.” Going back to how people experience art, these characters are kids that spoke through the music they liked. Two best friends, suburban virgins, in a car listening to their favorite song that contains audio of the lead singer having sex with the drummer’s girlfriend. And they have to keep listening to it because the tape is stuck and won’t eject.
They as characters don’t have the ability to intellectualize what being objectified means. I think the story goes on to tackle how they unconsciously try to reconcile those confusing ideas about how their bodies will be viewed for the rest of their lives.
AL: “Bio-Baby” closes the collection on a speculative, satirical note. It opens with the narrator watching an old show on a Google Cardboard–style headset, remarking that she likes this retro way of consuming media. Immediately, the story places us in a future of VR goggles with a protagonist who clings to at least one facet of the past. The concision is almost dizzying yet not disorienting, swiftly situating the reader in this fictitious near future and positioning the narrator relative to its norms (not to mention teasing what awaits the narrator later in her day). Can you tell us a little about how you constructed these lines to entwine setting and character in a manner that ushers us intimately into her life?
MR: I can’t talk about this story without telling you that it was originally intended to be my first attempt at CNF about Teen Mom and how I wished it got more respect. It feels like the most feminist thing you can watch on basic cable. I could never get that voice right, though, so I switched to fiction, but I didn’t want the narrative to feel realistic or too on the nose. I struggled with this one, I didn’t really have an opening image I knew I wanted to use except for someone watching Teen Mom. Did I want to write about a mother or how your life changes, specifically as a woman, when you have children? Or about someone who was still at the point of being able to decide what she wanted to do with her own life?
At the same time, I became rather obsessed with scientists who had grown a lamb in an amniotic sac they’d created in a lab. It was a lamb fetus transported into this pouch and it grew full term successfully. So those two obsessions, Teen Mom and lamb science, braided itself together to become “Bio-Baby.”
The setting of most of the story is a doctor’s office, a pretty cold and sterile place even in the near future. The character has to watch an ad before she is allowed to have an abortion. What made the most sense to me was winding together the character’s story with the advertisement. The ad itself exists in a non-specified location, projected in her sightline, floating in front of her. It’s a non-setting. And what winds up happening is the literal place she is in morphs with the figurative location of the ad, to create an in-between. At that point, the setting isn’t a place that anchors anymore, it’s really only the character that can lead a reader through.
She becomes immersed, and I wanted to make it feel that you’re almost seeing the ad with her. How it’s written is broken up between the dialogue directly from the ad, and her reaction to it, volleying back and forth. It’s written in past tense, but it feels more immediate than that, the voice almost feels present tense and I think it’s because of the advertisement itself.
In the end, what she sees in this blank place, the ad is really a reflection of herself and it feels hopeful to me. In a collection where most stories don’t seem very hopeful, to me at least, it ends on this note that feels while not sugary—because that is not who these characters are, they are certainly more salty than sugary—but rather an airier, lighter note. She’s being sold on something in the story that may or may not work, but that’s how we all live our lives. Marching towards goalposts we’re supposed to hit, hoping they don’t disappoint us, hurt us, or kill us. The story is about this character having that hope that no matter what her decision is, it’s the one she should be making for herself.
We Know This Will All Disappear is available now from [PANK]
MELISSA RAGSLY is a writer living in the Hudson Valley. Her work has appeared in Best American Nonrequired Reading, Best Small Fictions, Iowa Review, Hobart, and other journals. She was working on a novel, but during the pandemic, she’s working on a screenplay. More can be found at melissaragsly.com.
Ever eager to find fascinating, fanciful fiction, ALBERT LIAU is an editor at Montag Press, a niche/nano publisher based in the San Francisco Bay Area with an expanding, eclectic catalogue spanning a range of literary and genre fiction.
SUZANNE GROVE is a graduate of the University of Pittsburgh and received the J. Stanton Carson Grant for Excellence in Writing while studying at Robert Morris University. Her poetry and fiction appear in The Adirondack Review, The Carolina Quarterly, The Penn Review, Okay Donkey, Porter House Review, Raleigh Review, Rust + Moth, and elsewhere. She has been a flash fiction finalist with SmokeLong Quarterly and received honorable mention for her short fiction appearing on Farrar, Straus, & Giroux’s Work in Progress website. She currently serves as the short fiction editor for CRAFT. You can find her at SuzanneGrove.com.