Art of the Opening: Raymond Carver and Crafting a Hook
Welcome to the second entry in 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’re exploring the art of the opening in an interactive way, re-reading the masters, 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.
This column is led by short fiction section editor Suzanne Grove and contributing editor Albert Liau, working together on behalf of CRAFT. With this essay, Grove explores the opening paragraphs of several Raymond Carver stories, sharing how he crafted hooks through questions and emotion. —CRAFT
I am heaving in the southwestern corner of an open-air outlet mall five days before Christmas.
This is the desperate and empty sort of heaving required to stop a sob and close off the valve of emotion. A hiccuping that renders the throat muscles jumpy and tender, that puts an ache under the jaw. In the rearview mirror, my face shows salt-slicked and shiny, the deep ripe of an heirloom tomato. A mottled fruit, tender but on the verge of rot.
I’ve just finished listening to Raymond Carver’s story “Chef’s House” on The New Yorker: Fiction podcast. Beyond the windows splotched with rain, shoppers clutch the seams of their zippered coats, mouths disappearing beneath the collars. Despite the mild temperature—mid-fifties—the season gives itself away: the garland and the berried wreaths, the animatronic reindeer tilting their heads on suburban lawns. The SALE banners and vehicles circling with a sort of pageantry around every shopping mall in the country. I’m reminded of a Forbes article, the meta-tag beneath the title calling the holiday, “thoroughly pagan and capitalistic.” The recollection elicits a soggy laugh.
Inside my own vehicle, the speakers are still amplifying the conversation about Carver’s story. Published in 1981, “Chef’s House” was the first story Carver ever placed in The New Yorker. Fiction Editor Deborah Treisman talks with David Means, the writer who selected the piece to read aloud. Means believes Carver has had “a big effect on every short story writer, whether they know it or not.” He calls Carver’s style “clear, accessible,” and says his stories make us “think a different way, linguistically and almost stylistically.”
While I am enthralled with this style, I’m not pressing at the swollen pouches around my eyes as “Deck the Halls” plays from an outdoor speaker because of the lean beauty of Carver’s prose, but rather because of the way that prose elucidates the lonely, circuitous, and shattering reality of loving an alcoholic.
I am close with more than one person whose volatile relationship with alcohol regularly seeped into the mundane corners of my everyday life. I say “mundane” because the effects of alcoholism are not merely the stuff of cinematic climaxes—of demolished cars and DUIs, of stomachs pumped and glasses thrown and shattered.
The people I know are what medical professionals and clinical psychologists have labeled “high-functioning alcoholics.” They work, successfully. They appear, outwardly, to possess a certain antiquated idea of good health—bright, clear complexions and strong, lean bodies. This serves as a reminder—shockingly still necessary in 2020—that external appearances are often indicative of very little.
I am thankful for all stories and portrayals that explore the myriad ways in which substance abuse affects us, but I am especially grateful for the ones that capture the quieter, in-between moments. Not only the vomiting and sweat-soaked shakes that arrive at three a.m., but also the fragile space of recovery. Those first days, weeks, and months stitched together in a haze marked by the absence of the one thing that defined so much of what came before.
“Chef’s House” subtly and poignantly captures this space. It reminds me that beneath the beginning of a new normal sans alcohol runs a fault line. The outwardly unremarkable span of time can feel, internally, like groping into the clotted darkness, waiting to accidentally tumble over the cliff—where your loved one will start drinking again.
It also reminds me of my own moments of abhorrent selfishness—craving the wine bottles you should not bring into the house, the tart prick of want under your tongue when thinking about the oak fume of a good Chardonnay or the salted kick of a strong margarita, all desires that should be the least of your concerns. The realization that you’ve occasionally used the alcoholism as an excuse to lay unfair blame on the alcoholic. That you’ve also occasionally placed yourself in the center of the narrative about someone else’s hurt—like right now. The childish fretting about your own inability to solve the problem, to do nothing more than trust the professionals, ask the questions, offer your support.
Told via the first-person POV of the alcoholic’s partner, “Chef’s House” takes place in the precarious time of uneasy calm and tentative healing. Estranged husband and wife, Wes and Edna, are reunited in a house Wes is renting north of Eureka, California. He is back “on the wagon” and going to his meetings. She once again wears her wedding ring, taken off after the night he got drunk and tossed his own band into a peach orchard. They fish for trout in the freshwater lagoons and sip fruit juice. They hold each other at night. Until the owner of the rental needs to give the house to someone else. And then this couple is faced with the reality of who they are, and all the damage already done.
I am not an alcoholic. Or an addict. In this regard, I’m am unlike Carver himself, who told The Paris Review in the summer of 1983, “If you want the truth, I’m prouder of that, that I’ve quit drinking, than I am of anything in my life.” I can try but will never truly know the pull to abandon, or at least harm, large swaths of your life in order to feed the need for alcohol. The closest I can come to understanding is by way of my own obsessive-compulsive disorder, that colossus of my early twenties. Not the OCD of studio sitcoms, the repeated hand washing punctuated by laughter, but the intrusive thoughts that necessitated illogical and impulsive compulsions.
But I do empathize with Edna, and I feel she would empathize with me. “Chef’s House” made me feel seen and, in doing so, allowed me to see myself more clearly. For me, this has always been the power of fiction beyond the pure aesthetic pleasure of words and sentences and their rhythms. Stories can help to frame or reframe our own experiences, to make them more lucid. Writers and their texts often clarify our own existence from a distance, and sometimes it feels like a mixture of pure luck and magic.
This is why I want to utilize “Chef’s House” and Carver as an entry point for discussing the concept of a literary hook as a craft element of short fiction, and how writers can use the hook to begin forging deep emotional connections—emotional resonance—with their readers.
The art of hooking readers with opening lines is an evergreen topic. Here at CRAFT, in addition to approaching each submission with a critical eye, we also begin reading with enthusiasm and optimism. We want to say yes; we’re endlessly hoping to fall in love. This is partially why, with few exceptions, we’re not going to automatically reject a piece that seems to fly in the face of common advice, such as, Don’t open with weather! or Don’t begin with a character waking up!—we always keep reading. We always want to uncover the why behind the craft decisions made on the page.
Still, so many stories insist on openings that seem to follow a sort of formula: SHOCK + ACTION. A deluge of physical gymnastics during an attempted escape from an exotic locale, a phone ringing to deliver bad news, a running towards or away from the yet unnamed boogeyman. A kiss, a punch. Exploding car, exploding building, exploding firearm.
Here is the problem: All of this occurs—and often keeps occurring for sentences, paragraphs, or even pages—without any sort of emotional connection. We, as readers, often don’t understand why these events are significant, i.e. What are the stakes? We haven’t yet forged a bond with the characters, allowing us to care. All the death and destruction and heartache in the world won’t matter much to readers if they have no connection to the characters.
Of course, there is only so much you can accomplish in a handful of opening lines. This is why we only have to begin building that connection and feel a hint of the emotion and conflict running beneath the story on the opening page. One of the most helpful pieces of advice I ever received from a creative writing teacher is to use the opening sentence or paragraph to raise a question in the reader’s mind, a question tinged with just enough of the bizarre or relatable or emotionally captivating to push the reader onward to sentence two and three and four.
So, for me, the formula looks more like this: QUESTION + EMOTION.
It should go without saying that nearly any approach, when executed correctly, can absolutely work. I hate limiting advice (Hello, former professors who hiss in my ear every time I used a form of to be—yes, you are still with me). What I want to offer is simply proof, demonstrated by Carver’s prose, that the subtle raising of questions and hinting at emotion can work.
In the kitchen, he poured another drink and looked at the bedroom suite in his front yard. The mattress was stripped and the candy-striped sheets lay beside two pillows on the chiffonier. Except for that, things looked much the way they had in the bedroom—nightstand and reading lamp on his side of the bed, nightstand and reading lamp on her side.
Here, the “question tinged with just enough of the bizarre” that I mention above comes in the first line. Why is this man’s entire bedroom suite sitting in his front yard? And he’s drinking. Immediately, we know something is amiss. Notice how beyond the sheets and stripped mattress, we get little to no description. Yet, Carver has managed to create a slightly surreal and memorable image. The final line of the opening paragraph provides our subtle hint of emotion. There is a woman hovering in the periphery of this story. There is a “his side” and a “her side”—lines of division already drawn. As far as we know, she is not in the kitchen with him, sipping the whiskey we’ll hear about in a few more lines.
It was the middle of August and Myers was between lives. The only thing different about this time from the other times was that this time he was sober. He’d just spent twenty-eight days at a drying-out facility. But during this period his wife took it into her head to go down the road with another drunk, a friend of theirs. The man had recently come into some money and had been talking about buying into a bar and restaurant in the eastern part of the state.
In this story, the question is raised and immediately answered: How is Myers between lives? He’s recently emerged from a rehab program. A liminal space, both the end and the beginning of something. Within a couple sentences, we understand the stakes here. But Myers’s status between two lives extends beyond his newly achieved sobriety: While Myers was away, his wife took up with one of their friends, a man with money. And just like that, Carver has heightened the already perilous situation belonging to his opening character. Myers has gained his sobriety but may have lost his partner.
“A Serious Talk”
Vera’s car was there, no others, and Burt gave thanks for that. He pulled into the drive and stopped beside the pie he’d dropped the night before. It was still there, the aluminum pan upside down, a halo of pumpkin filling on the pavement. It was the day after Christmas.
This opening paragraph could almost be a piece of micro fiction. Carver gives us so much, and with such subtly and control, using questions and emotion to pump this story full of tension. With the opening line, we know that whatever the reason for Burt’s visit to Vera, he doesn’t want an audience—a scene. The question is why. The relationship must be strained, right? He must be arriving for the serious talk of the title. In the lines that follow, Carver gives us the dropped pumpkin pie that has yet to be cleaned up. It’s the day after Christmas, a time for family but also for classic familial tensions and high emotions. Why did Burt drop the pie, and why hasn’t it been cleaned up? Why is he returning the very next day? Already, we feel a bit uneasy on behalf of Burt. Like him, we’re nervous (but secretly thrilled) to walk back into the setting that brought about the wrecked dessert.
That summer Wes rented a furnished house north of Eureka from a recovered alcoholic named Chef. Then he called to ask me to forget what I had going and to move up there and live with him. He said he was on the wagon. I knew about that wagon. But he wouldn’t take no for an answer. He called again and said, Edna, you can see the ocean from the front window. You can smell salt in the air. I listened to him talk. He didn’t slur his words. I said, I’ll think about it. And I did. A week later he called again and said, Are you coming? I said I was still thinking. He said, We’ll start over. I said, If I come up there, I want you to do something for me. Name it, Wes said. I said, I want you to try and be the Wes I used to know. The old Wes. The Wes I married. Wes began to cry, but I took it as a sign of his good intentions. So I said, All right, I’ll come up.
Finally, the Carver story that inspired the beginning of this essay. Carver is playing no games, hiding nothing. We get the straightforward facts, the premise and stakes of the story right in this opening paragraph. The question here is the overarching question—the big picture question—that will guide the rest of the story. We know Edna is going to Eureka, although hesitantly. We know Wes is back on the wagon. Our central couple is separated, the wife wanting to know if her husband can fulfill her request to become the man he used to be. The question is, will he?
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.