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Exploring the art of prose

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Art of the Opening: What’s an Opening to Do?


Welcome to our 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, Liau explores how openings work, what openings can do.  —CRAFT


 

Toward a Taxonomy of How Stories Start

An invitation. A doorway. A promise to—or even contract with—the reader. There are various ways to think about the opening of a story, but rather than consider what it should be, let’s consider what an opening can do—what the first few lines of a story or first several paragraphs of a novel are capable of.

At a basic level, the opening can start either in the present of the story or with setup—information that isn’t necessarily part of the plot but helps the reader to better understand it. As with mindfulness, you’re either in the present moment or you’re not.

A story that starts in medias res drops the reader into the midst of the narrative, into a moment that could involve dialogue, action, the narrator’s thoughts, the setting, or an object—as is the case in Susan Perabo’s “Life Off My E,” which begins with a toilet-paper bundle that unravels to reveal a used pregnancy test. Alexandra Kleeman has the narrator of “Fairy Tale” set the scene by listing off the things in front of her at a dinner party. “Love Is Not a Pie” by Amy Bloom opens with the narrator’s doubts about her upcoming wedding.

So, an opening can start the story with anything available to the narrator in the now of the story, as long as it is relevant. From there, the opening can accomplish at least one outcome in a range of possibilities: establish the narrator’s voice, introduce the protagonist or another character, reveal or hint at the point of telling, situate the reader, create tension, build narrative momentum, etc. And of course, an opening may do several of these things, as is the case with “Flashlight” by Susan Choi:

“One thing I will always be grateful to your mother for—she taught you to swim.”

“Why.” Not asked as a question but groaned as a protest. Louisa does not want her father to talk about her mother. She is sick of her mother. Her mother can do nothing right.

The opening dialogue moves into the introduction of the characters and revelation of tension between at least two of them. The following paragraph lays out the scene: Louisa and her father out walking a breakwater at sunset—which turns out to be a significant event.

Also beginning with dialogue, Julia Elliott’s “Hellion” launches the story right into conflict. With her BB gun aimed at the boys messing with her alligator, Dragon, Butter orders them to let her pet go. As readers, we’re thrust into a moment that portrays Butter as fiercely protective, exemplifying Daniel José Older’s perspective that a story must show the protagonist’s humanity so “we want what they want.” This opening is also the first point of contact with the story’s themes of control, protection, care, growing up—that last one slipped in by way of an observation that Dragon is getting too large for his tub. Crucially, all of this is delivered in Butter’s distinctive voice—and what a voice.

Icelandic landscape photograph taken from within the opening of a cave
photograph by Albert Liau

What about a story that starts with setup? Set at some remove from the story’s events, this kind of opening can also do a variety of things: state the premise, describe the circumstances, introduce the protagonist (or another character), create a scene, provide a frame. Notice a pattern? The setup opening can effectively communicate information about the story that might otherwise derail narrative momentum—that can instead create its own kind of narrative momentum when afforded space. Kazuo Ishiguro begins Never Let Me Go with Kathy telling us that that she’s, well, Kathy—Kathy H., a carer—drawing the reader into her identity in relation to her job, an important role from her perspective and an unusual one from the reader’s. Joy Williams’s “The Fellow” also begins with an explanation of the narrator’s job, leading the reader into its idiosyncrasies. In “Wrong Object,” Mona Simpson’s psychotherapist narrator describes K, one of her clients. Rebecca Makkai’s “A Story for Your Daughters, a Story for Your Sons” lays out the circumstances leading to the hat merchant’s journey. Each of these openings provides a sense of the protagonist’s world from outside the story’s events, thus preparing the reader for those events.

Though narrated from outside the story’s events, these openings can not only achieve the effects mentioned above but can also successfully establish the point of telling: where the narrator stands in time and space relative to the events of the story. The first chapter of Never Let Me Go soon has Kathy looking back on her youth, with the subsequent story framed by the present circumstances of her thirty-one-year-old self. Haruki Murakami does something similar in Norwegian Wood; the novel kicks off with what seems to be an in medias res opening as the narrator’s flight lands in Germany, but those circumstances quickly recede into the background (far into the background, in fact) as we find out the story that’s about to unfold happened years ago, events that the narrator must now tell because a memory is urging him to do so.

Each time it appears, it delivers a kick to some part of my mind. “Wake up,” it says. “I’m still here. Wake up and think about it. Think about why I’m still here.” […] At the Hamburg airport, though, the kicks were longer and harder than usual. Which is why I am writing this book. To think. To understand. It just happens to be the way I’m made. I have to write things down to feel I fully comprehend them.

Taking a more direct tack, To Be Taught, If Fortunate opens with a plea to a fictitious reader that rapidly frames Becky Chambers’s novella as a communique from a deep space mission to Earth, thereby clearly establishing its point of telling and also, crucially, what Makkai calls “the ear of the story,” who the story is ostensibly being told to.

So, we have two basic kinds of openings with various manifestations and outcomes. But we are talking about fiction here and, of course, are not beholden to either-or dichotomies. There are openings that move nimbly from background information to the present moment and vice versa. Marie-Helene Bertino starts “The Idea of Marcel” with a description of the protagonist’s situation—several months after a breakup, Emily is out on a date—then quickly moves into setting the scene: Emily sitting by herself, looking at birds outside the window. Similarly, “A Story for Your Daughters, a Story for Your Sons” executes a blink-of-an-eye transition from background to plot. “Love is Not a Pie” follows the narrator’s thoughts into details about her engagement, providing backstory.

photograph of marked up fiction in The New Yorker
photograph by Albert Liau

All right, an opening can do and accomplish various effects, but what must it achieve? Really, just this: the opening needs to orient the reader by locating the story in space and time as well as establishing who the protagonist is—preferably in a way that is engaging, hooking the reader. Everything we’ve considered—starting with dialogue, action, the premise—none of that matters if it leaves the reader disoriented. As Benjamin Percy says in his craft-memoir book Thrill Me, “When a reader first picks up a story, they are like a coma patient—fluttering open their eyes in an unfamiliar world, wondering, where am I, when am I, who am I? The writer has an obligation to quickly and effectively place the reader in the story.”

The start of Department of Speculation might seem to fly in the face of this, but actually it’s an exemplar:

Antelopes have 10× vision, you said. It was the beginning or close to it. That means that on a clear night they can see the rings of Saturn.

It was still months before we’d tell each other all our stories. And even then some seemed too small to bother with. So why do they come back to me now? Now, when I’m so weary of all of it.

Memories are microscopic. Tiny particles that swarm together and apart. Little people, Edison called them. Entities. He had a theory about where they came from and that theory was outer space.

The first time I traveled alone, I went to a restaurant and ordered a steak…

What is going on here? Antelopes, rings of Saturn, memories, Edison, steak? Isn’t this unmoored in space and time? Well, yes, and that’s precisely the point here: the mind is not bounded in time and space the way physical things are. The narrator is essentially telling us, “These are memories I’m recalling, pieces of the past that are interlinked—sometimes by tangential, seemingly random associations.” This opening, as good openings tend to, teaches us how to read the rest of the story by introducing the conventions it will adhere to so we can more fluidly follow the protagonist through their world.

As Alexander Chee said during a craft talk for Tin House, what we want in fiction “is that sense of the world, the character in it and the relationship between the character and the world.” Through whatever means it utilizes, an opening should begin to reveal those.

 


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.