Art of the Opening: Move Fast and Make Things Happen
First impressions matter. The opening lines, paragraphs, and pages of a story, essay, memoir, 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 prose we publish. In this column, we explore 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 associate editor Suzanne Grove and short fiction section co-editor Albert Liau, working together on behalf of CRAFT. With this piece, Liau considers the openings of fabulist flash fiction. —CRAFT
When flash fiction works in fabulist ways
“The speed is exhilarating,” Philip Pullman says of fairy tales in Daemon Voices: On Stories and Storytelling, a collection of his perspectives on literary craft. Indeed, in little to no time at all, Little Red Riding Hood is off to Grandma’s house, the three little pigs are building their houses, and Goldilocks is sampling the three bears’ porridge. “You can only go that fast, however, if you’re traveling light,” Pullman elaborates, “so none of the information you’d look for in a modern work of fiction—names, appearances, background, social context, etc.—is present.” These remarks could also apply to the fairy tale’s younger cousin, flash fiction—especially when it comes to the lithe works of Ben Loory and OG sudden-fiction author Barry Yourgrau; their stories each get off to a running start with narration that moves the reader briskly along what Pullman calls “the path” (the progression of the story), leaving “the woods” (the broader world of the story) merely implied—largely up to the reader to conjure.
Consider Barry Yourgrau’s three-paragraph story “Bomb,” which starts with a dash down the path, hardly affording a glance at the woods.
A man happens to look behind his couch and see a bomb. His heart freezes. He stares at the stiff black hands of the alarm clock strapped to the grease-cloth package. His ears fill with the sound of ticking. At last he is able to rouse himself from terror-hypnotized immobility. He tiptoes towards the door.
The piece cares little for the setting or the protagonist’s identity, preferring immediacy and leading with the inciting incident before heading right into the character’s reaction. This allows the story to have a grab-and-go effect on the reader’s attention, pulling the reader into and through the plot.
But flash fiction need not take an in medias res route to move nimbly. Ben Loory takes a page (phrase, really) right out of the fairy-tale playbook to begin several stories with classic setups:
- “Once upon a time, a man went to China.”
- “Once there was a squid who fell in love with the sun.”
- “There once was a girl who was lost in a storm.”
- “Once there was a man who was afraid of his shadow.”
The stage setting doesn’t last long. In “The Man Who Went to China,” the trip-to-China backstory is complete after a short paragraph and a sentence, and the story then brings us to “the box,” the mysterious object that becomes the focus. By the middle of the second paragraph of “The Squid Who Fell in Love with the Sun,” the setup is over, and the narration hurtles headlong into a tale of longing, determination and a sentient spaceship. After establishing the situation in its first sentence, “The Girl in the Storm” brings the reader right into the thick of things—girl vs. nature, nature with the unequivocal upper hand. As for the man with a case of sciophobia, the situation takes a sharp turn in the second sentence.
These stories practically insist that there’s no time to spare, none that can be afforded to description. “We have to keep going,” they seem to say, “we have to get to what happens to this character. That’s what matters here.” And in the case of “Bomb,” the story’s second and third sentences function like a tight closeup, telling the reader, “Now, forget the couch—living room too, if there even is one. It’s man and bomb—man vs. bomb.”
So in each of these examples, Yourgrau and Loory establish momentum in the space of several sentences. They make things happen and keep them happening, creating urgency—one of the three things Cara Blue Adams says strong stories usually have. These flash fictions also possess the other two: vividness and depth. Vividness—that feeling of entering a world, as Adams puts it—usually means concrete detail. Like the remark, “My, what sharp teeth you have,” phrases in flash fiction can quickly give the imaginative mind just enough specific detail to form a picture of the important elements. Is the couch in “Bomb” black leather or green velvet? Doesn’t matter. What the reader needs to see is the bomb—an old-school clock rigged to detonate rag-wrapped explosives.
Depth, which Adams describes as the sense that an intelligence is confiding in us—is achieved by way of suggestion as “Bomb” continues. The second paragraph begins, “In the first scenario, he gets out in time.” Scenario? Are we now in the realm of hypotheticals or is the story forking into different narrative arcs? Or is this a Schrödinger’s cat of a story, with no definitive outcome until the man has or hasn’t escaped the bomb? Or maybe the second scenario is the true or more appealing one because it gets the last words, the story ending with, “And that’s how his great adventure begins.” This may leave the reader with a variety of questions, and that opportunity for philosophical interpretation is made possible by the start of the piece, by the arc it initiates. Beginning: sudden crisis; ending: new adventure. To riff off Nate Brown, the managing editor of American Short Fiction, there’s a particular kind of resonance that can come from an ending that “is in some conversation with the story’s opening.”
We have something similar in “The Girl in the Storm,” which culminates in a provocative conclusion constructed upon its beginning. Capitalizing on gender dynamics implied at the story’s outset, the ending takes a turn that is simple yet unsettling, perhaps bringing to mind thoughts of codependency or even Stockholm Syndrome. Here, the story becomes complicated by troubling, old-timey gender tropes that prod consideration of social norms—to the degree that I had to write a version called “The Boy in the Storm” (included below as “bonus” material), a recasting of the story in attempts to uncover something Loory seems to have hidden in plain sight. The fact that “The Girl in the Storm” inspired me to make a gender-swapped retelling is evidence that here Loory achieves the melding of story and reader that Etgar Keret describes in an episode of The New Yorker: Fiction podcast: “When you write a text that is short, it should feel like a Kool-Aid of a story. Something that the reader needs to mix with himself so it will become a complete story.”
In the same podcast episode, Keret says that writing very short fiction is akin to surfing, the author maneuvering skillfully to ride atop a crest of narrative possibilities. Maybe that’s how the stories we’ve considered here were written. Maybe not. Maybe Yourgrau and Loory make the reader a surfer riding a wave of language, until it vanishes as quickly as it came.
Openings for You
- Try launching into a new flash fiction piece by starting with an inciting incident or the briefest of setups, simply yet compellingly stated. How might you keep the story going from there with events and actions? How might you keep the reader moving down the path, rarely—if ever—lingering by its side, looking into the woods?
- Consider a story you’re working on or thinking about starting. Try writing it as flash or microfiction in which the plot points come in rapid succession. What does condensing the story this way tell you about its events and other core elements—about the path and the woods?
The Boy in the Storm
There once was a boy who was lost in a storm. He ran this way and that, this way and that, trying to find a way home. But the sky was too dark, and the rain too fierce; all the boy did was go in circles.
Then, suddenly, there were arms around him. Gentle arms, kind gentle arms. And they picked up the boy and carried him away.
When he awoke, he was lying in bed.
It was a soft bed—very soft—by a crackling fire. The blankets were warm, and he was dry. He looked around the room. There were tapestries on the walls.
There was a hot cup of tea on the nightstand.
Hello? called the boy. Hello? Hello?
A young woman appeared in the doorway. She looked down at the boy with a sweet, quiet smile.
Feeling better? she said.
And he did.
The boy stayed with the woman for quite a long time, until he had all his strength back.
It’s probably time for me to go home, he said, and started to gather his clothes.
But when he got to the door, he saw the rain was still falling. If anything, it was falling even harder. So he took off his clothes again, and went back to bed, and lay in the woman’s arms a little longer.
This went on for many, many years, and eventually the boy grew very old.
And then one day he discovered on the wall by the door the switch that turned the rain on and off.
He stood there staring at the beautiful day outside, and then down at the simple little switch. He listened as the birds flew by the window, singing.
And then he turned and went back to bed.
In the night, that night, the woman woke up.
Did the rain stop? she said. I dreamt it did.
And the boy put his arms around the woman and held her tight.
It might have, he said. But it’s all right.
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.