Art of the Opening: Peter Selgin and YOUR FIRST PAGE
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. 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.
Peter Selgin’s latest novel, Duplicity, was a finalist in our 2019 CRAFT First Chapters Contest, and he has published several essays with us on revisiting classics. We are excited to share this look at Selgin’s craft book: Your First Page: First Pages and What They Tell Us about the Pages that Follow Them.
This column is led by associate editor Suzanne Grove and short fiction section co-editor Albert Liau. With this entry, Grove speaks with Selgin about the art of first pages, then in the second section, “Against False Suspense,” Selgin critiques five openings provided by writers on the CRAFT team. —CRAFT
Suzanne Grove: On your list of “Seven Deadly Sins: Common Errors,” creating false suspense via the withholding of information earns the second spot. I appreciate the distinction you make between what you call “plot questions” and questions that tease the reader, that seem to say, in your words, “[K]eep reading and you’ll figure out what in blazes is going on.” As I understand it, in the former, the writer opens by raising more nuanced questions that often flow back to character—what will this person do in this specific situation and how will it drive the story forward and eventually bring about change—whereas, in the latter, the writer has simply omitted basic grounding information. Can you further discuss that distinction and how writers, in examining their own work, can figure out the difference between the two?
Peter Selgin: The more contemporary fiction I read, the more it strikes me that writers are increasingly willing to avail themselves of what I call “false suspense,” which, when you come down to it, is just my fancy term for confusion. With true suspense, the biggest question raised by what we read is, “Given these characters and this situation, what might happen?” With false suspense, we’re too busy wondering what we’re reading to concern ourselves with the future. But as I began by saying, the technique has become so ubiquitous there is now the danger that any novel or short story that doesn’t confront us with at least some false suspense on the first page will seem out of line. Consider these openings chosen nearly at random from a collection of modern Japanese literature:
“The haiku master Ragetsu had decided to pay a summer visit to his younger sister, a teacher of tikiwazu in Imado, on the other side of Tokyo.”
“Down from the capital once there came to Saeki a teacher of English named Kunikida.”
“The year I was sixteen I spent my vacation alone at a friend’s summer house.”
“Sunday was a brilliantly clear day, the likes of which they had not seen in a long while.”
With each of these openings, as readers our connection with the fictional world is formed, if not instantly, close to it. Note how the first two present us with characters and situation, while in all three we’re oriented as to setting. Anyway, there is little cause for confusion. All three openings are from works written before 1960.
Compare with these opening sentences supplied by CRAFT volunteers:
“The feathers first came when I knew I didn’t want to become a mother anymore.”
“My last customer ordered a candle that smelled like their ex’s spit.”
“Chain-linked fence, dated stucco house, popped hood of a project car.”
With each of these contemporary openings, we’re plunged into what, a century ago, would more likely have been the middle and not the opening of a story—or rather the middle of a paragraph occurring somewhere near the middle of a story. To be sure, this sort of blitzkrieg opening gambit certainly gets one’s attention, nor am I arguing against it, except insofar as it is in danger of becoming predictable and even a cliché.
Then again, it’s possible to shock readers without disorienting them. To wit:
One morning, Gregor Samsa awoke from uneasy dreams to find himself transformed in his bed into a monstrous insect [translation mine].
We know the time (morning), we know the place (in bed), we know the character (Gregor Samsa), and we know the situation (he has been “transformed into a monstrous insect”). In brief, we know all we need to know to wonder: What will happen? True suspense.
SG: On this list you also write about sentimentality: “[E]motion in excess of experience.” This reminds me of a common issue we encounter in our submission queue. We often come across stories that immediately present inherently dramatic situations or reactions to those situations before we have a chance to get to know or understand the characters. I believe that often this is an attempt to create high stakes; but we haven’t formed a connection to the character yet, so we actually don’t understand what’s at stake for this specific character. Do you have any suggestions for writers on ways to create clear stakes early in a story without using sentimentality that creates a feeling of flatness or falseness?
PS: Of all the challenges fiction writers face, describing a character’s emotions has to be not only among the most difficult, but also the most thankless. The reason is simple enough: readers don’t want descriptions of feelings, they want the feelings themselves. And the way to get our readers to have feelings is to have them share our characters’ experiences. Do that effectively, and you get out from under the thankless task of describing them.
Of course, some feelings need to be described. When that happens, it’s typically because a characters’ emotional response is so unpredictable or unorthodox that readers aren’t able to supply it for themselves. But if a character’s likely response to a situation is sadness or tears, why state that they are sad, or worse, have them cry all over the page? Let the reader be sad; let the reader supply the tears.
The same goes for laughter. If a character does or says something funny, if at all possible don’t let them or other characters laugh in response, or anyway don’t tell us that they do. Leave the laughter to us readers.
When readers supply feelings, they have no cause to complain that the feelings aren’t adequately or accurately described. Something similar holds for transitions. If you can imply rather than describe a transition (for instance, using white space), do it. Never miss an opportunity to let your prospective readers work for you.
SG: Here at CRAFT, I think one of the first things to capture our attention about a story is its narrative voice. I know that if the voice excels, I can forgive—or honestly not even immediately notice—other “errors.” I believe voice develops through reading, reading, reading—and more reading—as well as simply experimenting on the page. What advice do you give your students about infusing the opening pages with a strong voice?
PS: “Voice” is one of those words that, when it comes to writing, can mean so many different things. For some it means the style of a particular work; for others it’s synonymous with point of view, for other still it means a quality informing an author’s entire oeuvre.
As writers, we may have different “voices” to choose from, as we have different clothes that we wear on different occasions. For instance, in answering these questions, I find myself slipping inadvertently into a somewhat (but not too, I hope) pedantic voice, the voice of someone who feels he has commandeered some authority when it comes to his subject. He may be wrong, but he sounds as if he knows what he’s talking about; at any rate, he has managed to convince at least one person: himself. Then again, he is not without a sense of humility or humor. Under that pedantic, confident surface, he is in fact entirely human, someone you might even enjoy having a beer with (though, in keeping with his snobbish demeanor, he may ask for wine).
I’m being playful here, but mainly to make a point: that this thing we call “voice” really comes down to who speaks to us? Namely: The narrator. Whatever form our stories take, without exception they have a narrator (or narrators). Whatever strategies they use, these narrators who tell our stories, who speak to our readers, who describe the thoughts and actions of our characters, are themselves—or should at the very least be thought of as—characters. They have attitudes; they have opinions; they have personalities; they have vocabularies. I say forget about your voice. It’s not your voice that matters so much, but the voices of your narrators: who are, or should, at any rate, sound human.
This brings me to the only definition of point of view that seems to me accurate. Point of view is the difference between the author and the narrator. In discovering the voice of your narrator, you establish that difference.
SG: Speaking of voice, I’m now thinking about the opening of your novel Duplicity, which we first read when it was a finalist for the 2019 CRAFT First Chapters Contest. The voice and rhythm of those first paragraphs are so strong, pulling in the reader. I immediately get swept up in the narrative—no looking back. Often, I hear writers say the voice either always arrives first, or, if an image or situation arrives first, the voice becomes the first element they have to work to nail down. How did this opening come to you? That initial question or the strong details of the body? Or perhaps that numbered list? Was the voice present all along?
The Opening of Duplicity:
How would you feel if you found yourself dead?
How would you feel, seeing yourself hanging naked from an oak ceiling beam, held there by a length of blue nylon rigging rope looped around your neck? How would you feel, seeing the same brown eyes, the same thinning hair, the same hairless pale legs with the same knobby knees, the same size ten-and-a-half feet with the same splayed toes featuring the same ingrown toenails, the same long arms and bony wrists, the same small hands with identical stubby fingers and twin pasty palms held out at the hips as if answering the question (“Why???”) with a shrug?
I might have been looking in a mirror save for:
- that blue rope around my neck
- the red-purple blotches at the body’s lower extremities
- and the fact that, unlike me, my doppelgänger was thoroughly, utterly, categorically dead…
PS: If memory serves me, I lived with that opening for several years before I had any idea of what to do with it. I knew that I liked it, since it aroused so much intrigue and raised so many implications. How would someone feel if they found themselves dead? It didn’t take Holmesian powers of deduction to conclude that the protagonist of this work-in-embryo was one of a set of twins. I suppose over those several years the implications of that opening ripened and festered and dropped spores and did whatever else implications do when left to their own devices, until one day I began writing what became Duplicity, by which time the voice was there. It was the main character’s—Stewart Detweiler’s—voice. Once I had Stewart, once I felt I knew him enough to become him, from then on, the question of voice was settled, and the novel nearly wrote itself. I say, “nearly wrote itself,” but what I mean is that Stewart took over the writing. He knew what to say and when and how to say it. As long as I let Stewart make such decisions, my job was easy enough. I had only to steer his monologue, to keep it from drifting too far astray of the novel’s themes and purpose. It was like walking a spirited dog on a leash.
As for the opening description of the hanging corpse: Despite that it was a donnée, or because of that, since it was written before I had Stewart, my narrator, I had to work that passage rather hard to get it into tone and rhythm with the rest while also having it carry a lot of exposition. In fact, the opening paragraphs are the only parts of the novel that Stewart didn’t write. You could say he was brought in as a sort of rewrite man.
SG: In the first section of Your First Page, you offer “beginning at the end” as one opening strategy. I immediately think of Donna Tartt’s The Secret History: “The snow in the mountains was melting and Bunny had been dead for several weeks before we came to understand the gravity of our situation.” I know some editors remain hesitant about this move and view it as creating suspense by giving away the ending. You write that “[t]rading beginnings for endings is an old trick, but not a bad one.” How can writers bring a fresh approach to this “old trick”?
PS: I think as with so many things that necessity is the key. If the material demands that sort of strategy, if that’s what serves it best, then so be it: it won’t seem forced. When as writers we do things to indulge or amuse ourselves, to show off, we tend to make bad choices. On the other hand, if the goal is to humbly serve our stories, then the choices we make, however unorthodox, are bound to be good ones. That’s true of almost any device or strategy, including telling a story backwards or through some sort of “frame.”
I’m often asked a similar question regarding similes: when to use them, how to write good ones. My answer comes down to those stepping stools people keep in their kitchens. Similes are exactly like those stools: you don’t use them to describe things that can be “reached” without resorting to a comparison. You use them because you have to. When you have to use them, that need will furnish you with the right comparison. Most similes fail because they aren’t sufficiently needed.
SG: Can you share a few of your favorite openings from literature in the past few years—novel or short fiction? What about them moved you and pushed you to keep reading?
PS: May I do as the politicians and answer a slightly different and easier (for me) question? Namely: What are some of my favorite openings in literature? I’ve already mentioned one, the opening to Kafka’s Metamorphosis, an opening that so thoroughly disarms us with its fantastic declaration that we’ve no choice: we must either reject the premise at once or swallow it whole. So much for world-building. Another favorite:
They threw me off the hay truck about noon.
—the opening to James M. Cain’s The Postman Always Rings Twice. Here once again you have action, setting, and situation all compacted into one neat sentence, and little if any need for explanation or clarification. Before we know it, we are right there, on the same page as the protagonist, shaking hay off our shoulders.
I like this opening to Margo Livesey’s The Boy in the Field:
Here is what happened one Monday in the month of September, in the last year of the last century.
Of first sentences I’ve encountered, my favorite may well be:
On towards four in the morning it starts to rain.
This wistful sigh opens Efraim’s Book, by Alfred Andersch (translated from the German by Ralph Manheim), a novel that, through a series of interwoven digressions that carry reader and narrator alike seamlessly through time and space, tells about an English journalist of German Jewish extraction confronting the past—not just his own past, but World War II and the Holocaust: a novel as hauntingly beautiful as it’s unfairly forgotten.
Let’s face it: There are as many great openings as there are great books. In point of fact, when a book becomes great, it lifts its opening to greatness. To the extent that our openings serve whatever follows them, their goodness or badness rests on the quality of what they serve. Our beginnings are but the means that our ends justify—or not. When it comes to beginnings, to quote Shakespeare, all’s well that [goes on and] ends well.
 1. Sumidagawa, by Nagai Kafu; 2. Gen Oji, by Kunikida Doppo; 3. Gin no Saji, by Naka Kansuke; 4. Ukigumo, by Futabatei Shimei. Modern Japanese Literature, edited by Donald Keene.
Against False Suspense
Each of these openings is well-written and intriguing in its way. My critiques will focus on a quality that, to varying degrees, they all have in common, namely “false suspense,” suspense that owes more to confusion than to awareness. My purpose isn’t to say that the openings don’t work or that in their present form they’d have to go begging for publication. It’s to ask: What’s earned by false suspense, and what may be sacrificed?
Example #1 (short story)
The feathers first came when I knew I didn’t want to become a mother anymore. I wasn’t regular. I thought it would be easy to keep Peter off the path of my ovulation but then there were the feathers. Day 11, day 12, day 18, my shoulders burst with greasy little chicken sprouts and Peter knew I was prime.
Then the luteal phase would come and I’d molt and we’d wait and Peter would make these little jokes about how sweet it was that I became like a bird every time my body dropped an egg.
It didn’t matter that I didn’t want to get pregnant because I wasn’t getting pregnant. Peter believed that to be at the heart of my hurt, not that each month I was growing something new and beautiful, something that I couldn’t admire openly, something that would go away as soon as he’d gotten what he wanted.
In April I grew mottled pigeon plumes, then May manifested a cardinal’s red. June delivered a strange black and aqua.
Peter looked it up at work. “It’s a new bird-of-paradise,” he said. “The color is for attracting mates,” he said. “When they spread their wings, it makes a goofy smile and the lady birds go wild.” Peter started sticking out his tongue. Peter wrinkled his nose. Peter drew a mask on a paper plate and asked me if it was time.
This intriguing opening is all idea: each time the narrator ovulates, she sprouts the feathers of a different type of bird. By itself the premise is so evocative, so satisfactorily self-contained, I have to wonder what will be gained in subsequent pages beyond diminishing returns?
Read as the beginning of something longer, the opening presents me with characters who exist, or seem to, mainly as armatures for the premise. There will be time, of course, to give them more dimensions. Still, I can’t help wishing we had as many particulars with respect to the people as of the birds whose plumages inform their lives, that I’d been grounded in a less fabulous reality before feathers start sprouting.
This suggestion would seem to fly in the face of what Kafka does in his Metamorphosis, wherein the first sentence delivers the full dose of fabulation. But I would argue that where with his sensational premise Kafka needed to strike a definitive first blow, allowing the reader no time for resistance, with this story the less sensational sprouting of feathers could more effectively happen to a couple whose reality we’ve already entered into and accepted as our own. By having no quotidian reality established before the feathers grow, the fantastic element is dampened.
Then again, the story might begin with the present opening sentence that thrusts us into its sensational premise, then take a few steps back into the past to establish, with some grit, the unextraordinary circumstances out of which this extraordinary premise grew.
Example #2 (short story)
By Monday Shelly had returned to destroy me. I kept finding her in the Skate Room. First, she appeared as my mother. Then as Helen of Troy. And then just as she was; bubblegum-haired, Xtra large Diet-Coke handed, a great fake hiccupper, born here, raised here, kind in a bad way. “I don’t know what to say,” she said. “I love Gary now.” Then she disappeared in a bulbous cloud of Lysol.
It was Sunday morning, a time in which people weren’t real and only the animatronic cackling of the green-haired alien from the Skeeball machine could be heard echoing across the rink. My manager, Meg, a short, stocky woman with a clean, baby face and an almost-mustache, said over headset, “Get your skates on. We’ve got five birthday parties today. It’s going to be a bloodbath.” But of course, all I could think about was Gary.
With its clash of incongruous images, this opening paragraph is extremely alluring. One doesn’t often find Helen of Troy and Diet Coke in the same place. Still, I’m pulled into the story with too little orientation to comprehend, let alone to share, the narrator’s feelings. With the second paragraph we gain some welcomed grounding in time, space, and event. Why not begin with the second paragraph and from there narrate events leading to the first, then continue from there?
Example #3 (short story)
Chain-linked fence, dated stucco house, popped hood of a project car. The pattern of the neighborhood repeats itself, even the sound of the bike’s engine turning over a reminder of the loop Luis is stuck inside.
How is it that at twenty-four, he can still get roped into playing another round of i-Spy Hank? Luis already wasted too many nights on this game as a kid, he and Aunt Jay circling the neighborhood in the Old Corolla, calling out for his father as though he were some dog who got loose from the fence.
I earn my living. That had been the response when Luis asked his father to lay off the landscape work, try for that disability income the nurse had talked about. Of course, Luis should have seen how such concern would be insulting to a man like Hank who gives his number to a twenty-something nurse—for business or personal uses—not five minutes after she goes over his treatment plan for stage-three liver disease.
“What’re you doing?” Some asshole in a red truck cuts Luis off so close on the two-lane road, he has to swerve past the lane marker to avoid getting hit. “It ain’t the season for Christmas lights!” A confederate-flag decal fills his back windshield.
We’re scarcely engaged by this opening in which the protagonist rides his motorcycle through a familiar neighborhood when his ruminations carry us elsewhere, to a younger version of himself with his aunt circling the same neighborhood in an “Old Corolla,” to him asking his father to “lay off the landscape work” at another time in some other place that, likewise, is no sooner broached than it’s traded for a medical facility, where his father, consulting his doctor regarding a plan to treat his liver disease, “gives his number to a twenty-something nurse.” With the opening’s final paragraph, in which a truck cuts Luis and his bike off, we return to the primary scene.
There’s much to take in here, maybe too much. By way of cast members alone we have Luis on his motorcycle, his aunt, his father for whom he is searching and who clearly occupies a central, enigmatic place in the story, but whom we have yet to meet in the flesh: he exists only as a tantalizing allusion among other tantalizing allusions that add up to an abstract or sneak-preview, like the rapid-cut montages that recapitulate prior events in TV series, only in this case what’s being previewed is the rest of the story.
Many if not most contemporary stories begin this way, without securing our investment in any particular event or scene. Still, I can’t help wondering what would happen to this opening if the first paragraph invested us more deeply invested in Luis’s motorcycle ride before his memories carry us into other scenes.
Example #4 (short story)
She found it hard, like most people, to list her admirable qualities. Words like “kindness,” “loyalty,” and “generosity,” while important, and apt descriptors for someone like Lorna, felt flimsy and altogether too abstract. She preferred the concrete: she was almost always on time, appropriately dressed for all seasons and occasions, and her mental math was advanced enough to split a bill + twenty percent tip between parties. What she truly admired about herself, though, was her devotion to problem solving. As a young child, she was once reprimanded by her teacher for trying to force a wooden star-shaped block through a circular hole. It wasn’t that she had trouble with her shapes, rather she had a relentless desire to make impossible solutions to the most basic problems.
If sentimentality is emotion in excess of experience, this qualifies as a sentimental description of Lorna, since it precedes any experience involving her. We get answers before the questions have been raised. In legalese, “need to know” describes the restriction of data considered sensitive. In fiction it might describe a restriction on exposition until or unless one has aroused some curiosity as to the matter at hand: in this case, a character named Lorna. Yes, I want to learn about her, but as someone existing in a situation rather than inertly by way of disembodied description.
This isn’t a rule; if it were, like all rules for writing, it would be breakable. I’m merely suggesting a different approach, one that might earn more curiosity and empathy from readers.
Example #5 (flash fiction)
My last customer ordered a candle that smelled like their ex’s spit. I hoped it wasn’t a harsh smell like morning breath or the hot, wet panting of a drunken man. It ended up being a smell much harder to capture, something sour and sweet with a touch of melancholy—like a strawberry patch decaying in the frost. The man who ordered it wrote me a note that said It’s perfect. It’s horribly, wonderfully perfect. I understood. You don’t get into the candle making business because the smells you love most are still in your life.
Another most intriguing opening, one that thrusts us into the most neglected of senses in fiction: the sense of smell. With this opening, too, however, I feel that I could be less disoriented to greater effect. For my money, this would make a better opener:
You don’t get into the candle making business because the smells you love most are still in your life.
Then proceed with a variation of what is now the first sentence:
You don’t get into the candle making business because the smells you love most are still in your life. My last customer ordered one that smelled like their ex’s spit…
(Mind you, the opening thought could use some un-muddling. The smells missing from a candle-makers’ life aren’t what matter to the candle-maker. What matters, at least so far as their business is concerned, are the smells that are missing from the customers’ lives.)
In analyzing openings, I always take note of the ratio of information given to questions raised. With more successful openings, a balance is achieved between the two. But what matters more than the quantity of questions is their quality. Do they propel us forward into the story, or merely have us flailing for answers that the characters already have?
Assuming that they want to, writers used to reading and writing openings that trade in false suspense will have a hard time breaking the habit. So long have they subsisted on diets of false suspense, anything else may strike their palate as unsavory.
PETER SELGIN is the author of Drowning Lessons, winner of the 2007 Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction. He has written two novels, three books on the craft of writing, two essay collections, plays, and several children’s books. Confessions of a Left-Handed Man, his memoir-in-essays, was a finalist for the William Saroyan International Prize. His memoir, The Inventors, won the 2017 Housatonic Book Award. His latest novel, Duplicity, was a finalist for the 2020 Elixir Press Fiction Award and for the 2019 Craft First Chapters Contest. His essays have appeared in the Colorado Review, Missouri Review, Gettysburg Review, The Sun, Best American Essays, and Best American Travel Writing. His illustrations and paintings have been featured in The New Yorker, Forbes, Gourmet, Outside, Boston Magazine, The Wall Street Journal, and elsewhere. He is Associate Professor of Creative Writing at Georgia College and State University in Milledgeville, Georgia, where he is nonfiction editor and art director of Arts & Letters, the international journal of poetry and prose.
SUZANNE GROVE currently serves as the associate editor for CRAFT. Her fiction and poetry appear or are forthcoming in The Adirondack Review, Barren Magazine, The Carolina Quarterly, No Tokens, Okay Donkey, The Penn Review, Porter House Review, Raleigh Review, XRAY, and elsewhere. She has also received honorable mention for her fiction appearing on Farrar, Straus & Giroux’s Work in Progress website. You can find her at SuzanneGrove.com.