Art of the Opening: What Is It Like to Be a Protagonist?
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 in Alexander Weinstein’s short story collections. —CRAFT
How Alexander Weinstein establishes experiential reality right off the bat
As much as we love being immersed in the expansive world of a novel, story collections have a notable advantage over novels: variety of characters, circumstances, themes and, crucially for us, different approaches to storytelling. By looking at variation across stories, we see how an author makes craft-related decisions to achieve certain effects. In Alexander Weinstein’s story collections Children of the New World and Universal Love, the stories are always speculative, exploring the impacts of technology on peoples’ lives, but the narrative modes vary considerably. Here’s a rough overview* of a few fundamental narrative choices Weinstein has made in his short fiction:
Going by these numbers, it seems that Weinstein is more inclined to narrate with a first-person point of view, and he may have a slight preference for starting stories in medias res. When used together, the combination of an in medias res opening with first-person POV (which occurs in twelve stories across both collections) can create a sense of immediacy and intimacy. And an in medias res opening with first-person narration in present tense (which occurs in eight stories) essentially tells the reader, “This is happening in my life, right now.” That’s what we have with “Saying Goodbye to Yang,” the first story in Children of the New World.
We’re sitting around the table eating Cheerios—my wife sipping tea, Mika playing with her spoon, me suggesting apple picking over the weekend—when Yang slams his head into his cereal bowl. It’s a sudden mechanical movement, and it splashes cereal and milk all over the table. Yang rises, looking as though nothing odd just occurred, and then he slams his face into the bowl again. Mika thinks this is hysterical. She starts mimicking Yang, bending over to dunk her own face in the milk, but Kyra’s pulling her away from the table and whisking her out of the kitchen so I can take care of Yang.
We’re right there in the middle of that family breakfast as something suddenly goes horribly wrong with one of the children—Yang is a child, isn’t he? Or did the narrator mean “mechanical” literally? As the scene develops, we don’t get any answers, yet the story proceeds with what George Saunders calls “increased specification”—the accrual of particular details (Mika’s reaction, Kyra’s reaction to Mika’s reaction) that narrow the narrative path. In this case, we’re likely to continue down this path in order to find out what’s happening to Yang. An in medias res opening with first-person narration in present tense puts us right in the narrator’s life as it unfolds, and if that unfolding piques our interest, we’ll stay with the narrator.
If this craft trifecta achieves such a powerful effect, why not start every story like this? Because that’s not always what the story needs. A different effect may be necessary—or the same effect delivered differently. When we take a closer look at Children of the New World and Universal Love, we find that virtually every story begins by bringing us directly into the protagonist’s circumstances; not necessarily pulling us into the present moment of a character’s life but always establishing key elements of that life. The narration makes a straight shot for things that matter, key particularities of the protagonist’s life.
We can see this in the first sentence of “Childhood,” in which Weinstein chooses a setup that introduces the main characters and how their lives began—doing so succinctly and with the increased specification of boxes, parents, names, birthday, ages:
They arrived in boxes on a rainy August morning, their ETA marked on their parents’ calendar with the words Joey & Lacy’s Birthday, and they emerged into the world at ten and fourteen, a memory they often talked about in their separate beds.
Immediately we’re in a world where synthetic (presumably robotic) children can be purchased, and these particular synthetic children reminisce about when they became members of their family. Compare that with the in medias res opening of “The Year of Nostalgia,” which sets the plot in motion with the inciting incident:
Nin found Dad frozen in the backyard. He wasn’t trimming the hedges, just standing with clippers in hand, staring at the bushes, she told me. Who knew how long he’d been like that, his body shivering. She’d put her hand on his back and guided him inside, where she made him a cup of tea.
“You need to come home, Leah,” she said. So I asked for another week off, got a reluctant yes, and headed back to Ohio.
Again, we get an introduction to the characters and their situations, though this time, the narration is concerned with the personal circumstances of an aging parent; the speculative elements of the story come later. And these openings aren’t just about the context the characters are in; both introduce the characters’ psychological reality—in one case, wonder about how their lives began and in the other, worry about how the life of a loved one might end. Both “Childhood” and “The Year of Nostalgia” rapidly convey objective and subjective aspects of the characters’ experiences.
Literary fiction tends to be concerned with the question, “What does it feel like to be a person in the world?”—the world being the physical and psychological reality of the protagonist. And compelling literary fiction often starts addressing that question at the very outset of the story, on both sensory and psychological levels of experience. Beginning with “Beijing,” here’s a look at the experiential realities Weinstein depicts in the first paragraph of his stories:
The sandstorms had returned from Mongolia, bringing with them a suspension of dust so thick it layered silt against the sides of buildings and swallowed high-rises within yellow clouds. The dust settled amid the strati of plastic fumes which stretched across the apartment, coating Gabriel’s throat with sand and reminding him of that winter, before he’d left for China, when his brother had pushed his face into a snowbank and nearly killed him.
What it feels like to be alive now: Choked by fine particles, haunted by past hostility. “Ice Age” also begins with environmental conditions:
The igloo is cold this morning. It’s been getting chillier ever since we had to cut back on wood rations. But this morning, with the winter winds whistling past our entrance from the north, even the furs don’t keep us warm.
Freezing temperatures with limited resources, things going from bad to worse. And we have to wonder how much worse things could get in “Mountain Song” when it unequivocally portrays environmental disaster with its first sentences:
That autumn, the robins and blue jays began filling walkways and roads, flapping aimlessly when I passed. They’d stopped building nests in trees, and come October, the skies weren’t filled with migrating geese. Instead, I watched them hang around our neighborhood for far too long.
Witnessing wildlife behaving abnormally, the spectacle inescapable to the point that bearing witness is inevitable. In “Openness,” it’s not birds that are in trouble but people:
Before I decided to finally give up on New York, I subbed classes at a junior high in Brooklyn. A sixth-grade math teacher suffering from downloading anxiety was out for the year, and jobs being what they were, I took any opportunity I could.
The desperation of trying to make ends meet in the big city. Which is distinctly different from the man-vs.-nature vibe of the previous examples, but again, Weinstein immediately places us in the protagonist’s circumstances.
In each of these openings, we get an impression of the story’s world. In large part because there’s something for us to “grab on to,” as Rebecca Makkai puts it—concrete elements that our imaginations readily run with. An opening must give us such concreteness, because as Janet Burroway says in Writing Fiction, “We need to be oriented on the simplest level of reality before we can share your imaginative world. Where are we? When are we? Who are they? How do things look? What time of day or night is it? What’s the weather? What’s happening?” Alexander Weinstein gets us right into the physical reality of the story and from there into its psychological reality. The sooner a story situates the reader in the protagonist’s experiential reality, the sooner it can plumb the depths of that reality—perhaps taking the reader away from their own familiar reality, as speculative fiction often does, while bringing the reader closer to our shared humanity.
And its repeated proximity to shared humanity that the well-crafted story collection ultimately offers, each close encounter soliciting our empathy. “A story is a frank, intimate conversation between equals,” George Saunders says in A Swim in the Pond in the Rain (“About equals,” adds Kirsten Valdez Quade). And oh, how wondrous to be drawn close quickly, right into that heart-to-heart—that triangulation of psyches—by resolute honesty that conveys what it’s like to be a person in the world, time and time again, shown how we can do this too.
Openings for You
- Consider a story you’re working on or thinking about starting. How can its opening paragraph give the reader a sense of what it feels like to be alive now? What key facets of the protagonist’s experiential reality can you introduce in the first few sentences?
- Description isn’t the only way a writer can portray experiential reality. For example, Neil Gaiman’s “When We Went to See the End of the World by Dawnie Morningside, Age 11 ¼” starts with this tween recounting an exchange between her parents that quickly becomes fraught. Experiment with elements of craft like dialogue, pacing, or tone, to get at the protagonist’s experiential reality.
- Can you use backstory to communicate an important aspect of a character’s current circumstances? In “Choking Victim,” Alexandra Kleeman contrasts the protagonist’s past with her present to portray the isolation that afflicts her. Try conveying, even heightening, what it feels like for your protagonist to be alive now by contrasting it with how it felt like to be alive at another time.
*A Note on Counting: Innovative fiction often defies easy categorization. Children of the New World contains thirteen stories, but “Excerpts from the New World Authorized Dictionary” was not included in the analysis as its form does not lend itself to clear delineation in terms of conventional craft elements. “A Brief History of the Failed Revolution,” which is written in an academic style, should perhaps have been treated similarly, but since it has a narrative arc, it was treated as a story that opens with setup and third-person narration.
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. Albert is a short fiction section co-editor at CRAFT.