The Art of the Opening: Microcosm to Macrocosm
How “The Ghost Birds” Spreads Its Wings after Taking the Leap
By Albert Liau •
How does a story begin to enchant us? When speaking with First Draft host Mitzi Rapkin, Richard Powers seems to suggest an answer: “You have to allow the beginning to be a kind of microcosm of everything that’s going to unfold from it, a tiny little seed that has a fractal version of the novel all compressed into the first opening paragraphs. But it also has to seem simple and transparent, very easy to enter into for the reader who is coming into this world blind.” Though Powers is talking specifically about novels, we often get similar craft advice about short fiction: a story’s beginning should contain the important elements in miniature, and for good reason. When a story starts by offering an enticing glimpse of the macrocosm to come, the narration sets the reader along a path into that fictitious realm.
For example, in Karen Russell’s “The Ghost Birds,” the narration draws us into a dystopia of ecological disaster and supernatural wonder by providing a marvelous microcosm of the story’s craft elements. Here’s the first paragraph:
I led the way through the woods because I didn’t want my daughter to have her first encounter with the ghost flock alone. We were trespassing, but it seemed highly unlikely we’d be caught—the school had been abandoned since the previous century, when ash from the Great Western Fires made most of the region unlivable. My daughter had never set foot inside an old-fashioned brick-and-mortar school, and seemed more intrigued by the idea of seeing a chalkboard than by the birds. The school was on the outskirts of a Red Zone in our family’s ancestral breeding grounds—“Oregon” on older maps, the ones from my boyhood. An evocative name, a name I loved and mispronounced with reverence at the age of eleven. I grew up in a town called Eugene, in the shadow of mountains that were unreachable by my third birthday. Ore-gone.
Before we get into headier ideas, let’s consider when a story begins. with this perspective from Daemon Voices by Philip Pullman: “[T]he storyteller must choose one moment, the most suitable moment, and make that the start.” For “The Ghost Birds,” that one moment is of a parent (a father, we soon learn) leading a child to an abandoned school. In the first two sentences, we have our characters in motion toward an ostensible goal along with the suggestion of stakes—an exemplar of A. M. Homes’ perspective: “A short story is like taking the train cross country, but you get on in Chicago. It’s already in motion—something’s already happening when you’re called to be in the story.” Accordingly, as the first paragraph of “The Ghost Birds” continues, we quickly find out what kind of motion and how much motion has preceded: an expedition into an area ravaged by disaster, in a long-since depleted Oregon. This shift may seem odd as it takes us away from the action, but it introduces us to the backstory (events that precede those the story’s dramatic present), which, as we’ll see, has its own action. And beyond that, the backstory offers context that may relate to the story’s character arcs—the changes the characters undergo.
The first paragraph uses a moment as the basis to achieve a number of goals:
- introduce the characters,
- set them toward a goal,
- hint at tension,
- raise possibilities for the character arcs,
- describe the world all that exists in,
- and establish the voice.
Impressively, the beginning compactly and compellingly delivers the key elements of the story, and crucially, it simultaneously lays out the narrative strategy, which Christopher Castellani describes in The Art of Perspective as “the set of organizing principles that (in)form how the author is telling the story….” For “The Ghost Birds,” that set of organizing principles can be summed up as a first-person, past-tense narration that combines the recounting of a parent-child expedition with backstory through a voice that’s highly articulate. Voice, to paraphrase Mark Doty, can be thought of as the texture of subjective experience, and here that experience exudes a keen awareness and forthright perspective. This narrative stance is consistent with the past-tense narration, which allows the events of the story to be related with particular clarity because they happened in the narrator’s past.
But past relative to what point in time? Or, in other words, when is this story being told? The second paragraph provides a hint: “She is turning fourteen in November, and she has never seen a bird offscreen.” This use of present tense tells us that Starling is still thirteen in the narrator’s present, which then can’t be too far ahead of the events being recounted. Now we have a sense of the story’s point of telling, where the narrator stands in time relative to what happens in the story.
So here’s what we’ve got in the opening of “The Ghost Birds”: the first paragraph compactly presents the story’s elements—characters, setting, plot, backstory, narrative strategy—with the subsequent paragraphs giving us the point of telling, additional character development, and more world building. Taken together, the initial paragraphs are a microcosm of the macrocosm we as readers are steadily moving further into.
But why is that macrocosm replete with retrospection? Even if the point of telling allows for the past to be layered onto the father-daughter expedition, does there have to be so much of the past? The first paragraph has barely two sentences about the specific episode the story is concerned with; in fact, the second half of the second sentence is backstory. From there onward, the narrator keeps taking us back to the past. The first three paragraphs all start with aspects of the trek to the school but end up going into backstory, and this narrative pattern only expands to multiparagraph swaths of backstory. Doesn’t this choice take away from the story’s progression? This storytelling approach seems to be at odds with the development of narrative momentum, for reasons Benjamin Percy describes in Thrill Me: “Stories are about forward movement, and if you turn to backstory, you have effectively yanked the gearshift into reverse. The story is no longer rushing forward—it’s sliding back.” But Percy also says to “never use backstory, except when it works.” And here, it does. The recounted backstory creates its own narrative momentum. By telling us about the past through a series of escalating mini vignettes, as opposed to mere background information, the narrator relentlessly carries us deeper into his personal history.
In “The Ghost Birds,” returning to the past is a feature, not a bug. For the narrator, the present is inextricably tied to the past. The school in question isn’t just some derelict building, it’s a forsaken relic from another age in an area tied to the narrator’s family history, and this portrayal of the school is an example of what Percy advises in Thrill Me: “Never give us a generic description. When we enter a new space, show it to us—but through a particular lens: your character’s point of view, modified by mood.” In “The Ghost Birds,” the protagonist’s perspective is concerned with the larger context, his mind working in this associative mode that connects experiences across time. And what makes this aspect of the storytelling all the more effective at creating an immersive reading experience is that as the narration progresses, we see the backstory is itself a compelling story—the story of how the world became the ecological tragedy it is and how the narrator became the obsessed paranormal birder he is. A gripping story of environmental catastrophe and resource scarcity—“the land grabs and the water wars” that led to, among other things, Surveillers hunting intruders in Red Zones. As George Saunders writes in A Swim in a Pond in the Rain, “A story is a series of incremental pulses, each of which does something to us. Each puts us in a new place, relative to where we just were.” The backstory here puts us in new place after new place: a romantic relationship with another paranormal birder, the sky carved up into routes to outer space, conflicts between haves and have-nots.
This constant inclination toward backstory in the initial paragraphs indeed relates the microcosm of the opening to the macrocosm of the story. Soon we’re pitched headlong into the past: an adolescence wracked by climate disasters, global mass extinction, life with Starling’s mother. That’s a lot before the characters even set foot in the school—and an awful lot of doom and gloom. To the point that we might ask, is this too much? Is it too heavy? Does the world of the story have to be this bleak? Like the tendency toward backstory that illuminates this dystopia, the dire state of the world has a purpose—one that we can appreciate with a perspective Saunders shared in conversation with Mitzi Rapkin: “We’re always asking the writer, ‘OK, if I give you this, if I grant you this implausibility, what are you going to do with it?’ And the writer is saying implicitly, ‘I’m going to tell you a truth about the world that’s so big I can’t use mundane reality to get there.’” In “The Ghost Birds,” we don’t have to wait long to get that sort of truth, which is sometimes stated outright by the narrator, as in this passage: “I want Starling to stay on Earth with me. I worry that she is losing her dreaming eye—the conjuring eye that is hers alone, the one that can see beyond appearances, into the ultraviolet.” The emotional truth here is at once intimate yet universal. The narrator confesses his fear that Starling is becoming imaginatively impaired, and what parent hasn’t feared for their child’s mental wellbeing and future? And isn’t this truth also about our own times, about the human condition, about how we risk losing our perceptive abilities? The story puts us into intense contact with such a truth because of the context that heightens it: the characters inhabit a world with so little left that they must seek out the vestiges of what’s gone in order to sustain themselves. In light of this struggle to maintain their humanity, we might infer that this passage intimates the true stakes of this father-daughter pilgrimage in a post-climate-disaster world. The narrator is less concerned with the loss of life or limb to a Surveiller than he is with the loss of Starling’s mental acuity. And notice how the story has shifted into present tense. The narrator is still worried as he tells the story.
Throughout the story, the narrator delivers implicit and explicit truths about his world, which intersect with those of ours. Here are a couple that are particularly noteworthy: “All children are haunted, I’m sure, by the irretrievably lost worlds behind them. My generation felt this vertigo keenly. By the time I was born, half the world’s ten thousand species of birds had gone extinct.” Indeed, childhood is tinged with the eerie, inarticulable awareness that much has already come and gone. “Here is the beautiful thing, the maddening thing, about paranormal birdwatching: you can make your eye available to them, but they have to choose that sky.” Sounds like our relationships to so much that is ethereal: creative ideas, love, joy, friendship. Sometimes, all we can do is make ourselves receptive, ready for reciprocation whether from the world or loved ones. The nature of the ghost birds expressed by this passage seems to invoke the aphorism attributed to Louis Pasteur: Chance favors only the prepared mind. Those who are ready to engage with perception are the ones more readily granted opportunities for transcendent experiences. This sentiment could be the crux of the story: the narrator trying to foster preparedness in his daughter’s mind, exercise and sensitize “her dreaming eye” to perceive the phantasmal, whether the spirits of extinct species or slim possibilities for a better life. This is his reality. And that’s where the story’s movement from microcosm to macrocosm continues to take us: deeper into the narrator’s experiential reality. To borrow from Laura van den Berg, “‘The Ghost Birds’ is start to finish revealing new layers of the characters’ reality—both physical and psychological—and by doing so, it illuminates layers of ours.”
Pick any metaphor for the opening of a story: contract, promise, invitation, doorway. The first paragraphs of “The Ghost Birds” fit all of those, but perhaps two especially: the contract, and the invitation. The first, the contract, is practical. Openings serve as instructions, versing the reader in the mechanics of the storytelling, and Jeff VanderMeer is unequivocal about this purpose in Wonderbook: “A good piece of fiction teaches the reader how to read the narrative from the first paragraph.” By enacting the narrative strategy and employing the elements of craft that will carry through the entire story, Russell provides a primer for what’s to come.
Openings are also an invitation to enchantment. As Alice McDermot says in What About the Baby?, “The storyteller’s art is, always, the conjurer’s art, and what we look for in beginnings, whether we know it or not, is the first hint of that magic.” “The Ghost Birds” has that magic in spades by conjuring characters conjoined to their world, the global entwined with the personal as enabled by the narrative strategy of past-tense, first-person narration that melds past and present, folding together the stories of how people made the world what it is and how that world made the narrator who he is. Russell then effectively portrays how both world and narrator make Starling who she is, to ultimately bring us to the point where Starling becomes a fledgling. In the opening, Karen Russell loses no time casting the story’s fictive spell, and the ensuing enchantment is enthralling, even after that point of transformation has been reached.
Writing Exercises: Openings to Practice
- For a story you’re working on, can you render one of its elements in miniature at the start of the story? Here’s a cinematic example: Star Wars: A New Hope opens with a Rebel ship pursued by a Star Destroyer then boarded by Darth Vader’s stormtroopers, the overall conflict of the Rebels versus the Empire shown at a smaller scale with the Rebels outnumbered and outgunned. This theme of righteous underdog against tyrannical power not only persists throughout the first trilogy but recurs with a satisfying twist at the end of A New Hope when the Rebel forces, again outnumbered, stage an assault on the Death Star.
- Describe a character or write a scene in which a character takes action, and include information about the character’s past that’s relevant to that description or scene, but do so as Russell does: as significant backstory and not just mere background information. Can you give a snippet of the character’s past in a sentence or two (or even just a phrase) that has an arc—some change? Here’s a rudimentary example: He always winced at the word gerbil, a psychological souvenir (a tick, perhaps?) from a moment in ninth grade when some jock had offhandedly applied it to him with such an ugly tone as they passed each other in the hallway. If you want to see background information conveyed as backstory—as a vital part of the story—to great narrative effect, take a look at the early chapters in The Five Wounds by Kirsten Valdez-Quade.
ALBERT LIAU is a short fiction section editor at CRAFT and loves working at the intersection of the sciences, humanities, and arts. Ever the avid reader, unabashed (incorrigible?) podcast binger, Albert continues to be fascinated by the ways storytelling conveys meaningful ideas.