When I was in grad school, one of our professors, Beth Lordan, introduced us to something called the “seven sentence rule.” This wasn’t so much of a rule as an observation that short stories often present critical information within a paragraph or so (this can be as short as a line for flash). Perhaps the opening lines might dig at place or character and the following lines would plant a seed of what the central tension might be. In television writing, the first few minutes before a commercial break often inhabit this space. Why do I want to keep watching? What will this episode be about? Is my interest piqued? In other words, when you’re looking at short stories (or a TV episode) every line counts and openings need to do some heavy lifting. While I think certain stories can be slow burns and be incredibly successful at not providing a concrete narrative compass, I usually tell my students that readers typically don’t want to be messed with. Don’t wait to surprise a reader or trick them. Don’t save the good stuff for later. If there’s magic, let that be known. If the sky is falling as in Kevin Brockmeier’s “The Ceiling,” let us have that on the opening page. Getting lost can be a wonderful thing in a story, but we first need a compass (even if that compass might get broken).
As someone who writes what could be deemed fabulist or surrealist work more often than not, I think providing a firm foothold onto a fantastical or absurd concept at the outset of the story is especially crucial in helping readers believe in the world and the predicament of characters. In Stacey Richter’s “The Cavemen in the Hedges,” I know from the first line that there are cavemen: “There are cavemen in the hedges again.” If this line were offered halfway through the story or even on the second page, I might have questions. And I also might feel misled because cavemen are really interesting and weird, and I’d wonder why the author hid that from me. But as a first line, I’m accepting the assuredness of the author. I’m being given facts, and I’m generally okay with whatever is thrown at me as if I’m getting a less overt “Once upon a time…”
For a story about a telepathic/talking pig, which sounds absolutely ridiculous even when I’m setting up the story at readings, I knew I had to make a few things apparent within the first page—the emotional backdrop of my narrator, how his job is tied to the loss of his son, and the lead into a pig having the capacity to talk. All of these pieces work in concert with each other in quick order to provide a map legend for the story to come. And it is my hope that by front loading this information the reader is willing to play along with what might seem like a joke (but is ultimately a story about loss and healing).
SEQUOIA NAGAMATSU is the author of the story collection, Where We Go When All We Were Is Gone (Black Lawrence Press), silver medal winner of the 2016 Foreword Reviews Indies Book of the Year Award, an Entropy Magazine Best Book of 2016, and a notable small press book at BuzzFeed. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in publications such as Conjunctions, ZYZZYVA, The Fairy Tale Review, Tin House online, Black Warrior Review, Willow Springs, Pleiades, Lightspeed Magazine, and One World: A Global Anthology of Short Stories, among others. Originally from Hawaii and the San Francisco Bay Area, he was educated at Grinnell College and Southern Illinois University. He co-edits Psychopomp Magazine, an online quarterly dedicated to innovative prose, and teaches at St. Olaf College. He lives in the Twin Cities region of Minnesota with his wife, the writer Cole Nagamatsu, and their cat Kalahira. He is currently working on a second story collection and a novel.