It’s been said that the most common bad opening for a short story is a version of this: I woke up. (He woke up. The alarm went off. Morning sun streamed through the window. All of these are variations of the same idea). I teach creative writing and I’m an editor for the Lake Region Review and I’d have to agree with this commonplace. Just because, in our daily lives, things start with waking up, does not mean that a story must start there. I completely understand why so many beginning writers get going with the dawn: you have to start somewhere, and dawn seems like the obvious launching place.
Why isn’t it enough to start at the beginning, with morning’s breaking? What makes for a good opening?
Here are the first sentences of stories by two of my favorite short story writers. The first is from Alice Munro’s story “Rich as Stink” (and doesn’t that title just make you want to read the story?):
While the plane was pulling up to the gate on a summer evening in 1974, Karin reached down and got some things out of her backpack.
The second is from Anthony Doerr’s story “The Shell Collector”:
The shell collector was scrubbing limpets at his sink when he heard the water taxi come scraping over the reef.
Neither of these sentences is very long (26 words, 20 words), but both of them pack a big suitcase of goodies. First, there’s action. Someone is doing something in each sentence – getting stuff out of a backpack, scrubbing limpets. In neither case is the action mundane, dull, generic. Most of us have flown and we know what it’s like to scrounge around in our bag or purse or backpack in the tight space of an airplane seat, so we’re right there in the plane with Karin. And while we may not know just what a limpet is, we know from the context that it’s a shell, and we’ve certainly stood at a sink scrubbing something. And yet, in neither of these cases is the action something we do every day, like waking up. So there’s a freshness to this action and because of that freshness, that surprise, our reading engine is fueled.
Second, there’s setting. In Munro’s sentence we learn four things about setting: it’s summer, it’s evening, it’s 1974, and we’re on a plane. In Doerr’s sentence we learn two things: we’re somewhere near a reef in a place reached by water taxi.
Third, there’s character. We’re given nothing direct about Karin, but we can guess, from the fact that, in 1974, she has a backpack, that she is a young person, though at this point we don’t know how young. In Doerr’s story, we have a character who is dedicated to shells, and we have a hint that he is not happy about the visitor, since it’s his point of view and he hears the sound of the taxi as “scraping,” not a pleasant sound.
Already in the first sentence of these two stories, we’re well under way. We know who and where, and we have the character in action. That is to say, the stories begin already in the middle of things – something is happening, there’s forward motion. And that’s just the first sentence!
Here’s all of the two opening paragraphs:
While the plane was pulling up to the gate on a summer evening in 1974, Karin reached down and got some things out of her backpack. A black beret which she pulled on so it slanted over one eye, a red lipstick which she was able to apply to her mouth by using the window as a mirror—it was dark in Toronto—and a long black cigarette holder which she held ready to clamp between her teeth at the right moment. The beret and the cigarette holder had been filched from the Irma la Douce outfit her stepmother had worn to a costume party, and the lipstick was something she had bought for herself.
The shell collector was scrubbing limpets at his sink when he heard the water taxi come scraping over the reef. He cringed to hear it—its hull grinding the calices of finger corals and the tiny tubes of pipe organ corals, tearing the flower and fern shapes of soft corals, and damaging shells too: punching holes in olives and marexes and spiny whelks, in Hydatina physis and Turris babylonia. It was not the first time people tried to seek him out.
In the remainder of the paragraphs we learn little more to add to what we already have about action, setting, and character. From Munro we learn that the plane has landed in Toronto and that Karin’s parents are divorced, and from Doerr we learn that the main character is someone who is sought out by others (at apparently some trouble). In the remaining sentences Munro and Doerr are giving life to the scene through details and through word choice. Irma la Douce and beret and marexes and calices.
However, we learn one other really, really important thing here and that has to do with what the characters want. Karin wants not to be noticed immediately when she gets off the plane – she’s in the process of putting on a costume. The shell collector doesn’t want to be visited by the person (or people) in the water taxi which has so brutally damaged his beloved shells.
As readers, our bags are packed and we’re down the tracks of these stories – we know where we are and who we’re with, and something’s amiss, a question must be answered. And we’re given vivid details that bring these scenes to life.
By now you’ve probably been thinking about a story that begins with a variation of “I woke up.” Here it is, one of the great stories, “The Metamorphosis” by Franz Kafka:
One morning, as Gregor Samsa was waking up from anxious dreams, he discovered that in his bed he had been changed into a monstrous verminous bug. He lay on his armour-hard back and saw, as he lifted his head up a little, his brown, arched abdomen divided up into rigid bow-like sections. From this height the blanket, just about ready to slide off completely, could hardly stay in place. His numerous legs, pitifully thin in comparison to the rest of his circumference, flickered helplessly before his eyes.
Of course, waking up as a verminous bug is the beginning of a wondrously strange trip, a reading trip those of us who’ve taken will never forget. And that is, of course, what you want in your opening paragraph: the beginning to a wondrous and perhaps strange, but certainly unforgettable trip.
Author’s Bio.: Athena Kildegaard writes poetry mostly, but she has also written short stories, scripts for television, columns, and nonfiction. Her books of poetry are Rare Momentum (2006), Bodies of Light (2011), both from Red Dragonfly Press, and Cloves & Honey (2012) from Nodin Press. Her poems appear widely in literary journals and anthologies. She has received grants from the Lake Region Arts Council and the Minnesota State Arts Board and the LRAC/McKnight Fellowship. She is a lecturer at the University of Minnesota, Morris. Athena is currently serving as a co-editor of the Lake Region Review and as treasurer of the LRWN. Check out her blog/website at http://athenakildegaard.com/.