Most of the examples I have given so far have been quite straightforward, unsubtle. The idea of the runaway bride, although something you might be happy to gossip about, may be the kind of on-the-surface, twisty story that you would never allow yourself to write.
But I think that the idea of Story-Time, and of the out-of-balance, can open up much more subtle and internal kinds of story. If what is out of balance is a relationship, or is a person’s psychological state, then it may not be necessary for the story you write to include any physical objects out of place.
Warning: However, beware of making your stories take place entirely inside your characters’ heads. This is a great thing to do, I often do it, but you are depriving yourself of the opportunities of having a colourful, textured outer world that reflects or contrasts with your characters’ inner worlds.
Before we move on within our Story-Time, because for the rest of this guide we’re going to stay within it, I’d like to give some more examples of how opening sentences of stories can immediately take the reader into Story-Time.
The first, which is very obvious, comes from Franz Kafka’s novel The Trial:
Someone must have been telling lies about Joseph K, for quite without having done anything wrong, he was arrested one fine morning.
The second example is from Raymond Carver’s short story ‘Viewfinder’.
A man without hands came to the door to sell me a photograph of my house.
In both cases, what is immediately established is that we have already entered a time that is non-routine and that the world is – from now on – out of balance. In Kafka, in a huge way; in Carver, in a small.
ON OPENING SENTENCES
A lot of false emphasis is put on how important it is to write a great opening sentence.
It is an easy thing to screw writers up with. I was reluctant to quote examples, and to quote famous and great and often-quoted examples, because it might contribute to this false emphasis.
The false emphasis easily becomes false pressure, and then paranoia, and what results are hysterical first sentences that attempt to do far too much. I have succumbed to this many times.
What your opening sentence needs to do is open your story; what your opening sentence does not need to do is close your story.
The most important thing about an opening sentence is not that it tells the whole story in miniature or that it establishes themes or blah-di-blah. The most important thing is that it lets the reader know that Story-Time has begun – and it may do this by taking the reader immediately into the presence of a character for whom things are out of balance. But it may also do this by confidently, and unhysterically, addressing the reader in a voice or with a tone that lets them know Story-Time has begun. That is all.
The most basic thing an opening sentence should do is not fuck up the rest of the story.
Literary aside: Someone once wrote about the English writer V.S.Pritchett that the opening lines of his stories are ‘unpromising’. That, in a way, was their promise. What could possibly go on here? Ah, now I see…
Opening lines often do more harm than good – particularly if they are overwrought.
Nothing is worse, for the reader of a story, than to begin with hysteria and then immediately be dropped into anti-climax – perhaps for most of the remainder of the story.
For example –
On the day Joshua was disembowelled by aliens, he ate Cheerios for breakfast. He then got on the bus and went to work at the supermarket, where he stacked shelves. During his first break, he…
I read so many stories like this – okay, minus the aliens – stories that have no awareness at all they can rely on lots of givens that are in place before the opening line is read.
LET ME TELL YOU A STORY
The first given that is in place, which gets less hysterical focus than the opening sentence, is the basic fact that I – the reader – already know, before I have read anything, that I am about to read what has set itself up to be a story.
I know this for various reasons – that it has come to be in a book with the author’s name on the cover, or an anthology with their name beside the story’s title on the contents page, or in a manuscript or file that I haven’t picked up randomly from an empty seat on an empty train carriage late at night.
Aside: It is very rare that any of us get the delightful experience of reading a truly found text – something we read partly in order to try to work out whether it is a story or someone’s diary or notes on someone’s psychoanalysis or whatever. This isn’t only to do with how it comes to us, it’s also to do with the form in which it appears. Diaries don’t tend to have titles, centred, in bold type. Psychoanalytic notes tend to have material in the header or somewhere on the page – numbers, codes. It’s more likely that we’ll be in joyous doubt as to what we’re reading if all we get is a single, orphaned handwritten page. A few of these precious texts have come my way.
So what the reader already knows, before you start telling them a story, is that – when they choose to turn to your first words – you are going to try to tell them a story. That is a given. It is therefore something you can use.
Not, I repeat not, by going straight into three pages of routine. That’s gone. You’re never doing that again.
However this knowledge a story is coming is, I think, what the writers who begin by describing their main person’s routine are banking on. The promise of a story is that something will happen so, if it’s not happening just yet, rest easy because it will eventually happen.
The danger is that, if you delay too long, you will lose the reader’s attention before they get to the bit where the routine is broken. They could always be reading something else in which their experience of Story-Time is more fulfilling from the first word onwards.
But I need to go back to the second of the givens of a story.
THE FIRST WORD BEFORE THE FIRST SENTENCE
The first word is often not the first word of the first sentence, whatever that is, but is The, because the first word is actually the first word of the story’s title.
The Color Purple, The Shining, The Luminaries, The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner.
It may even be a one word title – Dune, Emma, Ulysses, Carrie, Rebecca – in which case the title’s work is done in just that word.
The title may have three or ten words, and all of them arrive with the reader before the opening sentence. They start the story.
Here we come to something we’re going to talk about a lot, later on – opening gaps.
Gaps are where stories take place, particularly short stories, because that’s where the work of the story is briefly handed over to the reader – and the reader does a better job of it than the writer.
For now, you need to be aware of – and beware of – doing what I call tying bows.
Many of us deskbound creatures have a tendency towards neatness, but obvious and early neatness in a story can be killing.
Remember the flipchart. We are aiming for an out-of-balance flipchart.
This, in almost this exact form, is how the majority of stories start –
The guests began to arrive at Trevor’s party around half past six.
If I am judging a short story competition, or reading as editor of an anthology, let me tell you what I do when I have begun a story in which the opening line repeats the title – I turn or scroll immediately to the last line. If the story, as it almost fairly often does, ends like this –
As the last of the guests left, around half past two, Trevor was glad that his party was over, and that nothing worse had happened than the amusing incident with a blancmange. Already he could start looking forward to his next party!
then let me tell you what I do next. I put this story – which sadly isn’t much of a story – aside, and move on, with great hope, to the next one.
Okay, not all versions of ‘The Party’ include and conclude with the amusing incident of the blancmange, but most of them return to the opening sentence and recall the title (often with the final word).
In other words, they tie the story up with a neat little bow.
For me, stories which tie up with a neat little bow do not stand a chance of winning a competition or being good enough to be published.
Writers who tie bows aren’t describing a world I recognise or enjoy or want to spend my time in.
I promise never to tie bows.
The gap between the title of a story and the opening line – or should I say, the potential gap, is one that is there, waiting, pleading for you to use it. To use it to take the reader straight in to Story-Time.
In itself, there is nothing wrong with calling a story ‘The Party’. But, if you do, let it begin with something that is distant from anything partylike.
‘I had the prisoners executed last night,’ said the General.
Nancy, with Timmy and Lola running behind her, could see their train on platform seven.
What a bow tied at the end of a story tells me is that the writer hasn’t taken the reader anywhere really interesting. Everything that happened within the story was a false out-of-balance, because – even with the blancmange – Trevor at the close of the story is merely a slightly more pissed version of Trevor at the beginning.
I don’t know about you, but I know there are stories out there that destroy Trevor in a way that makes me cry or elevate him to amazing glory or allow me profoundly to inhabit his Trevorness or give me a wild Trevory time perhaps even involving blancmange.
Rather than read of bow-tied Trevor, I could be reading these.
No bows. Promise me. Promise yourself.
Beware of all neatness and tidying up. Short stories, because they are about people or things in the wrong place, are killed when these people or things are swiftly put back in the right place.
A mess is better than a bow.
Lots of writers are attracted to writing stories that end neatly, and I think there is a reason for that – it’s that they, secretly, so secretly they themselves don’t even know they are doing it, they are not writing a story, they are writing a tale.
And tales are what we’ll be looking at next time.