Good Beginnings

[img_assist|nid=841|title=Aimee Labrie|desc=|link=node|align=right|width=86|height=100]Every two months, I sit down with a stack of short fiction submissions to read for Philadelphia Stories. I am asked to go over each story carefully, to evaluate them according to a grid of basic storytelling techniques and then to give general feedback about the story. I know that behind every piece I read is a writer anxious to have his or her work published, so I try to keep an open mind, from the first page to the last. But, if I’m honest, my overall opinion is largely influenced by how the story begins. If I’m hooked in the first paragraph, I am more likely to give the writer the benefit of the doubt on page three, when he stumbles on an awkward bit of dialogue. If, however, the story opens with a mew, with an alarm clock going off, for instance, my guard is up—I’m girding myself for a “day in the life” story, one where nothing much happens up until the very end, when the central character realizes that it was all a dream! 

Think of the beginning of your story as similar to how you tell a story in real life, like how you might give a toast at your friend’s second wedding. First, you start by getting everyone’s attention—you crush a champagne glass under your heel or pull up your skirt or give a holler on the karaoke mike. There’s a lot going on at weddings, just as there’s a lot happening in your reader’s life, so you have to make your opening startling.

Once you’ve gotten their attention, you must also recognize that you have a limited amount of time, just enough to tell maybe one or two key events in the fated meeting of the bride and the groom, so you must focus immediately. You can’t give every single detail of their courtship and you certainly don’t need to start with their disastrous first date. Instead, do as Kurt Vonnegut suggests and start as close to the end of the story as possible.

In short fiction, you have an economy of space and you must use it wisely. This means that your opening should establish the who, what, where, and when of the story. We should know pretty much immediately who the central character is, what the conflict involves, where the story is set, and when it’s taking place. If your reader is floating in space, unanchored in any particular details of the now of the story, she is going to tune out and go make herself a cheese sandwich.

And here is where my wedding toast analogy breaks down, because a good beginning also has to start with trouble, whereas a nuptial speech should probably not mention any previous illicit affairs or indiscretions. We should know from the very first sentence of a story that something is amiss, perhaps even gravely wrong.

But don’t just take my word for it. Let’s take a look at first lines of a few of the short fiction published in The Best American Short Stories 2009. The twenty stories in this collection are culled from thousands published in literary journals across the country. Somehow, they stood out from the rest, and I believe it’s in large part because the first line delivers:

“‘Never take you back, son, hard as it break my heart,’ Aunt Cleoma had told Rubiaux. ‘This is the last you come home like this—we don’t break this demon now.’”

                                                            “Rubiaux Rising,” by Steve de Jarnatt

“After my little brother died, we moved from the house on the lagoon to a two-bedroom apartment near I-95.”

                                                            “The Farms,” by Eleanor Henderson

“The girl, unlike most people photographed for fashion magazines, was not beautiful.”

                                                            “A Man Like Him,” by Yiyun Li

“Because Paula Blake is planning something secret, she feels she must account for her every move and action, overcompensating in her daily chores and agreeing to whatever her husband and children demand.”

                                                            “Magic Words,” by Jill McCorkle

Addiction, death, the unexpected, a secret—each opening sentence promise us something interesting. They start with conflict and an implied question we want answered—will the addict kick his habit? How did the little boy die? Who is the girl in the photo? What is the woman hiding (and will she get caught)?

So the next time you’re getting ready to send your story in to a literary magazine, look very carefully at the opening. Because though I promise I read every word as an editor, I am influenced by the beginning. I also can’t speak to the rest of the publishing world—those who see a wobbly start to a story and move on to the next manuscript without a second glance.

Aimee LaBrie received her MA in writing from DePaul University in 2000 and her MFA in fiction Penn State in 2003. Her collection of short stories, Wonderful Girl, won the Katherine Anne Porter Prize in Short Fiction in 2007 and was published by the University of North Texas Press.Other stories of hers have been published in Minnesota Review, Pleiades, Quarter After Eight, Iron Horse Literary Review, and numerous other literary journals. Her short story, “Ducklings” was nominated for a Pushcart Prize by Pleiades.

Leave a Reply