To Begin: Inspiration for Short Story Writers
By Robin Black
You know how sometimes something that is incredibly obvious, suddenly strikes you in a new way?
I was teaching a small class recently on story beginnings, and a few minutes in I had this thought: In the moment before the story starts, the reader knows nothing, and the author knows everything. (Pause here, while we authors laugh hollowly – Ha!– at the idea that we know everything; but you know what I mean.)
When this entirely duhhh realization came to me, I was already pretty deep into trying to find a new vocabulary, or maybe I mean a new paradigm, for approaching story beginnings. We talk so much in writing classes about how to capture a reader’s attention. We talk about starting in media res so the reader feels “caught up” in the middle of the action. We talk about beginnings that “grab.” But frankly those ways of envisioning beginnings, those metaphors that have so physical and even aggressive a basis, have never done it for me. In part that’s because they lend themselves so easily to gimmickry. Just write something startling! Open your story with something weird! And in part too my resistance grows from the fact that overt ways of grabbing attention are not suitable to all fiction. Some of us are writing some pretty darn quiet stuff. Some of us just can’t start with any kind of bang.
So I started to wonder about whether this incredibly obvious fact that at a story’s beginning the reader knows nothing, might provide some new ways of thinking about it all; and what has emerged for me is an approach that has less to do with ensnaring a reader with something catchy than with orienting a reader and allowing her to relax into the work, by supplying her with a sense that she has gone from being ignorant to knowing something with clarity.
The more I looked at stories where I’d never read past page one, the more I realized how many of them lacked clarity. Even as I read, I never really knew what was going on. Or I couldn’t keep the characters straight. Or I couldn’t picture the physical details being thrown my way. And this lack of clarity was preventing me from being engrossed enough to turn the page.
One approach to helping a reader feel oriented at the start of a story is to try to supply as much contextualizing data as possible, so all the who, how, where type questions are answered ASAP. There’s an unquestionable logic behind that method, but it’s also one of the errors I see most often in the fiction I put aside before reaching page two. Too much information. Too many names. Too many physical details to envision all at once. (What color is azure again? How exactly do rhinestones and occasional sequins shine?) I’m so busy trying to keep track of it all that my awareness of my own ignorance only grows and grows, crowding out the story, preventing me from losing consciousness of my own consciousness and entering the dream.
I’ve come to think that, perhaps paradoxically, giving a reader almost no information up front can be a more effective approach to orienting a reader in a story. When it comes to beginnings, there is a great deal to be said for the simple – very simple – declarative sentence at the start.
Here’s an example: George Kingston sat down and looked at his feet. That may not be a genius opening, and it’s not even remotely exciting, but it’s perfectly workable – even though so very little information is conveyed. (Who is George Kingston? Where is he? Why is he looking at his feet?) In truth the reader knows next to nothing still. Even so, the sentence produces a certain kind of clarity that eases entry into the fictional world, because the very simple acts of sitting down and looking down are so readily imaginable, so easy to envision. Even with an entire universe left unrevealed, a reader can fall into the imaginative collaboration we call the dream, ready to receive whatever comes next.
A genius version of the same (very broadly speaking) kind of first sentence is: “Mrs. Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself.” Again, very little information is conveyed. The reader has no idea who Mrs. Dalloway is, to whom she made this declaration, when she spoke, why there’s a need for flowers and on and on. But the sentence is orienting nonetheless because what little information is portrayed is, as with George’s feet, familiar and readily imaginable. A woman said she would buy flowers. We can all handle that. The reader immediately goes from ignorance to the sensation of having knowledge. It’s by no means true that Mrs. Dalloway as a whole is a simple work and I’m not arguing here for ‘easy’ fiction; but at a first reading that sentence is, in all the best ways, a simple one.
And of course, in their own very quiet way, both those examples are in media resopenings. Something as minimal as the use of a character’s name implies a world already in motion, and in the Woolf sentence, the phrase “the flowers” vastly increases this sense. The flowers in question are specific ones, presumably meant for a specific purpose. That could be a funeral, a wedding, a party – as is the case – but there’s already a circumstance unfolding for which specific flowers are required.
I point this out because in media res is so often taken to mean something like in media crisis or in media argument or in media coitus. But the res that produces that sense of a story already happening as the reader steps in can be something very subtle – something like the need for some flowers and the entire reality implied by that need.
There’s so much more to be said about opening lines. This is – here it comes – only a beginning. And by no means do I mean to imply that every opening should be simple in these particular ways. But part of being I writer, I think, is developing a large repertoire of possible approaches to all these challenges so that there’s always another one to try; and a commitment to the ease of clarity at the start is an approach I have come to appreciate lately very much.
Robin Black’s story collection If I loved you, I would tell you this, was published by Random House in 2010 to international acclaim by publications such as O. Magazine, The Chicago Tribune, San Francisco Chronicle, The Irish Times and more. The stories, written over a period of eight years, focus on families at points of crisis and of growth. Her stories and essays have appeared in numerous publications including The Southern Review, The New York Times Magazine. One Story, The Georgia Review, Colorado Review, Alaska Quarterly Review, Freight Stories, Indiana Review, and The Best Creative Nonfiction, Vol. I (Norton, 2007).
A version of this article originally appeared on Beyond the Margins.