The oral tradition of storytelling is as old as human memory. Most of us still grow up hearing stories, or tales, meant to teach us something, or, as the early Roman poet, Horace, suggested, to "delight and instruct." Folk and fairy tales often do both, with a specific "lesson" imparted to the audience through the entertaining vehicle of the story. Contemporary stories often offer similar instruction but successful storywriters, and creative writers generally, abandon the latter half of Horace's purpose. That is, they do not write to impart a lesson.
Stories written to instruct often fail to delight. Beginning writers can fall into the trap of writing toward a preconceived value lesson, often using didactic prose that reads more like a sermon than a tale. I am not suggesting that short stories should "delight" frivolously or that instruction is necessarily boring. Certainly, part of our desire to read stories is a desire to learn something, possibly something new. Rarely, however, are we drawn to fiction for edification. What we want is a good story.
What Makes a Good Story?
Consider what makes a good story. What stories linger with you from your childhood? What stories do you find yourself rereading? A good story delights us through the power of its images, the strength of its characters, and the precision of its language. To be delighted by literature should not be confused with the delight of a surprise gift or a cool spring day. Rather, literature delights by its ability to strike some true chord with the reader. That chord may feel more like anguish or rage, but the reader's delight is in the chord's resonance with her own understanding of (or confusion about) the world. Perhaps the writer puts into words an emotion or idea that we recognize but have been unable to name. Whatever instruction we derive from a good story resembles experiential learning because we discover meaning through our own interaction with the words. Unlike a lesson plan, the writer does not instruct the story's meaning; rather, we, as readers, construct the story's meaning through the writer's ability to pique emotion or ideas, to strike true chords.
As with any form, the best way to learn how to write great stories is to read great stories. If you have not read short stories recently, pick up a national magazine such as The New Yorker or The Atlantic Monthly. Look up the Best American series at your library or bookstore and check out the year's top stories. These stories are collected from various publications, including literary magazines. Literary magazines are published by universities and other small presses and are available through bookstores and libraries. Many are also online. Revisit your favorite short stories.
When I teach creative writing classes, I usually start the narrative section by asking students to define "story." The most common response is that a story has "a beginning, a middle, and an end." This simple model allows myriad possibilities and is all you need to keep in mind as you begin to write short stories.
Yet, its simplicity is deceptive. As you may have discovered from your own writing practice, great endings and beginnings can be elusive. And, of course, it takes a great middle to hook the two together. Sometimes a strong beginning actually originates in the "middle" of the story. That is, the opening calls you into the story's specific world.
A great story grabs you with the first sentence. In fact, as you probably noticed from your reading, many stories begin with a sentence that immediately deposits you into the stoiy's action, mood, or drama. The first line may reveal the story's central tension or something crucial to a character's exposition. Consider the following first lines from classic short stories:
"The marvelous thing is that it's painless," he said. "That's how you know when it starts."
—Ernest Hemingway, "The Snows of Kilimanjaro"
It was trying on liberals in Dilton.
—Flannery O'Connor, "The Barber"
Whatever hour you woke there was a door shutting.
—Virginia Woolf, "A Haunted House"
Tub had been waiting for an hour in the falling snow.
—Tobias Wolff, "Hunters in the Snow"
Violent death was no novelty to Sgt. James Peyton.
—James O'Keefe, "Death Makes a Comeback"
North Richmond Street, being blind, was a quiet street except at the hour when the Christian Brothers' School set the boys free.
All of a sudden she noticed that her beauty had fallen all apart on her, that it had begun to pain her physically like a tumor or a cancer.
—Gabriel Garcia Marquez, "Eve Is Inside Her Cat"
As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams, he found himself transformed into a gigantic insect.
—Franz Kafka, "The Metamorphosis"
Notice how each of these openings delivers you to the story. Hemingway incites your curiosity about a "marvelous" it without explaining what it is or to whom "he" is talking. You want to know, so your curiosity takes you to the next line. In Tobias Wolffs story, Tub has already been waiting in the snow and we imagine, with that one line, the cold and the annoyance he may feel. We also want to know what or whom he's waiting for. There is no explication of why this character has acquired the name, "Tub," and there might not be. We are not introduced to Tub; we are simply standing in the falling snow, waiting with him.
Obviously, the first line of Kafka's "The Metamorphosis" is more dramatic than the first line of O'Connor's "The Barber." And yet, both lines pull us into the specific world of the stories. A man turning into an insect is a preposterous premise, but Kafka's careful opening line deposits the reader in a world where such an occurrence is plausible. Kafka writes of a specific man, Gregor Samsa, waking from specific, "uneasy" dreams. Because of its specificity, the line invites the reader to accept the premise that Gregor Samsa has turned into a cockroach. O'Connor's short first line, from a story she published in college, immediately reveals a complication in the town of Dilton. From those few words, we understand that Dilton is a conservative town. Two words, "trying" and "liberal" signal our introduction to O'Connor's specific town by identifying Dilton's specific ideological schism. While Kafka and O'Connor work with different types of material, their first sentences are similarly compelling in their specificity.
1. Write a list of 10 opening sentences, leaving space between each sentence. Drop your reader into the story's lap. Try introducing a specific tension or conflict. Alternately, consider an image (such as Tub in the snow) to open the story. Your task is to write 10 strong sentences; don't worry about the story's elaboration at this point.
2. Cut each sentence into a separate strip of paper. Put the sentence strips into a box (or some type of container) and set them aside for a day or two.
3. After some time has passed, choose one sentence from your container. Write a story! Don't stop to think, let your first line shape your story. Write a beginning, middle, and an end in as full a narrative as time allows. Set it aside. We will return to this exercise.
Short story writers such as Flannery O'Connor and Raymond Carver have identified the process you just experienced, of letting your first sentence reveal the story, as the way they begin to write. Consider the possibility that you do not have to know where your story is going; you just have to let it take you there. Why not begin with one strong sentence?
Consider this your weekly journal task—to write one strong opening line each day. If the sentence compels you, keep writing. Or go back to your box of sentences from the First Lines exercise and use one sentence strip each day to begin a new story.
Below is list of additional first lines from various short stories. Choose an unfamiliar line and use it as the first sentence of a 10-minute freewrite. (Titles and authors appear at the end of this chapter.)
1. This blind man, an old friend of my wife's, he was on his way to spend the night.
2. There was a woman who was beautiful, who started with all the advantages, yet she had no luck.
3. Please, God, let him telephone me now.
4. In winter the glazed bunchgrass and wild oats tuft the roadsides and edges of the fields.
5. So when I went there, I knew the dark fish must rise.
6. She could not remember when she began to envy her husband's dreams.
7. El Capitán and the woman niña Eloisa had danced together so many years that they had achieved perfection.
8. The last thing I do every Christmas Eve is go out in the yard and throw the horse manure onto the roof.
9. Her son wanted to talk again, suddenly.
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