The last blog post which prompted a lot of discussion about what makes a good story great, left me thinking about the importance of the opening paragraph in a short story. You only have a limited period of time to ‘hook’ your reader in a short story and if your opening paragraph isn’t an invitation he/she wants to accept, the reader might not go beyond the first page. I think this is different in a novel because readers are more willing to accept that the story might take a while to get going. There’s no such leeway in a short story however, and this applies even more so to Flash Fiction.
Here are a handful of examples from short story experts who inspire me. This is a purely random choice of openings – I simply lifted some anthologies off my shelves and pulled up my Kindle short stories. I skimmed, reading the opening paragraphs or so until one story hooked me more than the others. It’s a worthwhile exercise and below, I try to analyse what works in these openings. I’ve listed my choices in chronological order, ie, by the date of publication of the story or the collection in which it appears.
Please take the time to leave a comment about your favourite or your least favourite, or both!
Anton Chekov – ‘The Lady With The Dog’ (1899 – on my Kindle)
It was said that a new person had appeared on the sea-front: a lady with a little dog. Dmitri Dmitritch Gurov, who had by then been a fortnight at Yalta, and so was fairly at home there, had begun to take an interest in new arrivals. Sitting in Verney’s pavilion, he saw, walking on the sea-front, a fair-haired young lady of medium height, wearing a beret; a white Pomeranian dog was running behind her.
[Comments: starts with a very clear image, plus a little intrigue – the use of the word ‘person’ for example, plus I was pretty sure that Dmitri was taking an interest in new arrivals because he is bored. It’s obvious from the outset that a love affair (possibly illicit – is he married?) is about to unfold.]
Maeve Binchy – ‘The Afterthought’ (Modern Irish Stories from The Irish Times, 1985)
She said that she’d come away with him when the children were old enough. How old is old enough he had wanted to know. Old enough to understand, she had thought but he was very sad about this and thought they would never be old enough to understand, not even if they were as old as anything. You never understand your mother going off with the great family friend. It’s not the kind of thing anyone could understand. So things went on the way they were for a long time.
[Comments: I love the simplicity of the language here which reflects the man’s cyclical thoughts as he mulls over the hopelessness of his situation. We are dropped right into the key problem in the story and the reference to the children, plus the repetition of the word ‘understand’ is a clever piece of foreshadowing, only appreciated by the reader towards the end of the story.]
Bharati Mukherjee – ‘The Management of Grief’ (The Oxford Book of American Short Stories, 1992)
A woman I don’t know is boiling tea the Indian way in my kitchen. There are a lot of women I don’t know in my kitchen, whispering and moving tactfully. They open doors, rummage through the pantry, and try not to ask me where things are kept. They remind me of when my sons were small, on Mother’s Day or when Vikram and I were tired, and they would make big, sloppy omelets. I would lie in bed pretending I didn’t hear them.
[Comments: The title of this story reveals the situation but I think the author does a great job of noting the small kindnesses of strangers and how certain activities automatically take place when there’s been a death, the ‘whispering and moving tactfully’. Mention of the narrator’s sons and her dead husband, Vikram, makes us wonder how she will cope, especially since that last line in the para suggests denial.]
Carol Shields – ‘Fragility’ (Collected Stories, 2005)
We are flying over the Rockies on our way to Vancouver, and there sits Ivy with her paperback. I ask myself: Should I interrupt and draw her attention to the grandeur beneath us?
[Comments: Another simple, unadorned opening, but isn’t it always intriguing to start with someone on a journey? It raises questions – where are they going, why are they going, why is Ivy not interested in the ‘grandeur’ of the Rockies, are these people compatible, is the narrator frightened of Ivy, why?]
William Trevor – ‘An Afternoon’ (Cheating at Canasta, 2007)
Jasmin knew he was going to be different, no way he couldn’t be, no way he’d be wearing a baseball cap backwards over a number-one cut, or gawky like Lukie Giggs, or make the clucking noise that Darren Finn made when he was trying to get a word out. She couldn’t have guessed; all she knew was he wouldn’t be like them. Could be he’d put you in mind of the Rawdeal drummer, whatever his name was, or of Al in Doc Martin. But the boy at the bus station wasn’t like either. And he wasn’t a boy, not for a minute.
[Comments: The voice of the teenager is strong in this opening – a young girl has high hopes for a boy she’s met, seemingly in an Internet chat room. I empathised with the voice immediately, and that final sentence – so full of danger. The reader senses that this will not end well and is compelled to find out by reading on.]
Which opening works best for you?