“To begin at the beginning.”
Under Milkwood Theatre Poster – Clwyd Theatr Cymrd
With this beckoning sentence, Welsh author and playwright Dylan Thomas opens his renowned and much-performed radio play Under Milkwood.
The narrator speaks here, setting the scene for a sleeping town; one “moonless night” in Spring, “starless and bible-black.” Most famously narrated by the resonant, deep tones of actor Richard Burton, the words bid the listeners to pay attention. Here comes a story. The alliteration and repetition already draws us in. For those of us with Christian backgrounds, the words echo the very first sentence of one of our oldest and most epic of stories: the Bible.
“In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.”
We teeter on that first sentence with the narrator, waiting to step down into the rolling, seething, ribald psyche of the sleeping townspeople; to creep into their cellars, be voyeurs of their wet dreams and illicit affairs, their silent sorrows and repressed desires.
Begin at the beginning …
Described by Thomas as a “play for voices”, Under Milkwood has been produced many times worldwide for radio and stage. I was cast as narrator for a stage adaptation in my first year of drama school, and the opening lines always stayed with me. The play’s language and imagery is rich, visceral and poetic, alive with alliteration and metaphor, onopatopoeia and intoxicating rhythms. For those interested in language, I’d argue the play-text reads just as well as a short story. Vividly realised through both narration and brilliant dialogue, the characters of Llareggubb Hill leap off the page and into your imagination.
A compelling short story ideally can and should make use of the elements I’ve highlighted in Under Milkwood to achieve the same intensity of resonance in the reader’s imagination: opening, imagery, language, characterization and dialogue.
For this post, it feels appropriate “to begin at the beginning”, to focus on first impressions: title, the first sentence and the opening paragraph.
A brief aside: all of these elements are also important in longer-form fiction. Additionally, I’d underline the importance of the entire first chapter to lay the foundations of the story and capture the reader’s attention. But that’s another post in the making.
In a short story, you’re going to have less time with the reader than with a novel. You need to make every word, sentence, paragraph and scene count. First impressions matter.
I’ll say it again:
First impressions matter.
FIRST SENTENCE: THE ENTRY POINT FOR YOUR READER
First impressions are as important in a story as they are in a job interview or a first date. As a university student, majoring in theatre and taking literature as an elective, I studied Kafka’s polemic short story Metamorphosis. Kafka’s story begins with this intriguing first sentence:
“When Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams, he found himself transformed in his bed into a gigantic insect.”
How could a dull story possibly emerge from that opening premise? I had to read on. It may well have been while studying Metamorphosis that I became convinced of the vital role of the opening sentence to set the short story in motion and to coax the reader inside the story-world.
A strong short story nearly always has a riveting first sentence. A sentence that beckons, or yanks you in by the hair.
To begin at the beginning …
How do we, as writers, find the right entry-point for our story? Where is that place in the charged narrative swimming inside our minds that we can clearly signpost as its unique and compelling beginning? As we know, it’s not always, chronologically speaking, the first “beat” of the story. Some narratives are most effective when they move back and forth in space and time.
As a writer, the idea for a story often coincides with the words of the first sentence, appearing in my mind’s eyes like burning neon on my retina. Heart pumping, I race to get it down on paper, because I know it’s my ticket into my own story-cinema. If I lose it, I may lose the story, popcorn and all. Here’s one:
“Last week, she tried to leave him on a Wednesday just before dinner.”
– Wet Satin Plaything (2015)
Just like a love affair, there’s a lot of heat in the imaginations’ first encounter with a new story. Other times, when I don’t get the first line, I draft out the story in chunks – whatever is coming to me. Then as it starts to take shape, I pull out my magnifying glass, and go hunting for that first line. It’s often buried somewhere in the body of the draft.
Some writers may relate to this. If you’re not excited when you read the first line of your story, chances are your readers won’t be either. Keep an open mind, and go hunting. Oftentimes, you’ve written it already – you just have to pull it out of the pile of words, set it on top of the page, and give it a polish.
Time for an eccentric writerly confession: I collect first lines of stories. I have notebooks full of them. For this post, I decided to re-visit some of my most beloved short story writers, and pull out some first-rate first sentences.
Let’s begin with the writer who made me truly want to be a writer, and precipitated my love for word-play and images: Ray Bradbury. If you haven’t read him, and you claim to love short stories, please stop what you are doing and go find some of his stories. Now. Start with The Martian Chronicles if you like science-fiction, or The Illustrated Man if strange tales with dark carnival themes appeal.
My well-read collections of Bradbury short stories
“He came out of the earth, hating.”
Pillar of Fire
“The rocket metal cooled in the meadow winds.”
Dark they Were, and Golden-Eyed
“The city waited twenty thousand years.”
All of these first sentences, short as they are, feature important players in the story, and invoke the particular story-world. A man who should be dead, walks and feels again. A rocket has just landed – “cooled” being a telling verb. Where, we wonder, and who will come out? A city is a protagonist. It exists: has memory, a consciousness and a tenacious patience, and something is finally going to happen.
The first example also establishes one of the driving emotions of the story: hate.
Below are some other first sentences, by authors I have long read and admired:
“My father lost me to the Beast at cards.”
The Tiger’s Bride, Angela Carter (from The Bloody Chamber)
What’s introduced here? A desperate father, a wager gone wrong; betrayal of the deepest kind for a daughter. How beastly is this beast? We know we are not in a naturalistic story, at his mention, and that uncanny elements will be at play. How horrific her loss of choice. What happens next?
“Suddenly – dreadfully – she wakes up.”
The Wind Blows, Katherine Mansfield
The main character erupts into consciousness just as the story does, and something awful has either happened in her dream or is happening around her. These five words, and the clever use of the staccato energy of dashes as punctuation create a suspenseful beginning.
“Lilith was sexually cold, and her husband half-knew it, in spite of her pretenses.”
Lilith, Anias Nin (from Delta of Venus)
Nin creates an intriguing beginning that establishes the theme of pretense, and tension between a husband and wife. She wastes no words in getting to the “obstacle” of sexual frigidity, which the narrative then explores.
“First, mother went away.”
Being Kind to Titina, Patrick White (from The Burnt Ones)
An understated rendering of a life-changing event. We sense this story will be about loss, and survival from the perspective of a child.
“My lover Picasso is going through her Blue Period.”
The Poetics of Sex, Jeanette Winterson (from The World and Other Places)
Here, Ms Winterson twists and subverts several aspects at once with her wry feminist perspective. Picasso is a woman, not a man. The reference to her “Blue Period” seems at first to be about art – but as we read on, she subverts our expectations with a description from her female lover’s viewpoint of her behaviour when she’s menstruating, creating a secondary word-play on the meaning of “period”.
A strong first sentence finds a way to lean into the themes of the story, to be simultaneously at the beginning, and also at some other important emotional or thematic elsewhere in the story.
All of these examples show the writer’s agility and ability of story-telling. They know how their story unfolds, and they place the reader at the best vantage point to survey the story’s landscape. Prominent characters are introduced and emotional tones are established.
All of these sentences achieve one other more complex thing: the first sentence houses the seed of the story. The microcosm of the macrocosm.
What do I mean by this? Come back with me to the “vantage point” metaphor. As the writer, we locate our opening sentence at a specific point in space and time. We direct what the reader gets to see, but we also look out over the story landscape, noting the important stand-out features. These features can be themes or crucial plot-points or core emotional evocations of a character’s relationship to themselves, other characters or the world.
We describe where we are, and then we project our vison deeper into the story-world. We use words to link where we are (as character or narrator) to one of those prominent features. Or we lean into the metaphorical wind blowing at us from our story-world, to capture something evocative about our story, carried to us on that breeze. A scent of something, or a seed.
In your opening sentence, situate the reader where you want them at first contact with your story, then try giving the readers a hint of something enticing to be encountered further into the narrative. What your first sentence introduces can then be elaborated upon in your opening paragraph.
I once did a movement theatre workshop around the theme of story-telling. One of the exercises was to find a first sentence of a favourite book or story, and translate that sentence into a movement piece – with a beginning, a middle and an end. The facilitator believed in the power of first sentences; that they could in some way, convey the entire essence of the story.
As a writer and editor, I’ve become increasingly interested in this idea: a strong first sentence finds a way to lean into the themes of the story, to be simultaneously at the beginning, and also at some other important emotional or thematic elsewhere in the story.
Short story writer Eudora Welty conveys a similar idea here:
“A short story is confined to one mood, to which everything in the story pertains. Characters, setting, time, events, are all subject to the mood.”
A large proportion of story drafts that I receive as a developmental editor have not had enough care and attention given to their opening sentence and paragraph. Eighty percent of the time that’s where I begin the work with the author. I’ve read openings of books already on sale on Amazon that have typos and grammatical errors in their first paragraphs. I have read no further, nor have I bought the book. And I would never be inclined to look up that author again.
I’ve nothing against self-publishing as a concept. But, writers, it should never be an excuse for releasing sloppy work onto the market. Use beta-readers, find yourself a skilled editor, or consider developmental editing to hone your work. Ensure it’s copy-edited before you release it. Putting unpolished, un-edited work before the public eye is not going to benefit your reputation as a writer. In fact, it will do the opposite.
From a writer’s perspective, I understand why haphazard, slap-dash story openings happen. We’re in a hurry to get it on the page before the idea fades. We’re impatient to just start the damn thing, and we can’t wait to get into the meaty part of the story. So we bumble and stumble bull-headed through our opening, when this is the part of the story where we most need to take care.
If this is what it takes to get you started, great. But go back and revise your opening once the heat of that first wave of inspiration has subsided. Then sleep on it, and revise again. As you generate more material, be aware that your true beginning could be somewhere in the middle of your draft.
This is one place where developmental editing can really offer something to the writer. I work with the author, giving them permission to slow down, take a breath. I ask questions, give them a framework in which to take a better look at the details of their opening, and I show them what they should be focusing on, or point out details have been sketched too hurriedly and aren’t clear to someone standing outside that writer’s head.
Write. Revise. Write. Revise.
Once you have that stellar, kick-ass beginning, revise it again. How tight can you make it? How clear? How intense” Can you eliminate excess words or phrases that are muddying the meaning or the impact?
In short, will it give the reader the most compelling view of your story-world?
The more essential every word you render in your opening sentence and paragraph, the more intense its impact will be upon the reader’s imagination.