Last week in my undergraduate fiction workshop, I found myself talking about the value of mystery in the opening of a short story. Of course, there are a number of ways to open a story, but let’s say you’re desperate for one. Let’s say you’re in the pre-writing stage of a new story, and not only are you at a loss for where to begin, you also have no knowledge of the characters or the plot. A good opening line that contains a bit of mystery may be just what you need.
Consider the following examples of first sentences:
I was in bed when I heard the gate. (From Raymond Carver’s “I Could See the Smallest Things”)
I wake up afraid. (From Tobias Wolff’s “Next Door)
This is a story about an old lady who ordered a young man from an L.L. Bean catalog. (From Ellen Gilchrist’s “The Young Man”)
On the platform at Penn Station, at 6:30 on a Saturday morning, a young woman in a red sweater stood waiting for the Boston train to pull in. (From Joan Wickersham’s “Commuter Marriage”)
If you’re like me, your curiosity is aroused by these openings. Questions arise from each sentence; there are things we want and need to know. Who’s at the gate and what will the narrator do next? Why does the narrator in the Wolff story wake up afraid? Afraid of what? Why would an old lady order a young man from L.L. Bean? How would that even be possible? What would happen if a young man actually arrived? Why is the young woman waiting for the train from Boston? Who’s on that train, and what does he or she mean to the woman?
Imagine that you’re the writer of each of these stories. How can you not keep writing from these opening sentences that give you so much to figure out? All you have to do is get your main characters into action. Maybe you’ll see a causal chain of events begin to come together as your main characters respond to the mysteries that open their stories. If this happens, then this might happen, etc., etc., all the way to the end of the narrative.
To get the first draft of a story written, sometimes all you need is an opening line that has a bit of mystery in it. Often, a story moves ahead from what the writer doesn’t know. Norman Mailer once said, “Writer’s block is only a failure of the ego.” So instead of fearing the blank page, march boldly onto it. Give yourself some questions to answer and keep writing until you have them. Open with a line that makes you curious and then draft the story that eventually satisfies that curiosity. Start with what you don’t know and end with what you do.