Spring Semester classes begin this week at Ohio State University, a fact that leads me to thinking about beginnings in general and the openings of narratives in particular. More to the point, I’m thinking about the ways we get stories started when we’re not even sure what stories we want to tell. How, in other words, do we begin when we face the blank page with an equally blank mind?
We might begin with trouble. Consider, for example, the opening of Willa Cather’s story, “Paul’s Case”: “It was Paul’s afternoon to appear before the faculty of the Pittsburgh High School to account for his various misdemeanors. He had been suspended a week ago, and his father had called at the Principal’s office and confessed his perplexity about his son.” This story opens with a character in trouble, and we’re curious to know the consequences.
We might begin with the arrival of a visitor. Here’s the opening line of Raymond Carver’s “Cathedral”: “This blind man, an old friend of my wife’s, he was on his way to spend the night.” The story opens with this impending visit, and we wonder what will happen once the visitor arrives.
We might begin with an intriguing world. Angela Carter opens her story, “The Erl-King,” with the enticement of language and detail: “The lucidity, the clarity of the light that afternoon was sufficient to itself; perfect transparency must be impenetrable, these vertical bars of a brass-coloured distillation of light coming down from sulphur-yellow interstices in a sky hunkered with grey clouds that bulge with more rain. It struck the wood with nicotine-stained fingers, the leaves glittered. A cold day of late October, when the withered blackberries dangled like their own dour spooks on the discoloured brambles.” Carter creates a world and an atmosphere that makes us curious to know the people who inhabit it.
We might begin with characters in conflict. The opening sentence of Tobias Wolff’s “An Episode in the Life of Professor Brooke” creates an interesting dynamic between two characters: “Professor Brooke had no real quarrel with anyone in his department, but there was a Yeats scholar named Riley whom he could not bring himself to like.” We know, of course, that the story will throw Brooke and Rily together in a series of circumstances that will have significance for our main character.
We might begin with a gathering of interesting facts. Richard Ford’s adult narrator looks back on a time from his boyhood in this opening of “Optimists”: “All of this that I am about to tell happened when I was only fifteen years old, in 1959, the year my parents were divorced, the year when my father killed a man and went to prison for it, the year I left home and school, told a lie about my age to fool the Army, and then did not come back.” With this opening sentence, Ford maps out a narrative—beginning, middle, and end. Now all he has to do is connect the dots.
We might begin with a journey. Here’s the opening of Eudora Welty’s “A Worn Path”: “It was December—a bright frozen day in the early morning. Far out in the country there was an old Negro woman with her head tied in a red rag, coming along a path through the pinewoods. Her name was Phoenix Jackson.” We wonder who Phoenix Jackson is and where she’s going and for what purpose.
These are only some of the ways we might think about opening a narrative. There are others, of course. What they all have in common is a specificity and a forward motion that arouses the readers’ curiosity while also doing the same for the writer. When it comes to writing, we don’t have to know where we’re going right away. We only have to know where we’re starting.