I love stories that open with a bang. I’m a fan of the short, pointed first sentence, such as the sentence preceding this one. My time to read, like everyone’s, is sparse, and I’m not a patient reader. Particularly as an editor, if I’m looking at 20, 30, 40 stories in my inbox, or a stack of books I need to read for classes, it can get pretty brutal. I want tension, character, voice, right up front. The story needs to hook me with its quirks, its language, humor, pathos, or trouble, or I’m gone. I want to be compelled to keep reading, to turn the page or scroll down the document, as the case may be, and discover what the author has in store.
And yes, there are plenty of examples out there of stories that meander into themselves, that draw us in through lush landscape or delicately rendered biography of the main character up to this point. These types of openings can be especially effective in novels. But for me, particularly for short stories that are already tight on space, time, and attention, slowly paced openings are a tough sell.
So, below are five of my favorite openings that start with a bang. These are the kind of openings that I can’t get away from until I’ve finished them all the way to their endings.
1. “By our second day at Camp Crescendo, the girls in my Brownie troop had decided to kick the asses of each and every girl in Brownie Troop 909.”
ZZ Packer, “Brownies” from Drinking Coffee Elsewhere
One of my undergraduate creative writing instructors used this as an example of a high-tension opening, and he made the cruel choice to photocopy only the first page for us to read. It meant that he got his point across. It also meant that I had to wait until I got my hands on the book to read the rest. In just this first sentence, Packer creates tension, humor, and voice that reveal the first-person narrator. I had to get to know this girl.
2. “My wife wants a dog. She already has a baby. The baby’s almost two. My wife says that the baby wants the dog.”
Donald Barthelme, “Chablis” from Forty Stories
This opening demonstrates my favored strategy of the short, declarative opening sentence. And while these sentences are technically simple, brief informative sentences, their ordering creates a strong sense of tension and begins to reveal a view of the wife’s relationship with the baby and the exclusion of others from this relationship. Each sentence clarifies the first statement in a way that builds into a clear problem between this husband and wife that is about far more than the purchase of a dog.
3. “At noon another load of raccoons comes in and Claude takes them out back of the office and executes them with a tire iron.”
George Saunders, “The 400-Pound CEO” from Civilwarland in Bad Decline
I’ll come clean that this opening also appeals to my affection for the grotesque, the morbid, and the ridiculous. What really makes this opening for me is the verb “executes.” After this sentence, I am ready for anything Saunders is going to dish out. I want to read on just to see what could possibly be going on here. Rather than revealing the weirdness as the reader goes along, this story (and much of Saunders’ work) introduces it up front and moves forward from there.
4. “This is the story about a bus driver who would never open the door of the bus for people who were late. Not for anyone. Not for repressed high-school kids who’d run alongside the bus and stare at it longingly, and certainly not for high-strung people in windbreakers who’d bang on the door as if they were actually on time and it was the driver who was out of line, and not even for little old ladies with brown paper bags full of groceries who struggled to flag him down with trembling hands. And it wasn’t because he was mean that he didn’t open the door, because this driver didn’t have a mean bone in his body; it was a matter of ideology.” Etgar Keret, “The Story About a Bus Driver Who Wanted to Be God,” from The Bus Driver Who Wanted to be God & Other Stories
This opening does a lot of work establishing a vastly important aspect of the main character – his commitment to the profession and punctuality of bus driving – that is of course what must be challenged or changed as the story progresses. The blur of faces, from the teens to the high-strings to the old ladies, also work to world-build the point of view of a bus driver, for whom the day is an endless stream of faces, clothing, demands and entreaties and the same stops over and over. Who this man is and how he experiences the world is clear from the first few sentences, and this is necessary skill for those, like Keret, who favor the very short form.
5. “11/30. Understand that your cat is a whore and can’t help you. She takes on love with the whiskery adjustments of a gold-digger. She is a gorgeous nomad, an unfriend. Recall how just last month when you got her from Bob downstairs, after Bob had become suddenly allergic, she leaped into your lap and purred, guttural as a German chanteuse, familiar and furry as a mold.” Lorrie Moore, “Amahl and the Night Visitors: A Guide to the Tenor of Love,” from Self-Help
This opening, like many that I like, is about humor and exaggeration. This opening also establishes a voice that draws me in and evokes the contradictory nature of this cat, the beautiful and the pathological. This is a narrator that notices things that I want to notice too, and makes me want to walk around with her for a day and see what else she notices and thinks of the world.
So these are my five – which are based on my own reading habits and notoriously bad memory for story titles and authors. Also, looking back over these reveals a curiously high percentage of animals in these openings. Maybe this is because, in fiction, animals are often convenient vehicles for humor, pathos, or violence. But, that’s perhaps another blog post. On the matter at hand, what openings hook, capture, or ensnare you?