The Very Beginning: Your Opening Scene

You are an editor. You have in front of you a large pile of unsolicited short stories, or an even larger pile of first novels. You also have an editorial meeting in two hours, three phone calls to return this morning, and a problem with the art department that you wish would go away by itself but which probably won’t. You pick up the first manuscript in the pile and start reading it. How far do you get before you decide to finish it or to put it back in its self-addressed stamped envelope with a form rejection slip?
 
Before we answer that question, let’s look at the other end of this fictional communication. That’s you, the writer of this story. You’ve worked hard on it. You have hopes for it—if not fame and fortune (at least, not right off), then certainly publication. This manuscript is important to you. In an ideal world, the editor would give this story the same attention you did, reading it without distraction (perhaps sitting in a wing chair in a cozy, book-lined study), with care, all the way through.
 
But this is not an ideal world. The truth is, you have about three paragraphs in a short story, three pages in a novel, to capture that editor’s attention enough for her to finish your story. With busy editors, the biblical prophecy is, alas, too often true: “The first shall be last.”
 
Does this discourage you? It shouldn’t. It’s just a fact of literary life, like overdue royalty statements and inept reviewers. And unlike those regrettable phenomena, this can work to your advantage. Once you know that you have just three paragraphs to create a good first impression, you can spend your time rewriting and polishing that opening until it convinces an editor to keep reading.
 
You can deliberately incorporate the qualities that make an opening interesting and original: character, conflict, specificity, and credibility. These are, of course, elements that are present throughout the entire length of successful stories and novels. However, for beginnings they have particular applications and forms. But before we consider these four elements, we must consider something even more basic to the success of any story’s beginning—and its middle and its end. This crucial concept is the implicit promise.
 
THE IMPLICIT PROMISE: FRAMEWORK FOR THE WHOLE

Every story makes a promise to the reader. Actually, two promises, one emotional and one intellectual, since the function of stories is to make us both feel and think.
 
The emotional promise goes: Read this and you’ll be entertained, or thrilled, or scared, or titillated, or saddened, or nostalgic, or uplifted—but always absorbed.

There are three versions of the intellectual promise. The story can promise (1) Read this and you’ll see this world from a different perspective; (2) Read this and you’ll have confirmed what you already want to believe about this world; or (3) Read this and you’ll learn of a different, more interesting world than this. The last promise, it should be noted, can exist on its own or coexist with either of the first two.
 
Thus, a romance promises to entertain and titillate us, to confirm our belief that “Love can conquer all,” and to transport us to a more glamorous world than this one, where the heroine (and by vicarious identification, the reader) is beautiful, well-dressed, and ultimately beloved. A mystery novel promises an entertaining intellectual challenge (Whodunit?), confirmation that the human mind can understand events, the satisfaction of justice, and—sometimes—insights into how human nature operates under pressure. A literary novel such as Toni Morrison’s Beloved, about slavery and its aftermath, delivers emotions of anger, horror, guilt, or recoil—not pleasant emotions, but strong ones. Intellectually it may unsettle our view of the world. “Real art,” writes critic Susan Sontag, “has the capacity to make us nervous.”
 
As a writer, you must know what promise your story or novel makes. Your reader will know. She may buy your book because it belongs to a genre that promises certain things (romance, science fiction, horror, political thriller). Or she may come to your story without preconceptions, in which case she’ll form them pretty quickly from your characters, tone, plot, and style.
 
By the time she’s read your opening, your reader knows what you’ve implicitly promised. A satisfying middle is one that develops that promise with specificity and interest. A satisfying ending is one that delivers on the promise, providing new insight or comfortable confirmation or vicarious happiness. Even when it’s surprising in some way, the ending feels inevitable, because it fulfills the promise of the story. And—this is important—the ending feels satisfying only because the beginning set up the implicit promise in the first place.
 
Consider an example, Daniel Reyes’s much-anthologized story “Flowers for Algernon,” which was made into the movie Charley. “Flowers For Algernon” is about Charlie Gordon (the transition from page to screen apparently affects spelling), a retarded adult who is the butt of cruel jokes by his coworkers at a bakery. Charlie undergoes an untested operation to radically raise his I.Q. The story is told through Charlie’s diary entries. They start out short, misspelled, and simple, and become increasingly complex as Charlie surpasses in intellectual ability all the doctors conducting the experiment. Charlie’s relationships with them, with coworkers and with women change drastically— although not necessarily for the better.
From the beginning, Charlie is portrayed as likable; the world is portrayed as logical if not always kind; injustice is inherent in Charlie’s initial situation—why should somebody so good be treated so badly? The promise is made that whatever happens to Charlie, it will follow the laws of science, will keep us on his side, and may not be fair, since the universe isn’t fair. The middle of the story elaborates on these conditions, pitting Charlie’s intense desire to be smarter against our society’s distrust of the man who “gets above himself.” The ending fulfills the promise. The effects of the operation turn out to be only temporary. Charlie slides back down the I.Q. scale; he has trouble even remembering what happened to him; he’s once more at the bottom of the social heap but kept from unhappiness by his own indomitable, sweet nature. The ending delivers on the promise of the first two-thirds of the story.
 
Suppose, however, that Keyes had ended the story differently. Suppose Charlie had been hit by a bus and killed. Or suppose he had become a killer himself, enraged by all the injustices done him, and the story had turned into a bloodbath. Or suppose the operation had been permanent and Charlie had become as arrogant and unfeeling as the doctors. Or suppose the operation had been permanent and Charlie ended up happy.
 
None of these endings would have been satisfying. Being hit by a bus, a random death, wouldn’t have delivered on the promise of logic implied by all the science. Charlie’s becoming either a killer or a bastard wouldn’t have delivered on the implicit promise that here was somebody we can like, somebody to root for. The happy ending wouldn’t have delivered on the injustices of the world so carefully set up in the early scenes of a good man victimized by circumstances.
 
Note that this analysis implies that you must know from the beginning what implicit promise your story makes. Actually, this is both true and not true. The final draft must contain the same promise to the reader throughout, with the promise made in the beginning, developed in the middle, and fulfilled at the end. But writing a story isn’t as mechanical as building a house. There are no blueprints. Sometimes a writer doesn’t know what promise she’s really making until it emerges sometime during the first draft. That’s all right. We’ll explore the development of the implicit promise, and its implications for revision, throughout this book. What’s important to remember as you write your beginning is that you are making a promise to the reader, even though at this point you may not be sure just what it is.
 
In your first scene, however, your main goal is to keep your reader interested. You do that through focusing not on overall meaning but on the four elements that make a first scene compelling: character, conflict, specificity, and credibility.
 
CHARACTER: WHO GOES THERE?

Your opening should give the reader a person to focus on. In a short story, this person should turn up almost immediately; he should be integral to the story’s main action; he should be an individual, not just a type. In a novel, the main character may take longer to appear: Anna Karenina doesn’t show up in her own novel until chapter eighteen. However, somebody interesting should appear very early. In Anna Karenina, it’s Anna’s brother Stepan, who is both integral to the plot and very much an individual.
 
To see how these goals can be accomplished in a very short space, consider the opening of Raymond Carver’s six-page story “Fat”:
 
I am sitting over coffee and cigarettes at my friend Rita’s and I am telling her about it.
 
Here is what I tell her.
 
It is late of a slow Wednesday when Herb seats the fat man at my station.
 
This fat man is the fattest person I have ever seen, though he is neat-appearing and well-dressed enough. Everything about him is big. But it is the fingers I remember best. When I stop at the table next to his to see to the old couple, I first notice the fingers.
 
Here, immediately, is a character for the reader to focus on. Actually, two people, but let’s discuss the narrator. She’s not even talking about herself, yet she emerges not as an abstract job description (“waitress”) but as an individual. This person is observant (“I first notice the fingers”). She is reflective; she has obviously given some thought to the incident she’s about to relate to Rita. Her speech is simple and repetitive (“ … and I am telling her about it. Here is what I tell her”), suggesting not only a definite socioeconomic class but also a certain kind of mind: one that can consider a small incident meaningful enough to emphasize, meaningful enough to weigh, eventually meaningful enough to be changed by. All of this is hinted at subtly; most readers will not stop to analyze the character at this point. But readers will sense that there is a character here, a genuine person.
Contrast Carver’s opening with the character in the following unsuccessful beginning:
 
The fall day was hot. Ted Henderson drove to the school and parked the car. He wore a dark blue suit, black shoes, and the maroon tie Kathy had given him for Christmas. He climbed the steps and opened the door. Inside, it was cooler. The school office told him Mrs. Kelly would join him soon. Ted sat down to wait.
 
When Mrs. Kelly arrived, she led him into a conference room. They sat down.
 
“I’d like to discuss my daughter Jane’s grades,” Ted said. “Her report card wasn’t very good.”
 
This opening has exactly the same number of words as Carver’s (91), but what have we learned about Ted Henderson? That he wears a suit, that someone named Kathy once gave him a tie for Christmas, that he has a daughter named Jane who isn’t doing well in school, and that he has gone to visit Jane’s teacher.
 
But what kind of person is this Ted? Is he conferring with Mrs. Kelly because he’s worried about Jane? Or angry at her for doing badly? Or angry at Mrs. Kelly for not doing a better job as a teacher? Does he feel that Jane’s poor performance reflects on him?
 
Is he hoping the whole thing can be taken care of quickly because he has an important corporate meeting at eleven o’clock? Or has he carefully asked his boss for the whole day off so he can schedule the conference at the convenience of the teacher, an educated woman who makes him nervous? Is that dark blue suit his only one, a little shiny in the seat and usually worn just for church? Or is it expensive English wool, conservatively tailored? Or maybe it’s a sporty-looking Italian silk, the tie knotted only loosely, the trousers breaking at exactly the right place over leather loafers.
The point is, we haven’t a clue about Ted Henderson’s personality. It’s possible that the writer will individualize him more as the story goes on—but we probably won’t read long enough to find out.
 
Most successful openings give the reader a genuine character because most stories are about human beings. A few, however, are actually about something else. Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery,” for instance, begins with several paragraphs about villagers gathering for an annual lottery. None of the villagers are individualized much. Few are even given names. The equipment used for the lottery is described in much more detail than the people. That is because in this story, the lottery itself is the main character, with a life and force of its own—which is the whole point.
Similarly, some novels delay the entrance of a genuine character until chapter two, when something else has enough force to substitute. John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath devotes chapter one to a detailed description of the devastation done by drought to the Oklahoma Dust Bowl. It works because this dry desolation becomes both motivator and symbol for the entire novel. Such structuring, however, is rare, and you will probably be better off getting people on your novelistic stage as quickly as possible.
 
CONFLICT: COMING SOON TO A SCENE NEAR YOU

The point to remember about conflict is that it arises because something is not going as expected. Your readers should suspect that as early as your first few paragraphs.
 
Calling for conflict in the opening few paragraphs of a story doesn’t mean that your first sentence must feature a body hurtling past a sixth-story window (although it might). Some stories and novels feature overt, dramatic conflict: character versus character (as in thrillers, where one country’s spy is pitted against another’s), character versus nature (consider James Dickey’s action-laden Deliverance), or character versus society (Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery,” which ends with a stoning). In other stories, however, the conflict will be smaller in scale: family strife, romantic misunderstandings, personal economic gain or loss. The conflict may even be so subtle it exists solely inside the skull of one character, with the others not even aware of his anxiety or distress. But no matter what kind of conflict your story explores, its nature should be hinted at in your opening, even though the development of the conflict won’t occur until later.
 
Look again, for example, at the opening of the Carver story “Fat.” The hint of conflict is very subtle, but it is there: in the narrator’s determination to tell the story to Rita, in the fact that she considers waiting on such a huge person to be out of the ordinary, in the fact that both writer and reader know that in our society weight is an emotional issue. All these clues will be developed into greater conflict throughout the story—and all are implied in the effective opening.
 
Often a short story hints at conflict as early as the first line. Following are the first lines from four different stories, which happen to be the first four stories in an anthology I pulled at random off my shelves. Every one promises conflict:
 
“Off there to the right—somewhere—is a large island,” said Whitney. “It’s rather a mystery—”
—Richard Connell, “The Most Dangerous Game”
(Why is the island mysterious? What’s being hidden?)
 
It was the eve of August Bank Holiday that the latest recruit became the leader of the Wormsley Common Gang.
–Graham Greene, “The Destructors”
(An inversion of the natural social order, in which a new recruit would have the lowest standing, not the highest. Promises social problems.)
 
As Mr. Nilson, well known in the City, opened the window of his dressing room on Campden Hill, he experienced a peculiar sweetish sensation in the back of his throat, and a feeling of emptiness just under his left rib.
—John Galsworthy, “The Japanese Quince”
(Feelings that are both peculiar and empty promise anxiety, which in turn leads to conflict.)
 
It was a hard jolt for me, one of the most bitterest I ever had to face.
—Sherwood Anderson, “I’m a Fool”
(An obvious problem—how will he face this bitter jolt—and just what is it?)
 
What about novels? Here you have a little longer to introduce conflict. Even so, many novels do so on the first page. Such otherwise diverse writers as Leo Tolstoy (Anna Karenina), Tom Wolfe (Bonfire of the Vanities), Anne Tyler (Breathing Lessons), Danielle Steel (Full Circle) and Ken Follett (The Key to Rebecca) all show some endeavor going wrong by the end of page one (respectively: an extramarital affair, a political rally, a trip to a funeral, newlywed bliss, and a trek across the Sahara).
 
What works for this eclectic group of writers will work for you, too. Begin with an indication—subtle or overt—that something is not going as expected, or someone is experiencing disturbing emotions, or something is about to change.
 
 
 
About the Book
For more tips on strong start-to-finish storytelling, check out Elements of Fiction Writing: Beginnings, Middles, & Ends by Nancy Kress.
 
Award-winning novelist Nancy Kress shares her insights into the writing life and her advice for writers.

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One thought on “The Very Beginning: Your Opening Scene

  1. SRBPD

    “It was a hard jolt for me, one of the most bitterest I ever had to face.
    —Sherwood Anderson, “I’m a Fool”
    (An obvious problem—how will he face this bitter jolt—and just what is it?)”

    obvious problem, most bitterest
    Great article though, thanks!

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