Wednesday, August 19, 2015

The Importance of First Lines in Short Stories: Macavity Nominees Speak Out

This year’s finalists for the Macavity Award for Best Short Story discuss economy in the craft of short story writing—with a particular focus on how their short stories open. Read each of the nominated stories linked below, then check out their responses to the following question: “It's been argued that short stories need to work both quickly and economically—every line needs to count. How does your first line or first paragraph set the stage for the whole story, bring the reader in quickly?” 
  •  Craig Faustus Buck: "Honeymoon Sweet" (Murder at the Beach: The Bouchercon Anthology 2014, edited by Dana Cameron; Down & Out) 
  • Barb Goffman: "The Shadow Knows" (Chesapeake Crimes: Homicidal Holidays, edited by Donna Andrews, Barb Goffman, and Marcia Talley; Wildside Press) 
  • Paul D. Marks: "Howling at the Moon" (Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, Nov. 2014) 
  • Travis Richardson: "The Proxy" (Thuglit #13, Sept./Oct. 2014) 
  • Art Taylor: "The Odds Are Against Us" (Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, Nov. 2014

I'm a big proponent of starting a story with a bang. Maybe I've got ADD, but I'll often decide whether to read a book or a short story by its first line. If I'm feeling generous, I'll give it a paragraph. That's what Elmore Leonard was talking about in the first of his 10 Rules of Good Writing: "Never open a book with weather." I don't interpret this as a literal rule, but rather as a metaphor. Don't open a story with background; jump right into your story and grab your reader by the throat.

The opening paragraph of “Honeymoon Sweet” is only about 75 words long, but I tried to do a lot in that limited space:

"For a sweet house, right on Santa Monica Beach, it was unbelievably easy to break into. Mickey found a window he could open with a putty knife, so the double-locked doors were a joke. And Lana disabled the alarm within the forty-five-second grace period before it would have triggered. They were in and no one knew. What a great way to kick off the honeymoon."

The opening line provides the setup and leaves no doubt that we're headed for trouble. Our setting and two main characters are introduced in the next two sentences. And the paragraph concludes with a twist that both promises further surprises and reveals the tone. Right off the bat, you know this isn't your grandfather's Oldsmobile.


"The Shadow Knows" starts off with a simple question: "Good Lord, Gus, what's got you so down on this beautiful Saturday morning?" I opened the story with this question hoping it would entice readers to continue on to learn what's bothering poor Gus. The question also sets up the rest of the tale. Gus is a superstitious man who believes his town groundhog is responsible for the long winters his town has suffered for years. The opening conversation about why Gus is so miserable this morning (snow, lots of new snow that fell overnight) prompts Gus to realize that if his town is ever going to have an early spring again, he needs to get rid of that groundhog. And the story is off and running.


 I believe that the first paragraph of “Howling at the Moon” sets the tone for the story that follows:

“A coyote howled at the moon in the near distance. I had been awake for several minutes already. I listened, hearing nothing but the sounds of the desert. My eyes were open, seeing nothing in the desolate moonlit night. I lay chilly as the rocks around me. I felt something, someone. I knew I wasn’t alone anymore. Maybe it was my training as a Marine. Maybe it was my two tours in Iraq. Or maybe it was the Indian in me.”

We immediately know something’s wrong. The main character, narrating in first person, realizes that he’s no longer alone in this lonely and remote corner of Death Valley. We also find out that he’s an ex-Marine, which implies that he knows how to take care of himself—but the question hanging over everything is: will he be able to in this situation?

We also learn that he’s an American Indian. This hints at the backstory that’s revealed throughout the rest of the story. It also gives us a clue about the character of this man, his connection to the land and the legends and folklore that surround it, all of which comes into play as the story unfolds. And which, hopefully, intrigues the reader to want to see what happens next.

Well, I hope that’s what the first graph says to people!


Here is the first paragraph:

“Trey Tiverton sat out on his front porch in his rocking chair, sipping a jar of homemade hooch that was strong enough to melt the paint off of a barn. He watched a couple of his men play ping-pong in the afternoon shade of his barn-turned-lab. They’d snorted a little of the new batch and had excess energy to burn. They were smacking the dirty off-white ball nearly as fast as them Asians in the Olympics but with five times the mistakes. They should be using that energy to hunt down Owen Seaver, but then again they’d probably fuck it up and kill somebody innocent. Better to keep his muscle nearby, protecting the lab.”

The analysis:

The first sentence of the first paragraph helps set the tone of who Trey is and the image he wants to convey. He’s trying to relax and stay calm. He wants to look as if he is the master of his estate, that he is control. Also, Trey is a meth dealer who does not sample his own product, but he needs a strong dose of medicine to keep himself relaxed.

The next three lines contrast Trey to his two methhead employees who are burning off excess chemical energy in a frenetic game of ping pong. Trey is looking down at them from his rocking chair, much like a king on a throne looking over his minions hard at work… but this is much more pathetic. He’s not proud of his employees, they are clearly second tier (or less) and by allowing unhealthy liberties, like snorting meth on the job, he shows a lack of leadership.

The second to last sentence mentions Owen Seaver who is the focus of the story. The reasons why Owen needs to be hunted and the consequences of Owen’s actions will be revealed later. The final lines also show that Trey, even as a meth dealer, has a conscience, not wanting to harm innocent people. His conscience will be pummeled throughout the story as he battles between being a decent guy and a ruthless drug dealer.

Art Taylor on “The Odds Are Against Us” 

I always encourage students in my short story writing workshops to start as close to the conflict of the story as possible and to avoid extraneous intros—every word should count! But I also don’t think short stories need to follow that old journalistic standard of a lead sentence that hits the five w’s or need simply to jump straight to the action, in media res.

The first sentence of my story is a simple one: “‘How about a gimlet this time?’ I asked.”—a question which doesn’t do much beyond indicating that the narrator is talking to someone (a bartender? yes, as it turns out) and suggesting that this isn’t his first drink or else not his usual one (and maybe in the process that the narrator is indeed a regular? yes again—and more than that, a friend of the bartender).

But ultimately that first sentence sets in motion a lot more. It’s part of a bet the narrator is making with himself; if Terry, the bartender, makes the gimlet with gin, then it’s the universe’s way of telling the narrator to do something he doesn’t want to do, but if made with vodka, then he’s free and clear—and bet after similar bet, the “yeses” keep pointing the narrator in a troubling direction, ultimately building the odds against both characters, both in terms of the life-or-death situation at hand and in a larger sense. Both men are cursed, each in their own way, maybe right from the start.

1 comment:

Hank Phillippi Ryan said...

JUSt saw this--it's wonderful! Thank you--so instructive!