Wednesday, May 11, 2011

The Devil's Engine, No. 5

Happy May, all! This month is short story month on the Biblioasis blog. And so, without further adieu:

Clark Blaise begins "How Stories Mean" with the following paragraph:

"The most interesting thing about a story is not its climax or dénouement - both dated terms - nor even its style and characterization. It is its beginning, its first paragraph, often its first sentence. More decisions are made on the bases of the first few sentences of a story than on any other part, and it would seem to me after having read thousands of stories, and beginning hundreds of my own, (completing, I should add, far fewer), that something more than luck accounts for the occasional success of the operation. What I propose is theoretical, yet rooted in the practice of writing and of reading-as-a-writer; good stories can start unpromisingly, and well-begun stories can obviously degenerate, but the observation generally holds: the story seeks its beginning, the story many times is its beginning, amplified."

1) How important is the first sentence to your own writing or reading process?


2) What are one or two of your favourite first sentences (of your own work or someone else's), and why?


This quotation from Mr. Blaise, whom I truly do revere, is puzzling to me. Does he mean the first sentence I write of the story, or the first sentence that, in its published, allegedly final form of the story, that the reader reads? To me, those are two separate entitities that do, occasionally, coincide.

The first sentence I write is very important to me. I'll often have a first sentence for a story in mind long before I know what the second sentence or anything after will be. As often as not, these first sentences will turn out to be just the germ of an idea, a mechanism to create the whole story. Later, like supports falling away from the space shuttle, the whole initial mechanism will be cut, and only the story it spawned will remain. I'll cut it myself, or an editor will, or something from the middle or ending of the story will get fished out and put up front.

There's also another set of first sentences that I've written that just turned out to be personal fetishes that went nowhere--the sentence was s nothing more than a sentence, portending...nothing.

That's me as a writer. As a reader, I think of opening sentences in "finished" stories as I imagine an architect might think about doors--you can't get by without them, they serve a definite structural purpose, and while there are infinite choices to be made in a door's or first sentence's construction, if it fails in its purpose of allowing ingress, then it isn't really a door at all.

Did that make sense? What I mean is that I want a first sentence to be interesting enough to make someone keep reading, but also containing information actually useful to the rest of the story. Short stories are short, and usually begin in medias rez without much time to explain; every sentence counts and I can't waste even one on something merely stylish.


1) The first sentence means everything to me, as a reader and a writer. Personally I know I am better at beginnings than endings. I can’t even start a story until I have the right first sentence. It sets the tone, the rhythm, establishes the voice. It can be light, faux throwaway, with a sting in the tail, deliberately obtuse, or an image that stands in for the entire story, a kind of thesis statement.

I like to begin without preamble or explanation, drop into complexity and hack my way out. I have files of first sentences and first paragraphs in search of development. They are like unsolved puzzles, unopened gifts. Sometimes I am afraid of opening them in case what’s inside proves disappointing or doesn’t work.

I relish a good first sentence; roll it around in my mouth.

Occasionally when I’m too busy to read I take a few minutes to sit with a book of stories and read their first sentences, or the first sentences of novel chapters. It can be almost as satisfying as reading the whole thing (but of course not quite).

2) “It still counts, even though it happened when he was unconscious.” Miranda July: “The Shared Patio.”

“When my mother died, my father’s early widowhood gave him social cachet he would not have had if they had divorced.” Amy Hempel: “The Afterlife.”

I love the disconnection in both of these, the understated normalizing of bizarre points of view. Each statement implies an entire life, & immediately sets up a situation, character/relationship and outlook a writer could take years to fully explore. These examples happen to be from American writers, but there are so many it’s hard to pick! Rebecca Rosenblum in particular has some great ones.

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