An Author’s Handshake

When you crack open a novel, you’ve already committed to read at least a few chapters. Rarely would you abandon it after the first few paragraphs. Not so a short story. Its opening—even its first sentence—is crucial. First sentences “establish the authorial confidence that is absolutely necessary for successful fiction. If a reader is going to follow you, it’s important that they know from the very first line that they can trust the story.” It’s the literary equivalent of “You had me from ‘hello,’” the journalist’s hook.

The above quote is from an interview with author Josh Rolnick in the spring 2013 issue of Glimmer Train. He and the interviewer talk about the importance of “opening narrative space,” which is an arty way of saying making the reader believe “anything can happen.” One of the most memorable opening lines is, and we all know this one, whether we’ve read Kafka’s novella or not, “One morning, when Gregor Samsa woke from troubled dreams, he found himself transformed in his bed into a horrible vermin,” although I’m positive that in the translation I read an astonishing number of decades ago, those last two words were “giant cockroach.” Kafka never exactly says. Whatever. You absolutely can’t stop there.

Examples of short story first lines I think compel further reading:

  • “The Potts girl walked into the café preceded by her reputation so that everyone was obliged to stare.” – “Sundowners,” by Monica Ali
  • In his first dreamy meditations over the case, Mr. Fortune remarked that it suggested one answer to the hard question why boys should be boys.” – “The Dead Leaves,” by H.C. Bailey
  • “In the autumn of 1971 a man used to come to our house, bearing confections in his pocket and hopes of ascertaining the life or death of his family.” – “When Mr. Pirzada Came to Dine,” by Jhumpa Lahiri

The first line of Rolnick’s own short story, “Funnyboy,” like the three above, is filled with plot possibilities: “I glanced out the window as my train pulled into the station and saw the girl who killed my son.” From that point, this story could travel anywhere, though you sense not anywhere particularly good.

But the opener needn’t so effectively forecast the coming drama, like the examples above. It can draw you in through its description of a particular time and place or the mood it sets, like Lauren Groff’s opener for “Delicate Edible Birds”: “Because it had rained and the rain had caught the black soot of the factories as they burned, Paris in the dark seemed covered by a dusky skin, almost as though it were living.” You want to take her hand and go there with her.

Writing the first few sentences of a short story is laying down a marker. “I promise to show you this,” the author says. They create a door you must open, a street you must walk down. The page you must turn.