Monday, April 14, 2008

Opening Paragraphs that Rock!

Great short stories have great first paragraphs. Greatness is marked by punched up word selection, writing stripped of useless words, key details, images that evoke emotion, and action with an element of suspence.

Consider the following example of a great first paragraph:

Some of the evil of my tale may have been inherent in our circumstances. For years we lived anyhow with one another in the naked desert, under the indifferent heaven. By day the hot sun fermented us; and we were dizzied by the beating wind. At night we were stained by dew, and shamed into pettiness by the innumerable silences of stars. We were a self-centered army without parade or gesture, devoted to freedom, the second of man's creeds, a purpose so ravenous that it devoured all our strength, a hope so transcendent that our earlier ambitions faded in its glare. (T.E. Lawrence, The Seven Pillars of Wisdom)

Here is an exercise for Creative Writing teachers to use with their students:

Select 2 of the following opening paragraphs. Re-write them so as to increase action and to evoke emotion in the reader. Submit your work to a peer for evaluation and evaluate that peer's work, using these questions to evaluate the success of the editing:

  • Is the editing effective in cutting useless words? (The most common useless words are just, like, that, and very.)
  • Does the re-write stir the suspence pot? Does it make the opening more exciting?
  • Does the re-write make you want to read the rest of the story?
  • Does the re-write produce a feeling or emotion in you as the reader? What is that emotion?
  • Is the re-write better than the original overall?

Example #1: The First Book of Adam by Carl Dauber (winner of the First Place Fiction Award at the 28th Annual Midwest Writers' Conference at Kent State University)

In the beginning there was me. At least that's how I remember it. God told me He was here first so I have to take Him as His Word. God's big on keeping His Word.

I was born in the Garden on a Friday. I awoke fully grown with morning dew and God was whispering in my ear.

"Good morning, Adam."

"Morning, God."

"Adam, I have given you the gift of life and in return I ant you to end my Garden."

"Whatever you say, God."

"As well, you must obey My One Commandment."

"You'll have to be a little more specific about this commandment business. For instance, what is it?"

"Other commandments may come later, but for now this is it: do not eat the fruit from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil."

"Can I eat vegetables?"

"Yes, Adam, you may eat vegetables. But stay away from the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil."

"Is there a vegetable of Good and Evil I should know about?"

God let loose a heavy sigh. "Adam, I have given you a brain and I expect you to use it. Any more questions?"

"Just one. If you don't want me to eat from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil why did you put it in the Garden in the first place?"

"I don't want to get too philosophical on this point, Adam, so let me just say this is an experiment in Free will"

Example #2: Deep Betrayal by Ansil Williams (winner of Ms. Linsley's First Place Award for Adventure-Suspense)

It was a hot day in Kingstown, so hot that the tires on the cars were gooey. Even the rain that afternoon turned to steam as it rose off the streets. Kevin Brown, a respected policeman, made his daily route through the most dangerous part of town. Jamaicans sat idle on the front steps of rundown homes and shacks. Kevin's black Cadillac with gold rims was known by everyone in that neighborhood.

As he turned onto New Street, he noticed a familiar figure trying to pick the lock of a clothing store. Kevin sighed. Only a fool such as Sprintie would try to rob a store in broad daylight. Kevin parked his car and approached the culprit.

Example #3: Five Stones by Matthew Healy (winner of Ms. Linsley's First Place Award for Fantasy)

The plants and trees around Chad were dying and there was a stale odor that hung heavy in the air. Chad looked at the gray dried moss that he held in his hand. It was the moss that was infecting the forest, leeching life out of the trees and plants. This was the moss his father had left him as a clue before he was murdered.

Chad stood in the unnatural silence, looking at the dead forest, unable to grasp what was happening. What was he supposed to find here? Even thinking was difficult because of his grief and the gray darkness around him.

Example #4: Solitary, Alice C. Linsley (pending publication)

We were all miserable the day that Sergeant Rahmani was caged outside in the hot sun, visible from the airless staff room where the instructors gathered to drink mostly stale coffee. There were no trees or shrubs, just an endless stretch of dusty earth and the dejected Rahmani slumped in the sweltering heat. Company policy said that the Americans were to keep their noses out of the Iranian Army's business, and the barbed wired enclosure, 7 by 7 by 7 feet, had the strategic effect of reinforcing policy.

The Iranian government's contract with Regent Helicopter Company was concise and unambiguous. We were to teach the Iranians how to fly helicopters, to read the manuals in English, and to maintain their aircraft. And we were to be respectful toward all nationals and their traditions, especially careful not to tread on any Shi'ite sensibilities. No boozing, no provocative dress, no public display of affection, and no public disturbances that might reflect poorly on the company when it came time to renew the contract.

Example #5: Inner Harbor, Nora Roberts

Phillip Quinn died at the age of thirteen. Since the overworked and underpaid staff at the Baltimore City Hospital emergency room zapped him back in less than ninety seconds, he wasn't dead very long.

As far as he was concerned, it was plenty long enough.

What had killed him - briefly - was two .25 caliber bullets pumped out of a Saturday night special shoved through the open window of a stolen Toyota Celica. The finger on the trigger had belonged to a close personal friend - or as near to a close personal friend as a thirteen-year-old thief could claim on Baltimore's bad streets.

The bullets missed his heart. Not by much, but inlater years Phillip considered it just far enough.

That heart, young and strong, if sadly jaded, continued to beat as he lay, his blood pouring out over the used condoms and crack vials in the stinking gutter on the corner of Fayette and Paca.


poetreader said...


Alice, I fancy myself a writer, but I'm not sure I'd pass your course. The opening passages you quote are all so good that I would simply refuse to tinker with them. If my image of the best possible form of an opening is precisely what is in front of me, what would I, as a student, be expected to do? I ask this as I remember how, 'way back in junior high school (seems an eon ago!) I received a zero on an assignment for just such a reason. What advice would you have advised my teacher? or me for that matter?


Alice C. Linsley said...

Ed, I could give the students mediocre examples, which would make their task easier, but they would profit less from reading poor writing.

As a student, you might change only one word, but if that change enhances the imagry or evokes a stronger emotion in the reader, the change is worth an A on the assignment.

An example, that I suspect some students will provide, would involve this change:

From: "The plants and trees around Chad were dying and there was a stale odor that hung heavy in the air."

To: "The plants and trees around Chad were dying and a stale odor hung heavy in the air."