The Harrow Was Not Writing Blog

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CW116 khawClick either image to see either story in this post, which will be a sort of comparison to talk about openings. To keep things super tight, I’ll just be reading the first two paragraphs of each and comparing them, so check out the first two paragraphs of each if you feel so inspired. As always, I’ll avoid spoilers as much as possible (which should be easy this time around, because I haven’t yet read the rest of the stories). 

The Challenge: 

While maybe not as hard as ending, beginning a story presents a lot of challenges. For my part, when I start a new story, it’s vital that I find the just right opening and I’ll often has as many as 12 false starts before my eyes decide that I’ve nailed the right place to start. It makes me curious, then, what other openings do and why my own opening seem to fail me so often. What about that final opening launches me into the story?

So I thought I’d take a look at two openings that got me engaged and made me want to read more. 

The Stories:

Two stories that could not be more different–the authors don’t have much in common, and neither do the venues. The opening of Robert Reeds “The Universal Museeum of Sagacity” and Cassandra Khaw’s “The Bones of the Matter” take very different strategies, but both of them made me wonder and pulled me in. 

Go read them now, if you intend to.

The Solution:

Cassandra Khaw’s story spends its first paragraph philosophizing about the power of mothers. It’s 3 sentences and 2 of them are syntactically similar, giving that sense of something building that repetition offers when done well. From the end of the first sentence, I’m not sure where this idea of “witchcraft” is going and I’m delighted to find out, in the second sentence and further in the third, that the story is building natural motherhood as something akin to witchcraft. Even though it’s a small surprise, it was enough to convince me to keep on going with the story.

And it turns again into the second paragraph, reverting back to the first line by essentially saying “no actually, this story is going to be about magic mothers”–it’s a push and pull on the micro level that’s really charming, the narrator contradicting herself. This paragraph continues on with little oratory on why magical mothers are so dangerous in their sixties but this paragraph is grounded with two real characters (Mei Fong and her mother) so that we know the story is beginning. Finally, it pushes us right into dialogue. 

Two things I think this opening is doing really well to pull me in: 1) some really pretty words and 2) a great sense of tension and conflict through the push and pull of these first couple paragraphs.

Meanwhile, the Robert Reed story begins with summary. A lot happens in these first two paragraphs, all very rapidly–an insurance man in Boston gets married, gets divorced, moves to the mid-west, gets married again, has two children, and has repeated visits from his first wife. It’s a characteristically bold opening. Why does it work better than other summary openings? Like in all things, the most important thing you can do is engage your readers. 

Andrew Stanton (writer of Wall-E and Finding Nemo) says not to give your audience 4, give them 2+2. That rule is key to many Pixar stories. You can only get audiences to invest by forcing them to invest work. 

Here are the lines in which Reed gets us invested: “Maddy was my mother’s aunt, but only briefly” and “Those were my mother’s cousins.” As easy as the solution is–Walter is the narrator’s mother’s uncle–it’s just twisted up enough that I had to stop and think “wait, what does it mean, only briefly her mother’s aunt? Who’s telling this story? Why does this matter?” It’s this little puzzle at the beginning that charmed me into swallow the pill of exposition. As in many stories though, it’s the kick-off of the puzzle that really got me into it, and that stars at the end of the first paragraph with the revelations about Maddy’s visits. The second paragraph sends us off into the story with a final bang: “Which is a story unto itself.”

Finally:

These two stories take truly different approaches on one level, but on another, they are both involving us in a puzzle of sorts right away. In Khaw’s story, it is the puzzle of what magic is and who has it. In Reed’s, it’s the puzzle of “mom’s aunt + mom’s cousin = Walter is mom’s uncle”. If I dug deeper, I wonder if I’d suddenly find puzzles everywhere, like Jim Carey and The Number 23. I’ll be sure to keep an eye out. 

Time to go read the rest!

What do you think? Anything you agree with? Disagree? Let me know what stories have openings you really enjoy. 

Have anything to add? Anything you disagree with? Let me know in the comments. Or tell me about one of your favorite opening paragraphs and why it works for you. 

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WindeyeSomehow I think this whole collection is miraculously available on Google Books! Just click this link and then click the third option down that shows the title page. There the story begins. 

http://bit.ly/1U8ufhb 

Also before I get ahead of myself, definite spoilers this week as we’ll be talking about THE END. 

The Challenge:

My tastes run decidedly strange. I love lyrical stories with hapless protagonists and open endings.

An open ending is one of those things, like second-person POV, that never pleases everyone. For some people, open endings are a major turn-off (consider one of Terry Bisson’s Rules for Writers: “stories must make a pleasing shape, and close with a click”). Yet stories that end with a wheeze instead (that’s opposite a click, right?) can be pulled off with the right audience, when done well. 

It’s important to note that there are many kinds of open endings. Consider, for instance, the “Open Choice End”, a common form of open ending in which a character is presented with a choice but the story does not tell us which one is chosen. It was used in “The Three Dancers of Gizzari” in BCS, for instance. For my purposes, I’m not interested in studying those kind of open endings because they seem (to me) fairly simple to pull off: either make the character’s ultimate choice obvious beforehand, or make it so the choice doesn’t matter (in the BCS story, what mattered was what Bathenica had learned about herself and the people around her). 

What I want to talk about are truly open endings. As in, you have no clue what is happening to the main character or where he’s going next. 

The Story:

Brian Evenson, hands down, has had more influence on me than probably any other writer. His novella “The Brotherhood of Mutilation” haunts me to this day, and is so worth reading if you enjoy weird dark stories (assuming you don’t mind a little gore)–the novella was reprinted in The Weird Compendium and there’s a sequel that’s packaged with it as the novel Last Days

Of his short story collections, Windeye has to be the most accomplished (note: I have yet to read the new one). Beginning right with the title story, the first story in the collection, Evenson reveals a knack for and love of open endings. One of my particular favorites is called “The Sladen Suit.” It’s just one of those stories that sticks with me constantly because of the incredible imagery that gives you this raw, physical sense of presence in the story. 

The Solution:

First and foremost, I think you need a basic outline of the plot either so you can keep the whole plot in mind, or in case you don’t have much interest in reading the story. 

  1. We find our narrator entering the sladen suit, claiming he’s the third. 
  2. Our timeline shoots back to when the captain is first discovered murdered with a diving knife. No one feels bad, because he got them all stuck in this terrible storm on a boat and now they are all going to die. 
  3. “The Twins” Stig and Tore dispose of the captain’s body but only one Stig comes back (although everybody seems to agree that Stig is actually Tore). 
  4. It becomes clear that they are all going to starve before the storm clears. 
  5. They sleep and play games until Stig hears something and they all discover a “voice pipe” they don’t remember seeing, which leads up to the deck where supposedly the Captain and Tore lay dead. Stig says that he is speaking with Tore and that leads them to the sladen suit hidden in the captains cabin. Tore called the suit their salvation. 
  6. Stig enters the suit. We witness him struggling to crawl through the rubber tube into the suit. Stig appears to make it into the suit, and runs down the hall. By the time everyone catches up to the suit, it has flattened out and Stig (maybe Tore) is gone. Everyone thinks that maybe they hear screaming inside the suit, but they aren’t sure.
  7. A summary discussion of whether the suit is actually a hungry creature or some kind of portal to safety. 
  8. Another man goes into the suit (Asa) with a rope tied around his ankles. This scene progresses much quicker. He disappears and the rope comes back, still tied but covered in blood. 
  9. Our guy enters. We experience his crawl into the suit, his being in the suit, and then his crawl out, which takes much longer (and god that imagery! He thinks something of himself is being smeared onto the walls. He’s losing himself) and only ends when he uses the diving knife to cut his way out. He emerges back in a ship much like his own, but empty. And he appears to be trapped, although it seems the storm has ended. It seems he also cannot die of starvation any longer. 
  10. Before he finishes writing his account of events, he lets us know his plans: he will go back into the suit and, hoping to find a way out or at least his other companions or, if he must, he will turn the knife on himself to end this. It is also revealed that he is the one who killed the captain. 


You may notice that the ending brings up a lot more questions than it answers.

If this account is written out by this guy (a tactic used in many of Evenson’s open-ended stories), how did we come across it so we could read it? If he’s heading back into the suit, won’t the same things happen all over again? Of his companions, he was the only one with a knife, so does that mean they never made it to this second ship? What happened to them? Will he do this forever?

So how does this story not leave the reader on the stormy seas of confusion? That, at least, is answerable. At the start of the story, two major mysteries were introduced: who killed the captain? and what does it feel like inside the sladen suit? 

Even though the other major mystery, introduced in the middle (what happened to the first two travelers in the Sladen Suit?) does not, the two opening mysteries get answered. Those answers are very full–they lead us on another quest and into a second act for the story. 

Perhaps this open ending also works because, although it does not end with a click, it has a very pleasing shape. It begins with the narrator entering the suit. It ends with the narrator entering the suit. It has a sort of small intro paragraph and a small outro paragraph. Something about the actual structure of the prose on the page is satisfying. 

Still, though, there’s more to the satisfaction of this ending:

In a story sense someone had to find this account and make it available to us. It’s a written note. And, theoretically, since there are no more notes, the story is suggesting that the story really does end here. No more messages were found. That ending says something really did happen to the narrator. Further, because of the quick “outro”, Evenson has limited the number of possibilities to 3. 

  1. The sladen suit leads somewhere. Our guy gets free. He lives. 
  2. The sladen suit devours our guy. This was all one long process of digestion. He dies. 
  3. The sladen suit goes on forever. Our guy chooses to take himself out, ending his torment. 

Ultimately, you don’t like the character enough to be angry if he dies. You don’t hate him enough to be angry if he lives. I think the real genius of this ending is that it really somehow opens up to the reader. It lets you decide, based on your worldview, what happened to the narrator. My personal thought has always been that he made it out, that he’s free in some remote location. Or, as a secondary idea, I think that freedom was definitely at the end of the journey, but that maybe he got impatient and killed himself too soon. 

Not sure what that says about my world view. But for some readers it might be just as easy to decide that the guy was swallowed up by the sladen suit because he killed the captain and that means he deserved to die. Not my interpretation, but there’s plenty of proof for it. 

Finally: 

A lot of stories build their own world, and build this thematic sense of how the world works–Lord of the Rings tells us that Middle Earth is a world where the good triumph but not without injury, and Serenity tells that in the world of the Alliance vs the Frontier, people who believe in something have power, but that such power can be used for good or evil. In “The Sladen Suit,” Evenson builds a visceral world that is so secluded that we have no clue what the world at large is like.

Somehow he gets us to impress our own beliefs on this world and thus the ending is not really open at all. Not once we’ve come to a decision. 

Let me know if you agree or disagree. What are your experiences with reading and writing open endings? Have you read work by Evenson? I’d love to hear what you think of him.

Side note: I, at first, planned on discussing Gene Wolfe’s “The Ziggurat” but I really didn’t want to ruin it for anyone. If you haven’t read it, it’s an incredible story. You can check it out here: http://epubbookonline.com/b/3531/james-patrick-kelly/the-secret-history-of-science-fiction/14