First Few Paragraphs with Cassandra Khaw and Robert Reed
Click 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).
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.
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.
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.”
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.