Crafting Short Story Openings: Questions

I spent this week navigating the waters of good short story openings.  I thought my journey would be direct like kayaking a short stretch of the Mississippi River.  The deeper I studied, it felt like scuba diving in the Caribbean Sea.  The art of crafting short story openings may be simple, but it’s also vast. 

For this reason, in this post, I’m narrowing my opening explorations down to one technique I’ve noticed in some short story openings: sparking the reader’s curiosity by posing a question.  I’ll focus on two attention-grabbing questions I saw in short stories across different genres: ‘Which Reality is Real?’ and ‘Who died and how?’

Which reality is Real?

This is a technique that can be used in stories that make the reader question the character’s state of mind.  In these stories, the character’s view of reality is juxtaposed against someone else’s perspective.  An example is below.

“Your Honor; I stand accused not only of first degree murder by the prosecution, but of mental unfitness by my own defense lawyer—the charlatan in the polyester suit over there—and in light of this treachery, I have no choice but to confess to the former charge to defend myself from the latter.”

Anthony Marra, “The Tell-Tale Heart”

In the above story, having a defense lawyer who is questioning her/his client’s mental capacities, while having a protagonist who would prefer to be found guilty for murder than considered crazy, poses the question, ‘is the speaker crazy?’ in a comical way. 

An example of a drama that makes you question the speaker’s state of mind opens with the following lines.

“Watch the boy, she had said.  Or had she?  Some things he knew for sure.”

Yoon Choi “The Art of Losing”

The opening brings you into the mind of a character who in time you learn is facing Alzheimer’s.  The juxtaposition is between the main character’s perception and his wife’s.  Other stories that use this same technique are Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wall Paper” (juxtaposes the perspective of the protagonist, her husband, and her brother),  and Damián Szifron in the “El más fuerte” section of Relatos Salvajes (juxtaposes one driver’s opinion of the state of mind of the other).

Who died and how?

This technique begins by announcing a character who has died.  Some author’s relay an immense sense of loss along with the death, which can lead us to want to know more about the deceased character’s wonderful life. This example can commonly be seen in memoirs, such as Pam Houston’s “What Has Irony Done for Us Lately,” Claire Vaye Watkins’ “I Love You But I’ve Chosen Darkness” and Steve Stern’s “Carolyn.” 

I’ve also seen short stories, that draw readers in by unexpected responses to a person’s death, like Leo Tolstoy’s “The Death of Ivan Ilych” (where characters immediately begin to think of what they have to gain now that the deceased is gone) and “Unearthed” (where the character at first tries to remember the name of the fast food restaurant the body was found, and then considers not claiming the body).

What are other questions you have seen posed by story openings?

References

Choi, Yoon, “The Art of LosingNew England Review

Marra, Anthony, “The Tell-Tale Heart” 2019 Pushcart Prize XLIII.

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