On Beginnings, again

I struggle with beginnings, especially of short stories. I think everyone does. They are the most exciting part, the moment when everything seems possible. But they are terrifying because so much depends on them. They must set the terms for everything that follows. So that, when the reader finishes the story, they look back to the beginning and think yes, that makes sense.

The opening of a short story should be like a good murder mystery. It needs to be packed with clues that only make sense in retrospect.

So this week I want to offer two of my favourite short story openings. Perhaps they can inspire.

Here is Yiyun Li’s “The Princess of Nebraska.” If you haven’t read Li’s stories, do it now. She is the kind of plain-style writer who conceals how technically brilliant she is. She never shows off. But she could. Her refusal to tip her hand, to theatrically elaborate on or dramatize the interiority of her characters, is itself a kind of politics. She doesn’t invade their privacy.

This is the opening:

Sasha looked at Boshen in the waiting line for a moment before turning her eyes to the window. She wished she would never have to see Boshen again after this trip. She had run to the bathroom the moment they entered the McDonald’s, leaving him to order for them both. He had suggested a good meal in Chinatown, and she had refused. She wanted to see downtown Chicago before going to the clinic at Planned Parenthood the next morning. It was the only reason for her to ride the Greyhound bus all day from Nebraska. Kansas City would have been a wiser choice, closer, cheaper, but there was nothing to see there—the trip was not meant for sightseeing, but Sasha hoped to get at least something out of it. She did not want to a drugged sleep in a dreary motel room in the middle of nowhere. Sasha had grown up in a small town in Inner Mongolia; vast and empty landscapes depressed her.

So: here are the terms, slipped in easily, as a young woman watches a man in line at McDonald’s. This young woman wants to see America so badly she will turn an abortion into an opportunity for sightseeing. She feels she has exchanged one emptiness for another: two alienating landscapes. She wants cities. She wants life. She is willing to be reckless. A man who will accompany her to Planned Parenthood the next day is trying to buy her a meal. It’s presumably obvious who the man is.

Except it isn’t. Keep guessing. You won’t figure it out. No matter how many guesses you venture, you won’t hit on who the man is in her life, and his relationship to what she is about to do. I’ve used this in writing workshops as a game. Keep guessing. No one ever figures it out. You just have to read the story. Which appears to be her story, but is also his.

And now, the opening of “Tapka,” by Canadian writer David Bezmozgis. This is from Natasha and other stories, his first collection, a series of connected stories about Latvian Jewish immigrants to Toronto and one of the top books of my life. “Tapka” is the first story.

Goldfinch was flapping clotheslines, a tenement delirious with striving. 6030 Bathurst: insomniac scheming Odessa. Cedarcroft: reeking borscht in the hallways. My parents, Baltic aristocrats, took an apartment at 715 Finch fronting a ravine and across from an elementary school—one respectable block away from the Russian swarm. We lived on the fifth floor, my cousin, aunt, and uncle directly below us on the fourth. Except for the Nahumovskys, a couple in their fifties, there were no other Russians in the building. For this privilege, my parents paid twenty extra dollars a month in rent.

That’s the first paragraph, a miracle of compression and association, evoking both personalities and complex social realities. The flapping clothesline, which calls to mind a cold wind and flapping mouths (chatter, gossip) that vaults us into “delirious with striving.” The ravine, the elementary school, the extra twenty dollars a month they pay to not find themselves associated with Russians, though they themselves, as Latvian Jews, are Russian speaking. The carefully chosen word “swarm,” a dense word that conjures up hives, stinging insects, threat. There is a whole novel in this paragraph. There is also, when you finish reading, all the terms of the story: the older couple, the desperate bid for respectability by a young immigrant family negotiating the beginning of a life in Canada, precarious aspiration, the loss of status (Baltic aristocrats) in the leap from one place to another (the fifth floor of an apartment building). The words that evoke how too great a loss (of status, of identity) can have a grievous effect: delirious, insomniac. We are brought into an entire neighbourhood and the people in it, moving as in an establishing shot (Bezmozgis is also a filmmaker): the aerial view of clotheslines, swooping along the streets until we land in an apartment, with the family we will come to know. But the other people (the swarm) are there, just outside our consciousness, so that everything that happens after has a context and an urgency. A world in which even one mistake is very dangerous because the stakes are so high.

How can the beginning lead organically and inevitably to the end? How can you tell the reader exactly what must be known, but no more?

Good luck. And happy writing.