October 4th, 2010 / 4:55 am
Craft Notes

Opening Sentences

Openings in directly quoted dialogue:(*)

“‘Either foreswear fucking others or the affair is over.'” – Sabbath’s Theater, Philip Roth

“’49 Wyatt, 01549 Wyatt.” – In Parenthesis, David Jones

“‘Tell me things I won’t mind forgetting,’ she said.” – “In the Cemetery Where Al Jolson Is Buried,” Amy Hempel

Openings simply establishing who speaks and/or when and where we are in space and/or time:

“William Stoner entered the University of Missouri as a freshman in the year 1910, at the age of nineteen.” – Stoner, John Williams

“When I am run down and flocked around by the world, I go down to Farte Cove off the Yazoo River and take my beer to the end of the pier where the old liars are still snapping and wheezing at one another.” – “Water Liars,” Barry Hannah

“I am Gimpel the Fool.” – “Gimpel the Fool,” Isaac Bashevis Singer

Expository openings whose primary purpose is to introduce us to the trouble at story’s beginning (and these often also include the matters of who speaks and/or when and/or where we are in space and/or time):

“Of the twenty stallions brought to Cap Francais by the ship’s captain, who had a kind of partnership with a breeder in Normandy, Ti Noel had unhesitatingly picked that stud with the four white feet and rounded crupper which promised good service for mares whose colts were coming smaller each year.” – The Kingdom of This World, Alejo Carpentier

“For the first three years, the young wife worried that their lovemaking together was somehow hard on his thingie.” – “Adult World (I),” David Foster Wallace

Quick-to-scene openings (sometimes expository, but they signal that they won’t be for long) whose primary purpose is to introduce us to the trouble at story’s beginning (and these often also include the matters of who speaks and/or when and/or where we are in space and/or time):

“I was coming down off the Mitchell Flats with three arrowheads in my pocket and a dead copperhead hung around my neck like an old woman’s scarf when I caught a boy named Truman Mackey fucking his own little sister in the Dynamite Hole.” – “Dynamite Hole,” Donald Ray Pollock

“The child had been warned. His father said he would nail that rock-throwing hand to the shed wall, saying it would be hard to break windshields and people’s windows with a hand nailed to the shed wall.” – “Gentleman’s Agreement,” Mark Richard

“Lizard and Geronimo and Eskimo Pie wanted to see the scars.” – “Miracle Boy,” Pinckney Benedict

In Medias Res:

“Strike spotted her: baby fat, baby face, Shanelle or Shanette, fourteen years old maybe, standing there with that queasy smile, trying to work up the nerve.” – Clockers, Richard Price

“The gun jammed on the last shot and the baby stood holding the crib rail, eyes wild, bawling.” – The Plague of Doves, Louise Erdrich

“He wanted to talk again, suddenly.” – “In the Gloaming,” Alice Elliott Dark

Contextless fragment whose function will become apparent later:

“Short story about a church on the ocean floor.” – From Old Notebooks, Evan Lavender-Smith

“Oh, poor Dad. I’m sorry I made fun of you.” “Nietszche,” Lydia Davis

Establishes alternative donnee (possibly because of altered consciousness, possibly because of space/time/physics displacement):

“In sleep she knew she was in her bed, but not the bed she had lain down in a few hours since, and the room was not the same but it was a room she had known somewhere.” – “Pale Horse, Pale Rider,” Katherine Anne Porter

“It’s one thing to be a small country, but the country of Inner Horner was so small only one Inner Hornerite at a time could fit inside, and the other six Inner Hornerites had to wait their turns to live in their own country while standing very timidly in the surrounding country of Outer Horner.” – The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil, George Saunders

Essaying of some sort:

“They are conduits of emotion, kids are.” – “AM:31,” Amelia Gray

 Direct Address:

“So, Monsieur, it began with a great gust of wind.” – Street of Lost Footsteps, Lyonel Trouillot

Yammering by foregrounded omniscient narrator:

“Any mention of pirates of the fair sex runs the immediate risk of awakening painful memories of the neighborhood production of some faded musical comedy, with its chorus line of obvious housewives posing as pirates and hoofing it on a briny deep of unmistakeable cardboard.” – “The Widow Ching – Pirate,” Jorge Luis Borges

The language of advertising:

“So, you don’t believe in a future life. Then do we have the place for you!” – The Quick and the Dead, Joy Williams


“Since your letter is accompanied by an endorsement from your minister, I am happy to reply.” – “A Wilderness Station,” Alice Munro

(*) Note that many of these openings do many of these kinds of work, and could well be counted across four or five of these categories. I find those kind of openings — openings that manage information very elegantly while getting us quickly to the trouble and using interesting language all the while — to be particularly pleasing. For example, almost every opening in dialogue is in medias res by definition. (But not always: Roth uses the opening dialogue in Sabbath’s Theater toward an expository end. That whole first page deserves an analytical post of its own. But I digress.) I’ve categorized the openings in these ways to stimulate some thought about the kinds of work an opening sentence might do, and why, and toward what ends. Mainly, as usual, I’m trying to educate myself.   

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  2. Lincoln Michel

      I dig this post. Here is one of my favorites:

      “Miss Mandible wants to make love to me but she hesitates because I am officially a child” – Donald Barthelme (“Me and Miss Mandible”)

  3. Blake Butler

      yes, this is awesome.

      i haven’t read the David Jones, or heard of him. that is an interesting opening sentence.

  4. Kyle Minor

      He was a high modernist — a contemporary of T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound. Eliot wrote the introduction to In Parenthesis, which is out in a paperback NYRB reissue. Joshua Cohen turned me on to him

  5. Kyle Minor

      I always wondered why Donald Barthelme’s estate didn’t sue Adam Sandler and Tim Herlihy for cribbing “Me and Miss Mandible” and turning it into Billy Madison.

  6. Ryan Call

      in parenthesis is really fascinating.

  7. Lincoln Michel

      I’d see a Sandler adaptation of “Some of Us Had Been Threatening Our Friend Colby”… or perhaps a Paul Thomas Anderson adaptation with Sandler playing Colby.

  8. Amber

      Jones is fascinating. Love him. His allusions to classic Welsh myths, high and low tradition, disillusion with the modern age, his Catholicism–all very Eliot and yet all very much his own, he deserves more recognition than he gets today. In Parenthesis is one of those books I hope never goes back out of print, though I’m sure it will, because I keep loaning my copy out to people.

      Nice post, too, Kyle. Really glad to see you posting here now.

  9. Guest
  10. Ben

      i want to read that short story about a church on the ocean floor.

  11. Guest

      “Because he knew nothing about horses.”–Stanley Elkin, “George Mills”

  12. Ben

      i want to read that short story about a church on the ocean floor.

  13. John

      Thanks for these, & okay now, let’s go lush: “Landscape-tones: brown to bronze, steep skyline, low cloud, pearl ground with shadowed oyster and violet reflections.”
      — Lawrence Durrell, BALTHAZAR (my favorite of the Alexandria Quartet)

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