Genre: Short Stories
“A College Vagabond”, in Cattle Brands: A Collection of Winter Camp-Fire Stories (1906)
The ease and apparent willingness with which some men revert to an aimless life can best be accounted for by the savage or barbarian instincts of our natures.
The narrator continued: “The West has produced many types of the vagabond—it might be excusable to say, won them from every condition of society. From the cultured East, with all the advantages which wealth and educational facilities can give to her sons, they flocked; from the South, with her pride of ancestry, they came; even the British Isles contributed their quota. There was something in the primitive West of a generation or more ago which satisfied them. Nowhere else could it be found, and once they adapted themselves to existing conditions, they were loath to return to former associations.”
“The Story of a Poker Steer,“ in Cattle Brands: A Collection of Winter Camp-Fire Stories (1906)
He was born in a chaparral thicket, south of the Nueces River in Texas. It was a warm night in April, with a waning moon hanging like a hunter’s horn high overhead, when the subject of this sketch drew his first breath. Ushered into a strange world in the fulfillment of natural laws, he lay trembling on a bed of young grass, listening to the low mooings of his mother as she stood over him in the joy and pride of the first born.
“Knoxville: Summer of 1915,” in The Partisan Review (June, 1938)
We are talking now of summer evenings in Knoxville, Tennessee, in the time that I lived there so successfully disguised to myself as a child.
This is the opening line—the brilliant opening line, I might add—to a prose poem Agee originally entered in a Partisan Review short story contest. The judges named it a runner-up in the competition, with the two entries from Delmore Schwartz and Mary King splitting the $100 First Prize. There’s a lot of history behind this famous line, which I will have more to say about at a future time. Stay tuned.
Hans Christian Andersen
“The Little Mermaid” (1837)
Far out at sea the water’s as blue as the petals of the loveliest cornflower, and as clear as the purest glass; but it’s very deep, deeper than any anchor can reach. Many church steeples would have to be piled up one above the other to reach from the bottom of the sea to the surface. Right down there live the sea people.
Hans Christian Andersen
There was once a woman who did so want to have a wee child of her own, but she had no idea where she was to get it from. So she went off to an old witch and said to her, “I would so dearly like to have a little child. Do please tell me where I can find one.“
“Old Love”, in A Quiver Full of Arrows (1980)
Some people, it is said, fall in love at first sight, but that was not what happened to William Hatchard and Philippa Jameson. They hated each other from the moment they met.
“The Luncheon”, in A Quiver Full of Arrows (1980)
She waved to me across a crowded room at the St. Regis Hotel in New York. I waved back, realizing I knew the face, but I was unable to place it. She squeezed past waiters and guests and had reached me before I had a chance to ask anyone who she was.
Some opening lines are memorable not because they’re so beautifully written, but because they perfectly capture a common human experience. The narrator, an unnamed English author, continued: “I racked that section of my brain which is meant to store people, but it transmitted no reply. I realized I would have to resort to the old party trick of carefully worded questions until her answers jogged my memory.”
“Slow Days, Fast Company,“ the title story of Slow Days, Fast Company: The World, The Flesh, and L.A. (1977)
This is a love story and I apologize; it was inadvertent. But I want it clearly understood from the start that I don’t expect it to turn out well.
“Jealousy,“ in Black Swans: Stories (1993)
It’s only temporary: you either die, or get better.
The narrator, an unnamed L.A. woman who bears a striking relationship to the real life Babitz, continued: “Something we used to say about life in general, feeling sophisticated and amusing in bars, back in the days when we thought how you behaved was the fault of other people.“
“On Angels,“ in The New Yorker (Aug. 1, 1969)
The death of God left the angels in a strange position.
The narrator continued: “They were overtaken suddenly by a fundamental question. One can attempt to imagine the moment. How did they look at the instant the question invaded them, flooding the angelic consciousness, taking hold with terrifying force? The question was, ’What are angels?’“
And why, you might ask, this was such a terrifying question? The narrator explained in the following paragraph: “New to questioning, unaccustomed to terror, unskilled in aloneness, the angels (we assume) fell into despair.“
“An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge,“ in The San Francisco Examiner (July 13, 1890); reprinted in Tales of Soldiers and Civilians (1891)
A man stood upon a railroad bridge in northern Alabama, looking down into the swift water twenty feet below. The man’s hands were behind his back, the wrists bound with a cord. A rope closely encircled his neck.
The narrator continued: “It was attached to a stout cross-timber above his head and the slack fell to the level of his knees. Some loose boards laid upon the ties supporting the metals of the railway supplied a footing for him and his executioners—two private soldiers of the Federal army, directed by a sergeant who in civil life may have been a deputy sheriff.”
In a May 10, 2012 article in The New York Review of Books (titled “One of America’s Best”), Michael Dirda wrote: “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge,” has been called—by Kurt Vonnegut, himself a kinder, gentler Bierce—the greatest short story in American literature. Surely, no first-time reader ever forgets the shock of its final sentences.” I won’t say anything more about the ending here, but the entire short story may be found here).
“My Favorite Murder,” in the San Francisco Examiner (Sep. 16, 1888)
Having murdered my mother under circumstances of singular atrocity, I was arrested and put upon my trial, which lasted seven years. In charging the jury, the judge of the Court of Acquittal remarked that it was one of the most ghastly crimes that he had ever been called upon to explain away.
“An Imperfect Conflagration,” in The Wasp (March 27, 1886)
Early one June morning in 1872 I murdered my father—an act which made a deep impression on me at the time.
This is one of the most impressive opening sentences in all of American literature, and perhaps the very best employing the rhetorical device of understatement. In the first paragraph, the narrator continued:
“This was before my marriage, while I was living with my parents in Wisconsin. My father and I were in the library of our home, dividing the proceeds of a burglary which we had committed that night. These consisted of household goods mostly, and the task of equitable division was difficult. We got on very well with the napkins, towels and such things, and the silverware was parted pretty nearly equally, but you can see for yourself that when you try to divide a single music-box by two without a remainder you will have trouble. It was that music-box which brought disaster and disgrace upon our family. If we had left it my poor father might now be alive.”
In writing the opening words to “A” is for Alibi (1982), Sue Grafton’s debut novel featuring investigator Kinsey Millhone, Grafton may have been inspired by Bierce’s opener above. See the Grafton entry here.
Jorge Luis Borges
“The Aleph,“ in The Aleph and Other Stories (1949)
On the burning February morning Beatriz Viterbo died, after braving an agony that never for a single moment gave way to self-pity or fear, I noticed that the sidewalk billboards around Constitution Plaza were advertising some new brand or other of American cigarettes.
In a 2017 interview with Joe Fassler of The Atlantic magazine, writer Michael Chabon said about the opening line: “We learn the narrator is in love with a woman who has just died. We witness his heartbreak in the incredible first sentence, one that would definitely be in contention if I had to choose a favorite opening line.” He went on to explain his thinking this way:
’When I first read that sentence, it sounded amazing to me. I loved its language and its pacing, though I had never actually experienced the phenomenon it’s trying to capture: the sense, after somebody you love had died, of how things plod on in such a banal way. In this one sentence, Borges captures the complete indifference of the universe to the people you love. It’s definitely one that, over the years, I’ve tried to model various of my own first sentences after.“
"The Coffin," in Dark Carnival (1947)
There was any amount of banging and hammering for a number of days; deliveries of metal parts and oddments which Mr. Charles Braling took into his little workshop with a feverish anxiety. He was a dying man, a badly dying man, and he seemed to be in a great hurry, between racking coughs and spittlings, to piece together one last invention.
What reader cannot be thinking, "What is this last invention?" And, if you're a sophisticated reader, you may be musing, "I think I can guess what it is."
“The Jar,“ in Weird Tales magazine (Nov. 1944); reprinted in Dark Carnival (1947)
It was one of those things they keep in a jar in the tent of a sideshow on the outskirts of a little drowsy town.
In a 2015 blog post, writer Tyler Miller describes this opening line as “a doozey,“ and a perfect example of Bradbury’s gift for “taking the ordinary and making it truly disturbing.“ Miller writes more fully: “The accumulation of prepositional phrases takes what should otherwise be a simple everyday object and shifts it further and further into the world of the strange and unnatural: in a jar, in the tent, of a sideshow, on the outskirts. The words sideshow and outskirts in particular suggest to the reader that whatever is in that jar is definitely out of the norm. And it’s gonna seriously disturb the complacency of that little, drowsy town.“
“Perhaps,” in The Green Shoe Sanctuary website (June 30, 2021)
They went by Alberto and Maria when they moved to Italy. Albert Einstein and Marie Curie decided to spend their retirement years together, living in neighboring flats in Pisa.
I have a soft spot in my heart for alternate history tales, but, frankly, most of them do not have great opening lines. This short story by Brook is a delightful exception—and the story’s second paragraph is as exceptional as the first:
“Many afternoons, Alberto would play his violin in public, typically on the carless Borgo Stretto, busking for change which he would collect and donate monthly to a local animal rights group. He was particularly fond of the Ippoasi sanctuary, which he and Maria periodically visited. Maria spent many of her afternoons writing science fiction stories, which she would mail to friends around the world. It was quite a change from their Nobel Prize-winning days.”
“Knock,“ in Thrilling Wonder Stories (December 1948)
There is a sweet little horror story that is only two sentences long:
The last man on Earth sat alone in a room. There was a knock at the door...
Two sentences and an ellipsis of three dots. The horror, of course, isn’t in the story at all; it’s in the ellipsis, the implication: what knocked at the door. Faced with the unknown, the human mind supplies something vaguely horrible.
But it wasn’t horrible, really.
These four paragraphs serve as the introduction to a short story about university professor Walter Phelan, who believes that he and possibly one other person—a single woman—are the only survivors of a cataclysmic event two days earlier in which “the human race had been destroyed.“ The second line, which was presented in italics in the original story, has gone on to achieve an iconic status in the literary world, with many saying it amounts to one of history’s best “short-short” stories (or, as some like to call them, “One-Line Novels”).
As the story begins, the narrator suggests that the second line comes from a horror story, but Brown clearly wrote it himself, and he chose to use it in the opening lines of this short story. Without giving away anything about the plot, that second, italicized line also became the final line of the story. The underlying idea that forms the basis for the tale is not original to Brown, and he may have been inspired by the following passage in Thomas Bailey Aldrich’s Ponkapog Papers (1903): “Imagine all human beings swept off the face of the earth, excepting one man. Imagine this man in some vast city, New York or London. Imagine him on the third or fourth day of his solitude sitting in a house and hearing a ring at the door-bell!“
A. S. Byatt
“The Thing in the Forest,” in The New Yorker (June 3, 2002)
There were once two little girls who saw, or believed they saw, a thing in a forest.
GUEST COMMENTARY from Mary Dalton, a Chicago-area writer, editor, and blogger (“Art of the Tale”). “So begins (and ends) A.S. Byatt’s darkly brilliant WWII tale about Penny and Primrose, two English girls who meet on a train as they are evacuated from London to a country estate and ultimately encounter a grotesque creature known in folklore as the Loathly Worm.”
In the story’s opening paragraph, the narrator continued: “The two little girls were evacuees, who had been sent away from the city by train, with a large number of other children. They all had their names attached to their coats with safety pins, and carried little bags or satchels, and the regulation gas mask. . .they were like a disorderly dwarf regiment, stomping along the platform.”
About the opening words, Dalton writes: “I love how the author juxtaposes benign details like safety pins and bags with things like gas masks. There’s a lot of black humor in this story, along with traditional fairy tale elements, such as children facing danger alone. But she also poses a serious question: ‘What can better help us make sense of terror: modern psychology or storytelling?’”
About the author, Dalton concluded: “Byatt often explores the intersection of history and narrative in her work, and ‘The Thing in the Forest’ underscores the impact of both. Her choice to end the tale with her opening line brings to mind the words of Isak Dinesen: ‘I think all sorrows can be borne if you put them into a story, or tell a story about them.’ ‘The Thing in the Forest’ seems to suggest that our ability to cope—or even survive—may depend on which path we choose.”
“Pitch Memory,” in Emperor of the Air: Stories (1989)
The day after Thanksgiving my mother was arrested outside the doors of J. C. Penny’s, Los Angeles, and when I went to get her I considered leaving her at the security desk. I thought jail might be good for her.
To my mind, this is a superb opening paragraph: economical (at 40 words), but long enough to provide grounding and texture, and with a lovely little twist at the end.
“Red Wind,“ in Dime Detective magazine (Jan. 1, 1938)
There was a desert wind blowing that night. It was one of those hot dry Santa Anas that come down through the mountain passes and curl your hair and make your nerves jump and your skin itch.
These opening words represent the first appearance of LA private investigator Philip Marlowe, and what a first impression he makes. In the short story, Marlowe continued: “On nights like that every booze party ends in a fight. Meek little wives feel the edge of the carving knife and study their husbands’ necks. Anything can happen. You can even get a full glass of beer at a cocktail lounge.“ The short story went on to make a second appearance in Chandler’s 1950 anthology, The Simple Art of Murder (1950)
Regarding this opening, mystery writer Erin Hart (Haunted Ground and other Nora Gavin/Cormac Maguire novels) wrote in 2013: “And of course, no one can out-do Raymond Chandler for striking just the right hard-boiled tone for his time and place.“
“A Vision of the World,“ in The Stories of John Cheever (1978)
This is being written in another seaside cottage on another coast. Gin and whiskey have bitten rings in the table where I sit.
In response to a 2013 query from the The Atlantic’s Joe Fassler, the American writer Ethan Canin offered this as a “favorite first line,“ saying about it: “When I was in college, this particular opening did something powerful to me. I remember reading it aloud to a friend, marveling at the ennui of the first sentence and the dark draw of the second. It comes fairly late in Cheever’s opus, and I think he was growing grim by then. I can see those rings.“ The Stories of John Cheever— in which this story appeared— went on to win the 1979 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.
“The Swimmer,“ in The New Yorker (July 18, 1964)
It was one of those midsummer Sundays when everyone sits around saying, “I drank too much last night.“
“The Story of an Hour,“ in Vogue magazine (Dec. 6, 1894)
Knowing that Mrs. Mallard was afflicted with a heart trouble, great care was taken to break to her as gently as possible the news of her husband’s death.
When Chopin’s story—arguably her most popular—first appeared, it was titled “The Dream of an Hour.“ It was retitled when republished a year later, and is now remembered by the revised title. When it was first published, the story was considered quite shocking for its portrayal of Louise Mallard’s feeling of liberated happiness when she begins to think of a future without her husband in it.
Arthur Conan Doyle
“The Red-Headed League,“ in The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (1892)
I had called upon my friend, Mr. Sherlock Holmes, one day in the autumn of last year and found him in deep conversation with a very stout, florid-faced, elderly gentleman with fiery red hair. With an apology for my intrusion, I was about to withdraw when Holmes pulled me abruptly into the room and closed the door behind me.
Arthur Conan Doyle
“A Case of Identity,“ in The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (1892)
“My dear fellow,“ said Sherlock Holmes as we sat on either side of the fire in his lodgings at Baker Street, “life is infinitely stranger than anything which the mind of man could invent.“
Arthur Conan Doyle
“The Five Orange Pips,“ in The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (1892)
When I glance over my notes and records of the Sherlock Holmes cases between the years ’82 and ’90, I am faced by so many which present strange and interesting features that it is no easy matter to know which to choose and which to leave.
Arthur Conan Doyle
“The Adventure of the Beryl Coronet,“ in The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (1892)
“Holmes,“ said I as I stood one morning in our bow-window looking down the street, “here is a madman coming along. It seems rather sad that his relatives should allow him to come out alone.“
Arthur Conan Doyle
“The Man With the Twisted Lip,“ in The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (1892)
Isa Whitney, brother of the late Elias Whitney, D.D., Principal of the Theological College of St. George’s, was much addicted to opium. The habit grew upon him, as I understand, from some foolish freak when he was at college; for having read De Quincey’s descriptions of his dreams and sensations.
The title of De Quincey’s book, of course, is Confessions of an English Opium-Eater, a classic 1821 memoir about the author’s addiction to laudanum.
In the “Twisted Lip” story, Dr. Watson’s narration continued: “He had drenched his tobacco with laudanum in an attempt to produce the same effects. He found, as so many more have done, that the practice is easier to attain than to get rid of.“
Arthur Conan Doyle
“The Adventure of the Copper Beeches,“ in The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (1992)
“To the man who loves art for its own sake,“ remarked Sherlock Holmes, tossing aside the advertisement sheet of the Daily Telegraph, “it is frequently in its least important and lowliest manifestations that the keenest pleasure is to be derived.“
Arthur Conan Doyle
“A Scandal in Bohemia,“ in The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (1892)
To Sherlock Holmes, she is always the woman. I have seldom heard him mention her under any other name. In his eyes she eclipses and predominates the whole of her sex. It was not that he felt any emotion akin to love for Irene Adler. All emotions, and that one particularly, were abhorrent to his cold, precise but admirably balanced mind.
Irene Adler is the closest thing to a love interest Sherlock Holmes ever found, and Dr. Watson’s opening words provide a glimpse into the psychology of the great detective, especially his extremely limited emotional range.
Watson continued: “He was, I take it, the most perfect reasoning and observing machine that the world has seen, but as a lover he would have placed himself in a false position. He never spoke of the softer passions, save with a gibe and a sneer. They were admirable things for the observer—excellent for drawing the veil from men’s motives and actions. But for the trained reasoner to admit such intrusions into his own delicate and finely adjusted temperament was to introduce a distracting factor which might throw a doubt upon all his mental results.“
Reading this description, one cannot help but think that Holmes was autistic. In fact, if he were a real person in today’s world, he would almost certainly be placed on the spectrum, quite likely with a diagnosis of Asperger’s Syndrome. Over a dozen years ago, Dr. Lisa Sanders confirmed this in her regular “Diagnosis” column in The New York Times. In “Hidden Clues” (Dec. 4, 2009), Sanders wrote about Holmes:
“He demonstrates what Asperger called “autistic intelligence”—an ability to see the world from a very different perspective than most people, often by focusing on details overlooked by others. Indeed Sherlock Holmes boasts that he is able to see the significance of trifles and calls this his ‘method’.”
E. L. Doctorow
“The Foreign Legation,” in Vanity Fair (April, 1984); reprinted in Lives of the Poets: Six Stories and a Novella (1984)
After his wife left with all her clothes and the children’s clothes and toys, Morgan continued to go to work and come home, though the house was empty and he had no one to talk to.
In the evenings he stood at his windows with binoculars and watched the passage of his neighbors through their rooms.
After the first paragraph, we already have an extensive backstory. After the second, we see how a sad story has moved in a pathetic direction. After both, we’re left with an unsettling feeling about where the story may be going from here.
“Scales” (1980), in The Red Convertible: Selected and New Stories, 1978-2008 (2009)
I was sitting before my third or fourth Jellybean—which is anisette, grain alcohol, a lit match, and a small, wet explosion in the brain.
This is not simply a great opening line, it is one of the best things ever said on the topic (one day, I’m hoping to do a book titled The Single Best Thing Ever Said on Just About Any Topic You Can Think Of, and this is my Number One choice for observations about jellybeans).
“Abyss,” in A Multitude of Sins (2002)
Two weeks before the Phoenix sales conference, Frances Bilandic and Howard Cameron drove from home—in Willamantic and Pawcatuck—met at the Olive Garden in Mystic and talked things over one more time, touching fingertips nervously across the Formica tabletop.
The narrator continued in the story’s second sentence: “Then each went to the restroom and made a private, lying cell phone call to account for their whereabouts during the next few hours.”
“Under the Radar,” in A Multitude of Sins (2002)
On the drive over to the Nicholsons’ for dinner—their first in some time—Marjorie Reeves told her husband Steven Reeves, that she had had an affair with George Nicholson (their host) a year ago, but that it was all over with now and she hoped he—Steven—would not be mad about it and could go on with life.
“Privacy,” in A Multitude of Sins (2002)
This was at a time when my marriage was still happy.
The narrator, an unnamed writer—or, perhaps, a former writer—continued in the short story’s second paragraph: “We were living in a large city in the northeast. It was winter. February. The coldest month. I was, of course, still trying to write, and my wife was working as a translator for a small publishing company that specialized in Czech scientific papers. We had been married for ten years and were still enjoying that strange, exhilarating illusion that we had survived the worst of life’s hardships.”
“Who Killed Bob Teal?” in True Detective magazine (November 1924)
“Teal was killed last night.”
The Old Man—the Continental Detective Agency’s San Francisco manager—spoke without looking at me. His voice was as mild as his smile, and gave no indication of the turmoil that was seething in his mind.
This was one of Hammett’s first short stories, and it is the first mention of a fictional detective agency that would go on to play such an important role in his later works. The narrator is an unnamed operative who works at the agency (in later stories by Hammett he went on to become well known simply as The Continental Op).
“M’liss,” in The Luck of Roaring Camp and Other Sketches (1870)
Just where the Sierra Nevada begins to subside in gentler undulations, and the rivers grow less rapid and yellow, on the side of a great red mountain, stands “Smith’s Pocket.” Seen from the red road at sunset, in the red light and the red dust, its white houses look like the outcroppings of quartz on the mountain-side.
This is a beautiful description—easily brought to life in our imagination when we close our eyes—and a perfect way to begin any story. The title, by the way, is the nickname of Melissa Smith, the daughter of the man for whom the tiny town is named.
“The Outcasts of Poker Flat,” in Overland Monthly (January 1869)
As Mr. John Oakhurst, gambler, stepped into the main street of Poker Flat on the morning of the twenty-third of November, 1850, he was conscious of a change in its moral atmosphere from the preceding night. Two or three men, conversing earnestly together, ceased as he approached, and exchanged significant glances. There was a Sabbath lull in the air, which, in a settlement unused to Sabbath influences, looked ominous.
The narrator continued: “Mr. Oakhurst’s calm, handsome face betrayed small concern in these indications. Whether he was conscious of any predisposing cause, was another question. ‘I reckon they’re after somebody,’ he reflected; ‘likely it’s me.’”
The short story, which helped establish Harte’s reputation as a serious writer, went on to become one of his most popular tales, aided by four stage versions—all operas!—and five screen adaptations.
“The Idyll of Red Gulch,” in The Luck of Roaring Camp and Other Sketches (1870)
Sandy was very drunk. He was lying under an azalea-bush, in pretty much the same attitude in which he had fallen some hours before.
The narrator continued: “How long he had been lying there he could not tell, and didn’t care; how long he should lie there was a matter equally indefinite and unconsidered. A tranquil philosophy, born of his physical condition, suffused and saturated his moral being.”
“After the Storm,” in Winner Take Nothing (1933)
It wasn’t about anything, something about making punch, and then we started fighting and I slipped and he had me down kneeling on my chest and choking me with both hands like he was trying to kill me and all the time I was trying to get the knife out of my pocket to cut him loose.
In a 2017 blog post, British writer Paul Gadsby wrote: “Hemingway often liked to repeat the word ‘and’ in close succession rather than employ a comma. The effect this had was to convey immediacy and to portray a series of startling images at pace, which is particularly the case in this starkly visual opening line. The almost childlike vigor of this sentence leaves us little room to breathe, heightening the drama and the curiosity.”
“The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber,” in Cosmopolitan magazine (September 1936)
It was now lunch time and they were all sitting under the double green fly of the dining tent pretending that nothing had happened.
In The Art & Craft of the Short Story (2016), Rick DeMarinis wrote: “It’s a simple sentence, but look what it does. It drops the reader into a world that requires dining tents with double green flies. It tells the reader that among the several people sitting down to lunch, something has happened, something so unmentionable that the diners are pretending the thing has not happened at all. That’s an awful lot for twenty-four simple words to accomplish.”
“The Afterlife,” in The Collected Stories of Amy Hempel (2006)
When my mother died, my father’s early widowhood gave him social cachet he would not have had if they had divorced. He was a bigger catch for the sorrow attached.
These fascinating opening words describe a social reality I’ve since confirmed as true, but had never really thought about before reading Hempel’s wonderful short story. The narrator is the unnamed daughter of the widower in question, and, while her age is not mentioned, she comes across as someone in her late teens.
Inspired by Hempel’s own experiences after the death of her mother, the story captured the many different—and often hilarious—strategies that single women employed to win her father’s affection. In the end, they all failed, and there was only one conclusion for the daughter to reach: “My father’s life had ended with my mother’s death, and…what he inhabited now was a kind of afterlife—not dead, but not alive to possibility, to what else one might still choose.”
“Babes in the Jungle,” in Strictly Business (1910)
Montague Silver, the finest street man and art grafter in the West, says to me once in Little Rock: “If you ever lose your mind, Billy, and get too old to do honest swindling among grown men, go to New York. In the West a sucker is born every minute; but in New York they appear in chunks of roe—you can’t count ’em!
“The Gold that Glittered,” in Strictly Business (1910)
A story with a moral appended is like the bill of a mosquito. It bores you, and then injects a stinging drop to irritate your conscience. Therefore let us have the moral first and be done with it.
“Springtime à la Carte,” in The Four Million (1906)
It was a day in March.
Never, never begin a story this way when you write one. No opening could possibly be worse. It is unimaginative, flat, dry and likely to consist of mere wind. But in this instance it is allowable.
I believe this was the only thing Henry ever wrote on the subject of opening lines, and he does it in characteristic fashion—making an emphatic assertion and then immediately walking it back. The narrator continued:
“For the following paragraph, which should have inaugurated the narrative, is too wildly extravagant and preposterous to be flaunted in the face of the reader without preparation.
“Sarah was crying over her bill of fare.
“Think of a New York girl shedding tears on the menu card!
“To account for this you will be allowed to guess that the lobsters were all out, or that she had sworn ice–cream off during Lent, or that she had ordered onions, or that she had just come from a Hackett matinee. And then, all these theories being wrong, you will please let the story proceed.”
“The Cop and the Anthem” (1904), in The Four Million (1906)
On his bench in Madison Square Soapy moved uneasily. When wild geese honk high of nights, and when women without sealskin coats grow kind to their husbands, and when Soapy moves uneasily on his bench in the park, you may know that winter is near at hand.
So begins the story of one of Henry’s most unforgettable characters, a Manhattan vagrant who does everything he can to get himself arrested in order to find a warm place to stay in the upcoming winter.
In the story’s second paragraph, the narrator continued: “A dead leaf fell in Soapy’s lap. That was Jack Frost’s card. Jack is kind to the regular denizens of Madison Square, and gives fair warning of his annual call. At the corners of four streets he hands his pasteboard to the North Wind, footman of the mansion of All Outdoors, so that the inhabitants thereof may make ready.”
The character of Soapy was magnificently brought to the Big Screen by English actor Charles Laughton in O. Henry’s Full House, a 1952 film anthology of five of the author’s most memorable short stories (each story was introduced by John Steinbeck, and this one included a terrific bit part by the young Marilyn Monroe).
“The Gift of the Magi” (1905), in The Four Million (1906)
One dollar and eighty-seven cents. That was all. And sixty cents of it was in pennies. Pennies saved one and two at a time by bulldozing the grocer and the vegetable man and the butcher until one’s cheeks burned with the silent imputation of parsimony that such close dealing implied. Three times Della counted it. One dollar and eighty-seven cents. And the next day would be Christmas.
When the story was first published in The New York Sunday World on Dec. 10, 1905, it was titled “Gifts of the Magi.” The title was changed, but nothing else, when it was reprinted a year later in The Four Million anthology.
In the second paragraph, the narrator continued by describing Della’s emotional state, and he concluded with an observation that went on to become one of O. Henry’s most famous quotations (I’ve placed the key portion in italics to make it more obvious): “There was clearly nothing to do but flop down on the shabby little couch and howl. So Della did it. Which instigates the moral reflection that life is made up of sobs, sniffles, and smiles, with sniffles predominating.”
Of the hundreds of short stories Henry penned in his career, this sentimental Christmastime tale became his most popular. It’s been adapted to film four separate time, the first in 1917, and the best—starring Jeanne Crain and Farley Granger—in O. Henry’s Full House, a 1952 film anthology of five of the author’s most memorable short stories.
Parenthetically, many naysayers have asserted that, once the pennies were taken away, it would have been impossible for Della to get to $1.27 with the remaining coins. Ignore them, for they haven’t done their homework. in 1905, two-cent and three-cent coins were still in circulation, and that would have certainly done the trick.
“The Ransom of Red Chief,” in The Saturday Evening Post (July 6, 1907); reprinted in Whirligigs (1910)
It looked like a good thing: but wait till I tell you.
This opening line not only establishes the “voice” of the narrator, but it perfectly telegraphs the nature of the story about to unfold—two small-time criminals named Sam and Bill see their brilliant kidnapping scheme backfire in an ironic and comical way.
The story also captures the essence of a common human experience: our worst failures often originate in cockamamie schemes we originally considered quite clever. Many years later, in a 1977 interview, Rebecca West was thinking along similar lines when she famously said: “If the whole human race lay in one grave, the epitaph on its headstone might well be, ‘It seemed a good idea at the time.’”
Alfred Hitchcock Presents: Stories to Stay Awake By (1973)
In previous anthologies I have often begun my introduction with the words “Good Evening.” In all good conscience I cannot do that now.
I believe that such a greeting would be highly inappropriate. The contents of this volume are designed to give you a bad evening. A very bad evening indeed. And perhaps an even worse night.
“Conversation on the Corner,” in Simple Speaks His Mind (1950)
It was the summer the young men in Harlem stopped wearing their hair straightened, oiled, or conked, and started having it cut short, leaving it natural, standing up about an inch or two in front in a kind of brush.
It’s rare for a literary opening line to herald a major cultural shift within an entire segment of the American population, but Hughes was able to do that very nicely in this 1950 short story.
“Blue Evening,” in Simple Speaks His Mind (1950)
When I walked into the bar and saw him on the corner stool alone, I could tell something was wrong.
The words come from Simple’s friend and foil, Ananias Boyd, who encounters his pal in a neighborhood bar. The following dialogue unfolds:
“Another hang-over?” “Nothing that simple. This is something I thought never would happen to me.” “What?” I asked “That a woman could put me down….”
“An Auto-Obituary,” in Simple Stakes a Claim (1957)
“I will now obituarize myself,” said Simple at the bar. “I will cast flowers on my own grave before I am dead.”
Simple had a clever way with words, and I’m a little surprised that this creative coinage didn’t catch on in the broader culture.
“Guns, Not Shovels,” in the Chicago Defender (Feb. 13, 1943)
The cat was taking his first physical, standing in line in front of me at the hospital where our draft board had sent us. He was talking and he didn’t care who heard him.
These words mark the first appearance of Hughes’s most popular fictional character, a Harlem resident formally named Jesse B. Semple, but known to all of his friends as “Simple.”
“A Toast to Harlem,” in Simple Speaks His Mind (1950)
Quiet can seem unduly loud at times.
I have a soft spot for oxymoronic openings, and this one is a beauty.
“Sympathy,” in Simple’s Uncle Sam (1965)
“Some people do not have no scars of their faces,” said Simple, “but they has scars on their hearts.”
A deeply profound thought from an ostensibly simple man.
“Cousin Minnie Wins,” in Simple’s Uncle Sam (1965)
“It is better to be wore out from living than to be wore out from worry,” said Simple.
“Rip Van Winkle,” in The Sketch Book (1819-20)
Whoever has made a voyage up the Hudson, must remember the Kaatskill mountains. They are a dismembered branch of the great Appalachian family, and are seen away to the west of the river, swelling up to a noble height, and lording it over the surrounding country.
The range is now known as the Catskill Mountains, of course, but Irving was writing at a time when the original Dutch spelling of place names predominated. By modern standards, this might not be regarded as a great opening line, but I have always admired it, and I especially enjoyed the lovely metaphor of a mountain range lording it over the surrounding countryside.
“The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” in The Sketch Book (1819-20)
In the bosom of one of the spacious coves which indent the eastern shore of the Hudson, at that broad expansion of the river denominated by the ancient Dutch navigators the Tappan Zee, and where they always prudently shortened sail, and implored the protection of St. Nicholas when they crossed, there lies a small market town of rural port, which by some is called Greensburgh, but which is more generally and properly known by the name of Tarry Town.
The opening words of novels and short stories can be appreciated in many different ways—some of them highly unexpected. In this case, the narrator continued with a delicious tidbit about how Tarrytown, New York got its name:
“The name was given, we are told, in former days, by the good housewives of the adjacent country, from the inveterate propensity of their husbands to linger about the village tavern on market days.”
“Mr. Right is Dead,“ title story of Mr. Right is Dead (1965)
Eventually people are willing to admit most of their flaws—greed, jealously, pride, hostility—but the feeling they’re most ashamed to admit is loneliness.
“Louisa Pallant,” in Harper’s New Monthly Magazine (February 1888)
Never say you know the last word about any human heart!
This is one of James’s very best opening lines, and one of his least well-known. In an observation that brilliantly captures an eternal truth about the human experience, the line opens a story about how the beautiful Louisa has rejected the unnamed narrator for a richer man. The marriage turns out to be a disaster, however, and after her husband’s death, Louisa has been left with only a pittance. She goes on to raise a child who is also quite beautiful, and who embodies many of her own flaws, only more so (if the story sounds familiar, it contains hints of Dicken’s 1860 classic, Great Expectations).
The unnamed narrator continued: “I was once treated to a revelation which startled and touched me in the nature of a person with whom I had been acquainted—well, as I supposed, for years, whose character I had had good reasons, heaven knows, to appreciate and in regard to whom I flattered myself I had nothing more to learn.”
“Four Meetings” (1877); reprinted in Clifton Fadiman, The Short Stories of Henry James (1945)
I saw her but four times, though I remember them vividly; she made her impression on me. I thought her very pretty and very interesting—a touching specimen of a type with which I had other and perhaps less charming associations. I’m sorry to hear of her death, and yet when I think of it why should I be?
The unnamed narrator—an educated, well-travelled, cultured, and slightly verbose American who clearly appears patterned after James himself—is describing Caroline Spencer, a New England beauty who is enthralled by the idea of her upcoming trip to Europe (the story takes a dramatic turn when she is swindled out of her money by her own cousin). Many consider “Four Meetings” to be one of James’s best short stories, and Ford Madox Ford even hailed it as “a masterpiece.”
“A Report to An Academy,” in A Country Doctor (1919)
Honored members of the Academy!
You have done me the honor of inviting me to give your Academy an account of the life I formerly led as an ape.
The narrator of Kafka’s short story—originally published in a 1917 issue of the German monthly Der Jude—is a West African ape. Five years earlier, he was shot and captured by a hunting expedition, given the name Red Peter by his captors (after a red facial scar from the gunshot wound), and shipped in a cage to Europe. In transit, he studied the behavior of the crew and, beginning with the human handshake ritual, found it surprisingly easy to imitate them. Arriving in Europe, he worked even harder at his imitative efforts in an effort to avoid a lifetime of future confinement in a zoo. After acquiring the rudiments of human language, he’s able to make a living as a music-hall performer named Peter.
Jack Ketchum (pen name of Dallas Mayr)
“The Business,” in Peaceable Kingdom (2003)
The cockroach was not too big but it was coming right at him, moving in that drunken way they have, a little to the left, a little to the right, appropriate in this place, moving past Mama’s beer spill on a trajectory that would take it directly yet indirectly to his scotch.
“Hey Billy,” he said to the barman, “pass me another napkin, will ya?”
In her 1999 Word Painting book, writer and writing instructor Rebecca McClanahan wrote: “Description is, in effect, word painting.“ Her observation came immediately to mind when I first read this description of an approaching cockroach. In the short story, the narrator continued: “Billy didn’t like him. Howard knew that. He couldn’t have cared less. He got service because he left a decent tip. Billy handed him the cocktail napkin. Howard squished the bug. If you had a potato chip stuffed with onion dip, that was what it felt like.”
Peter Straub once said that people often came to Ketchum’s writings for the wrong reasons and stayed with him for the right ones—and one of those reasons might well be sensational openings like this one.
“Flowers for Algernon,” in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction (April 1959)
Dr. Strauss says I shud rite down what I think and evrey things that happins to me from now on. I dont know why but he says its important so they will see if they will use me. I hope they use me. I hope they use me. Miss Kinnian says maybe they can make me smart. I want to be smart. My name is Charlie Gordon. I am 37 years old and 2 weeks ago was my birthday. I have nuthing more to rite now so I will close for today.
Charlie is a man with an IQ of 68, and these are the opening words from his very first “Progris riport.” A few weeks earlier, he was recruited to be the first human subject in an experimental surgical procedure designed to increase intelligence (an earlier procedure on a mouse named Algernon paved the way).
Keyes’ short story was widely praised, winning the 1960 Hugo Award for Best Short Story. A few years later, he expanded it into a critically acclaimed novel (it shared the 1968 Nebula Award for Best Novel). The tale went on to become a part of popular culture when it was adapted into the 1968 film Charlie, starring Cliff Robertson.
“The Body,” in Different Seasons (1982)
The most important things are the hardest things to say.
This is one of my Top Ten Favorite Opening Lines, a short, simple, and boldly straightforward declaration that perfectly captures an eternal truth about the human experience. I’ve personally experienced the phenomenon a number of times in my personal life, and I’m sure you have as well. The opening sentence also helps to explain one of the reasons we love writers so much: they help us express deep and powerful feelings that we’d have trouble articulating on our own.
In the opening paragraph, the narrator, a Maine writer named Gordon “Gordie” LaChance, continued: “They are the things you get ashamed of, because words diminish them—words shrink things that seemed limitless when they were in your head to no more than living size when they’re brought out. But it’s more than that, isn’t it? The most important things lie too close to wherever your secret heart is buried, like landmarks to a treasure your enemies would love to steal away.“
Fittingly, in 1982, Rob Reiner adapted the novella into one of my all-time favorite films, “Stand by Me.“ With Richard Dreyfuss providing the narration, King’s wonderful coming-of-age tale was brought to life by the young actors Wil Wheaton, River Phoenix, Corey Feldman, and Jerry O’Connell.
In a 2017 essay, Khaled Hosseini (The Kite Runner and other novels) described the opening words of “The Body” as deeply meaningful when he first read them at age twenty—an age when he said it was common for people to believe the world doesn’t get them. “This passage,” he wrote, was “an expression of how alone we are, really, the things that are most important to us, that are really vital to us, are perversely the most difficult to express.”
Years later, when Hosseini was a developing writer rather than a developing person, the words took on an added significance, something he could not appreciate at that earlier stage of life. He wrote: “This passage is one of the truest statements I’ve encountered about the nature of authorship. You write because you have an idea in your mind that feels so genuine, so important, so true. And yet, by the time this idea passes through the different filters of your mind, and into your head, and onto the page or the computer screen—it becomes distorted, and it’s been diminished. The writing you end up with is an approximation, if you’re lucky, of whatever it was you really wanted to say.”
Night Shift (1978)
Let’s talk, you and I. Let’s talk about fear.
These are the opening words of the Foreword to Night Shift, King’s first collection of short stories. A little more than two decades later, writer Peter Straub wrote about this beginning: “With its deliberate repetition of the first two words, its gliding but insistent rhythm, and its movement from the colloquial contraction of ‘let’s’ to the abrupt shock of the final noun, this flourish is literary to the core.“ They do not come across as literary, though, says Straub, “because they represent that friendliest of all communications, the invitation.“
In the second paragraph, King, ever the skillful host, escorts the reader into his house: “The house is empty as I write this; a cold February rain is falling outside. It’s night. Sometimes when the wind blows this way, we lose the power. But for now it’s on, and so lets talk very honestly about fear. Let’s talk very rationally about moving to the rim of madness...and perhaps over the edge.“ [ellipsis in original]
“The Finest Story in The World” (1893)
His name was Charlie Mears; he was the only son of his mother who was a widow, and he lived in the north of London, coming into the City every day to work in a bank. He was twenty years old and suffered from aspirations.
Typically, aspirations are lauded in an almost uncritical manner, and this was the first time I’d seen a suggestion that the virtue can also have an important downside. In the opening paragraph, the unnamed narrator—a published author of some renown, and a kind of mentor to Charlie—continued:
“I met him in a public billiard-saloon where the marker called him by his given name, and he called the marker ‘Bulls-eyes.’ Charley explained, a little nervously, that he had only come to the place to look on, and since looking on at games of skill is not a cheap amusement for the young, I suggested that Charlie should go back to his mother.”
As it turns out, Charlie’s aspirations were of a literary nature, and therefore one of the most difficult of all aspirations to bring to a satisfactory fruition. The plot of Kipling’s classic short story revolves around Charlie’s belief that he has stumbled upon an idea that, as he put it to his mentor, “would make the most splendid story that was ever written.”
“Redeployment,“ title story of Redeployment (2014)
We shot dogs. Not by accident. We did it on purpose, and we called it Operation Scooby. I’m a dog person, so I thought a lot about that.
Tucker Max, writer and co-founder of Scribe Media, wrote about these first words: “This is the best opening to a book I’ve ever read. I’m actually a dog person, so this shocked the hell out of me. It was gripping. As you read, the sentence starts making more sense, but it stays just as shocking. And you can’t help but finish the page and the chapter to understand why. But my God, what a way to hook a reader.“
By the end of the first page, readers understand the rationale for the shootings: during the Iraq war, stray dogs were licking up blood from dead bodies, thereby giving away the position of American troops to enemy snipers. Klay’s collection of twelve short stories-—his first published book—was immediately hailed by critics, and few were surprised when it went on to win the 2014 National Book Award for Fiction.
“The Gift of Cochise,“ in Collier’s magazine (July 5, 1952)
Tense, and white to the lips, Angie Lowe stood in the door of her cabin with a double-barreled shotgun in her hands. Beside the door was a Winchester ’73, and on the table inside the house were two Walker Colts.
The narrator continued: “Facing the cabin were twelve Apaches on ragged calico ponies, and one of the Indians had lifted his hand palm outward. The Apache sitting on the white-splashed bay pony was Cochise.“
“Until Gwen,” in The Atlantic (June 2004)
Your father picks you up from prison in a stolen Dodge Neon, with an 8-ball of coke in the glove compartment and a hooker named Mandy in the back seat.
In a 2005 Boston Globe article, Bella English revealed that Lehane “had this opening sentence kicking around in his head for eight years, but no place to put it.” She continued: “He couldn’t for the life of him find the right vehicle for it; it just didn’t fit into anything he was working on. Then he was asked to write a short story for an anthology, with one requirement: It had to have something to do with fathers and sons.”
In a 2014 article in the Hunger Mountain Review (“7 Ways to Seduce Your Reader”), writer and editor Miciah Bay Gault hailed this as an “all-time favorite” and cleverly described it as “a speed-date of a first line.” She added: “In one sentence we learn about the narrator’s crappy childhood, crappy present life, criminal background, and criminal father. We get a sense of the characters’ relative ages and a bit of the setting. In this line we understand that daddy is perfectly willing to put his son in jeopardy. Because the narrator has chosen to let us in on that fact, we sympathize with a potentially unsympathetic protagonist and we believe he wants to go straight. Wow. That’s a lot to pack into one line, a powerful first sentence that seduced me into reading more.”
After his spectacular opening sentence, Lehane continued in an equally enjoyable way:
“Two minutes into the ride, the prison still hanging tilted in the rearview, Mandy tells you that she only hooks part-time. The rest of the time she does light secretarial for an independent video chain and tends bar, two Sundays a month, at the local VFW. But she feels her calling—her true calling in life—is to write.
“You go, ‘Books?’
“’Books.’ She snorts, half out of amusement, half to shoot a line off your fist and up her left nostril. ‘Screenplays!’ She shouts it at the dome light for some reason. ‘You know—movies.’”
“Sweet Smell of Success” (1950), title story of Sweet Smell of Success: And Other Stories (1957)
I just let her go on talking.
The narrator, a sleazy Manhattan press agent named Sidney Falco, continued in the first paragraph: “I sat there at my desk with the phone propped between my head and shoulder and allowed the insistent monotone of her voice to jab at my brain, while I mopped my forehead with my left hand and tapped a cigarette with my right.”
Lehman’s story originally appeared under the title “Tell Me About It Tomorrow” in an April, 1950 issue of Cosmopolitan magazine (the publication’s editors insisted on a title change because they didn’t want the word “smell” to appear in the pages of the magazine).
Lehman’s novelette was adapted into a first-rate 1957 film starring Tony Curtis as Falco and Burt Lancaster as the powerful and unprincipled newspaper columnist J. J. Hunseker (Lehman co-wrote the screenplay with Clifford Odets). The film got off to a disappointing start, in large part because Tony Curtis fans had trouble accepting him in a role that clashed with his “nice-guy” image. By the end of the year, however, the film was on numerous “Ten-Best” lists, and is now regarded as a film noir classic.
H. P. Lovecraft
“The Call of Cthulhu,” in Weird Tales magazine (February 1928)
The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents.
This classic opening line come from narrator Francis Wayland Thurston, an anthropologist who is reflecting on a series of recently-discovered notes from his long-deceased uncle, a professor of Semitic languages at Brown University. He continues with this typical example of Lovecraftian prose:
“We live on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity, and it was not meant that we should voyage far. The sciences, each straining in its own direction, have hitherto harmed us little; but some day the piecing together of dissociated knowledge will open up such terrifying vistas of reality, and of our frightful position therein, that we shall either go mad from the revelation or flee from the deadly light into the peace and safety of a new dark age.”
In 2014 blog post on “The Top Ten Opening Lines from H. P. Lovecraft,” writer Douglas Wynne wrote: “H. P. Lovecraft knew how to write a hook. Say what you will about his adjective addiction or his lapses into florid prose; one place where he knew how to get to the point was in an opening line. He may have meandered a bit after getting your attention (and I’d argue that’s part of his charm), but in his pulp fiction heart Lovecraft understood the importance of grabbing you right away to earn your patience, and his stories consistently showcase his mastery of the intriguing opening.”
And about this classic opener—one of Lovecraft most widely quoted observations—Wynne wrote: “This one’s a classic. A concise philosophical statement that makes you wonder why connecting the dots and reaching certain conclusions would be so bad that your ignorance is the ultimate mercy.”
“A River Runs Through It,” in A River Runs Through It and Other Stories (1976)
In our family, there was no clear line between religion and fly fishing.
A River Runs Through it and Other Stories was a debut work by Norman Maclean, a seventy-three-year-old retired University of Chicago English professor (it was also the first work of fiction published by the University of Chicago Press).
The title story is an autobiographical novella that has become one of America’s most revered works of fiction (in 1992, Robert Redford brought the story to the screen in an award-winning movie). In a 2017 Foreword to a new edition of the book, Redford said he first read “A River Runs Through It” in 1981, after the writer Tom McGuane recommended it as “the real thing.“ Admitting that he typically distrusts such enthusiastic recommendations, Redford wrote: “But when I read the first sentence...I thought I might be in for something.“
In “In the Beginning: Creating Dynamic, Meaningful & Compelling Openings,” an October 2012 article in The Writer’s Chronicle, University of New Orleans professor Richard Goodman wrote that MacLean’s first sentence was “one of the most charming, engaging, irresistible beginnings I know.“ About the opening sentence, he added: “If you can resist that, then you have enormous willpower or a pathological hatred of fishing. Even then, I would venture that your curiosity is piqued enough to make you read on. You probably have to know just why and how there was no distinction between religion and fly fishing. Maclean shows you in this affecting story of two brothers, sons of a Presbyterian minister, who taught the brothers how to fish, but who couldn’t prevent one from his tragic end.“
In the novel’s opening paragraph, the narrator continued: “We lived at the junction of great trout rivers in western Montana, and our father was a Presbyterian minister and a fly fisherman who tied his own flies and taught others. He told us about Christ’s disciples being fisherman, and we were left to assume, as my brother and I did, that all first-class fisherman on the Sea of Galilee were fly fisherman and that John, the favorite was a dry-fly fisherman.”
“An Old Man Who Liked to Fish,” in Cloudbursts: Collected and New Stories (2018)
The Smiths were a very old couple, whose lifelong habits of exercise and outdoor living and careful diet had resulted in their seeming tiny—tiny, pale and almost totemic—as they spread a picnic tablecloth on my front lawn and arranged their luncheon.
The narrator continued: “Since I live with reckless inattention to what I eat, I watched with fascination as they set out apples, cheese, red wine and the kind of artisanal bread that looks like something found in the road. The Smiths were the last friends of my parents still alive. And to the degree we spend our lives trying to understand our parents, I always looked to Edward and Diana’s visits as a pleasant forensic exercise.”
In a New York Times review, Justin Taylor wrote: “There’s so much to praise and parse here that I hardly know where to begin. How about the way that the light visual comedy of the bread is juxtaposed with the cerebral, astringent humor of the phrase “pleasant forensic exercise”? How about the shift, over four sinuous sentences, from detachment to intimacy, as the narrator reveals his relationship to the Smiths?”
“Balloons,” in The New Yorker (May 10, 2021)
Ten years before Joan Krebs left her husband, Roger, and moved back to Cincinnati, I spotted the two of them dining alone by the bricked-up fireplace in the Old Eagle Grill. She was a devoted daughter, her father a sportsman with well-bred dogs, who arrived once a year to peer at Roger and inspect the marriage
Opening paragraphs don’t get much better, and the concluding portion about a yearly inspection of the marriage is one of the best things ever written on the subject. McGuane was eighty-one when the short story was published, and I was delighted to see an old master still functioning at the top of his game.
The narrator, we shortly discover, is a local physician who is having an affair with Joan. He continued: “Roger always saluted his father-in-law’s departure with the words ‘Good riddance.’ In those days, Joan stirred up our town with her air of dangerous glamour and the sense that her marriage to Roger couldn’t possibly last.”
“How to Become a Writer,” in Self-Help (1985)
First, try to be something, anything, else. A movie star/astronaut. A movie star/missionary. A movie star/kindergarten teacher. President of the World. Fail miserably.
These are the unforgettable opening words of a short story, but they read like a self-help essay for aspiring writers. The narrator continued: “It is best if you fail at an early age—say fourteen. Early, critical disillusionment is necessary so that at fifteen you can write long haiku sequences about thwarted desire.”
This short story helped establish Moore’s reputation as a serious writer, and it led biographer Alison Kelly to write in Understanding Lorrie Moore (2009): “The tone of droll irony has since become Moore’s trademark: the more painful the experience, the likelier she is to make it the subject of a joke.”
Gouvernour Morris IV
“Introduction” to Richard Harding Davis’s “The Red Cross Girl” (1912), in The Novels and Stories of Richard Harding Davis, Vol. 11 (1916)
He was almost too good to be true. In addition, the gods loved him, and so he had to die young.
One of the most delightful surprises in my research into great opening lines was discovering remarkable specimens in the most unexpected places. This spectacular tribute came at the beginning of the “Introduction” to Richard Harding Davis’s 1912 short story “The Red Cross Girl.” The writer was Davis’s good friend and fellow pulp fiction writer Gouvernour Morris IV (1876-1953), the great-great-grandson of one of America’s Founding Fathers. In the opening words, the tribute continued at an exceptionally high level:
“Some people think that a man of fifty-two is middle-aged. But if R. H. D. had lived to be a hundred, he would never have grown old. It is not generally known that the name of his other brother was Peter Pan.”
Richard Harding Davis has been almost entirely forgotten by modern readers, but he was a major American celebrity in the early 1900s. A pioneering war correspondent and bestselling writer of adventure stories, he was also Theodore Roosevelt’s good friend. There is no question that Davis’s writing about the exploits of Roosevelt and his Rough Riders was instrumental in creating the legend that continues to surround the 26th President. A handsome, dashing figure, Davis also served as the model for Charles Dana Gibson’s “Gibson Man,” created to match his famous “Gibson Girl.” Davis died unexpectedly of a heart attack at age 51 in 1916.
“The Office,” in Dance of the Happy Shades (1968)
The solution to my life occurred to me one evening while I was ironing a shirt.
Unusual juxtapositions are a staple of great opening lines, and this is a particularly good one—immediately bringing to mind such historic flashes of illumination as Newton daydreaming under an apple tree. The narrator, an unnamed woman with literary aspirations, continued: “It was simple but audacious. I went into the living room where my husband was watching television and I said, ’I think I ought to have an office.’”
From the outset, I expected “The Office” to be an exploration of Virginia Woolf’s famous observation about female writers needing “A room of one’s own,” but it turns out to be more of a “Be-careful-what-you-wish-for” tale.
In “On Writing ‘The Office,’” a 1978 essay, Munro described this short story as “the most straightforward autobiographical story I have ever written.” While living in Vancouver, British Columbia early in her career, she rented an office above a drugstore, hoping it would provide the space she needed to write a major novel. It turned out to be a failed experiment, though, with Munro confessing: “I spent hours staring at the walls and the Venetian blinds, drinking cups of instant coffee with canned milk, believing that if I concentrated enough I could pull out of myself a novel that would be a full-blown miracle.”
Her frustrating time in that second-story writing space did produce one thing, though, and it was “The Office.” About the entire experience, Munro wrote wryly: “I stayed in the office four months and never wrote another word, but I did get my first ulcer.”
“The Things They Carried,” the title story of The Things They Carried (1990)
First Lieutenant Jimmy Cross carried letters from a girl named Martha, a Junior at Mount Sebastian College in New Jersey.
In the first story in this collection of Vietnam-era short stories, the narrator continued: “They were not love letters, but Lieutenant Cross was hoping, so he kept them folded in plastic at the bottom of his rucksack. In the late afternoon, after a day’s March, he would dig his foxhole, wash his hands under a canteen, unwrap the letters, hold them with the tips of his fingers, and spend the last hour of light pretending.”
The book won 1990 Chicago Tribune Heartland Prize, and was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Critics Circle Award. It is now regarded as a classic in war literature.
“Song Without Words,” in Argosy magazine (Dec., 1951); reprinted in Collected Stories (1982)
Even if there were only two men left in the world and both of them saints they wouldn’t be happy. One of them would be bound to try and improve the other. That is the nature of things.
As a psychologist, I have a special fondness for opening words that express a fundamental truth about the human experience, and this is one of the very best. O’Connor’s name is not familiar to many modern readers, but he was one of the most popular short story writers of his era. From 2005 to 2015, The Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award was given in his honor.
“Revelation,” in The Sewanee Review (Spring 1964); reprinted in Everything That Rises Must Converge (1965)
The doctor’s waiting room, which was very small, was almost full when the Turpins entered and Mrs. Turpin, who was very large, made it look even smaller by her presence.
When I first read this opening sentence, I was struck by the idea that a woman could be so large she could make a small room seem even smaller. It was a neat hook, and I was eager to read on.
In “A Catholic Thinker” blog post in 2013 (“The Mean Grace of Flannery O’Conner”), physician Tod Worner offered what I regard as one of the best assessments ever made about the author: “Flannery O’Connor’s writing could be downright vicious and raw. Her characters are often crude, unkempt, and ill-educated. Bereft of redeeming qualities and brimming with flaws, it is easy to be repelled by them and the path their lives are taking. And yet, with writing that is so vivid, so animated, so…real, it is difficult to release yourself from its grip.”
“The Geranium,” in Accent: A Quarterly of New Literature (Summer 1946); reprinted in The Geranium: A Collection of short Stories (1947)
Old Dudley folded into the chair he was gradually molding to his own shape and looked out the window fifteen feet away into another window framed by blackened brick. He was waiting for the geranium. They put it out every morning about ten and they took it in at five-thirty.
In a 2020 WritingCooperative.com article (titled “11 Proven Ways of Inviting Readers In”), writer Jim Latham wrote: “O’Connor engages our interest by making us wonder just how long Old Dudley has been sitting in his chair if he is molding the wood to the shape of his body. It must have been a long time, indeed, if waiting to see a potted plant is the focal point of his day. Wondering this, we are not only curious about Old Dudley, but we also begin to feel sympathy for him. O’Connor also gives us the interesting image of looking out one window and into another. What happened to blacken the brick around the second window?”
“Edna St. Vincent Millay Meets Tarzan,” in A Dream of Countries Where No One Dare Live (1993)
All afternoon I had confused Dorothy Parker with Edna St. Vincent Millay. I had done worse than that. I had confused Edna St. Vincent Millay with her own goddamn self, by which I mean to say that I kept referring to her as St. Edna Vincent Millay.
“Easter Sunday,” in A Dream of Countries Where No One Dare Live (1993)
My mother and I had moved, right in the height or depths of the Depression, over to New Mexico, in a town near Carlsbad, where her friend Milly Stamps lived. I was eleven years old, Mom was in her forties, and Dad was dead.
The narrator, a boy named Peter, continued: “I had taken to dreaming about him, but the dreams were always about him, never with him if you know what I mean.”
“Roma,” in A Dream of Countries Where No One Dare Live (1993)
Roma. And the thieves were already hard at work.
“Tits-Up in a Ditch,” in The New Yorker (June 2, 2008)
Her mother had been knockout beautiful and no good, and Dakotah had heard this from the time she could recognize words.
In the opening paragraph, the narrator continued: “People said that Shaina Lister, with aquamarine eyes and curls the shining maroon of water-birch bark, had won all the kiddie beauty contests and then had become the high-school slut, knocked up when she was fifteen and cutting out the day after Dakotah was born, slinking and wincing, still in her hospital johnny, down the back stairs of Mercy Maternity to the street, where one of her greasy pals picked her up and headed west for Los Angeles.”
In the hands of a lesser writer, we might have seen an opening paragraph that went something like this: “The day after she was born, Dakotah Lister was abandoned, left all alone in the hospital as her fifteen-year-old mother drove away with her boyfriend.” But Proulx, as her many fans will tell you, is no average writer. And, in case you’re wondering, the intriguing title of the short story is a colloquial expression commonly used by farmers in the Great Plains and American west to refer to a dead cow found in a field or ditch.
“The Big Nap,” in The New Yorker (July 6, 2021); and ultimately in the anthology New Teeth: Stories (2021)
The detective woke up just after dawn. It was a typical morning. His knees were scraped and bruised, his clothes were damp and soiled, and his teeth felt like someone had socked him in the jaw. He reached for the bottle he kept under his pillow and took a sloppy swig. The taste was foul, but it did the trick.
In a New York Times review, Sarah Lyall wrote about this opening paragraph: “Alert readers will recognize the cadence, vocabulary and world-weary tone of Raymond Chandler in The Big Sleep. But this detective is even more clueless than Philip Marlowe: He’s a toddler looking for a lost stuffed unicorn who can’t even figure out how the client, his own baby sister, got into the house.”
By the time we finish the story’s second paragraph, it’s abundantly clear that we’re in for an entertaining ride—or should I say entertaining read. The detective continued: “Her past was murky. The detective had heard that she came from the hospital. But there was also a rumor she’d once lived inside Mommy’s tummy. It didn’t add up. Still, a job was a job. ‘So, what brings you here?’ asked the detective”
In her review, Lyall continued about the story: “A triumph of sustained humor that works equally well as a parody of hard-boiled noir detective fiction and as a moving account of siblings banding together against a world that makes no sense, “The Big Nap” is the best thing in an uneven but mostly delightful book by the extravagantly talented Rich. Really, I wish I could just keep quoting from it.”
“A Piece of Pie” (1937); reprinted in Runyon on Broadway (1950)
On Boylston Street, in the city of Boston, Mass., there is a joint where you can get as nice a broiled lobster as anybody ever slaps a lip over, and who is in there one evening partaking of this tidbit but a character by the name of Horse Thief and me.
GUEST COMMENTARY from Herman Axelrod, Ph.D., a retired Philadelphia public school teacher and former Penn State professor. Dr. Axelrod writes: “These opening words from one of my favorite Damon Runyon stories are, if you’ll pardon the expression, simply too delicious not to be included in your fine collection. The story is set in New York City’s Mindy’s restaurant, where a man and a woman in an eating contest attempt to finish off a twelve-course meal—a meal, by the way, that ends with a pumpkin pie that is three inches deep and two feet in diameter. Like so many Runyon tales, the story is filled with one-of-a-kind vernacular phrases (like ’as anybody ever slaps a lip over’) and ends with an unexpected and completely satisfying twist.“
“My Chivalric Fiasco” in Harper’s Magazine (September 2011)
Once again it was TorchLightNight.
Around nine I went out to pee. Back in the woods was the big tank that sourced our fake river, plus a pile of old armor.
Don Murray flew past me, looking frazzled. Then I heard a sob. On her back near the armor pile I found Martha from Scullery, peasant skirt up around her waist.
Martha: That guy is my boss. Oh my God oh my God.
I knew Don Murray was her boss because Don Murray was also my boss.
All of a sudden she recognized me.
Ted, don’t tell, she said. Please. It’s no big deal. Nate can’t know. It would kill him.
“The Falls,” in The New Yorker (Jan. 22, 1996)
Morse found it nerve-racking to cross the St. Jude grounds just as the school was being dismissed, because he felt that if he smiled at the uniformed Catholic children they might think he was a wacko or pervert and if he didn’t smile they might think he was an old grouch made bitter by the world, which surely, he felt, by certain yardsticks, he was.
From the outset, Saunders puts us inside the head of a middle-aged husband and father known only as Morse. As the opening paragraph continues, so do the internal ramblings of the sad-sack protagonist:
“Sometimes he wasn’t entirely sure that he wasn’t even a wacko of sorts, although certainly he wasn’t a pervert. Of that he was certain. Or relatively certain. Being overly certain, he was relatively sure, was what eventually made one a wacko. So humility was the thing, he thought, arranging his face into what he thought would pass for the expression of a man thinking fondly of his own youth, a face devoid of wackiness or perversion, humility was the thing.”
“Swimming,” in Drowning Lessons: Stories (2007)
He placed the oars in their locks and the floating seat cushion on the backseat. He wrapped his goggles in the towel and dropped it between the forward seat and the bow, where the aluminum hull was dry. He pushed against the bow and felt the stern go buoyant as it splashed into the lake. When the prow touched water he gave a last shove, then climbed in and began rowing, eager to get to the float, his private place.
In 2007, Selgin’s Drowning Lessons won the Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction.
“Mr. Dingle, the Strong,” in More Stories from the Twilight Zone (1961)
It was that uniquely American institution known as the neighborhood bar, small, softly lit and at this moment catering to that unsophisticated pre-cocktail group whose drinking was a serious business undisturbed and uncomplicated by the social frivolities of the five-thirty crowd. The latter group were the cocktail folks whose alcohol was part of a master plan of either business contacts or logistically planned seduction.
“The Midnight Sun,” in New Stories from the Twilight Zone (1962)
“The secret of a successful artist,” an old instructor had told her years ago, “is not just to put paint on canvas—it is to transfer emotion, using oils and brush as a kind of nerve conduit.”
“A Thing About Machines,” in More Stories from the Twilight Zone (1961)
Mr. Bartlett Finchley, tall, tart, and fortyish, looked across his ornate living room to where the television repairman was working behind his set and felt an inner twist of displeasure that the mood of the tastefully decorated room would be so damaged by the T-shirted, dungareed serviceman whose presence was such a foreign element in the room.
“The Whole Truth,” in New Stories from the Twilight Zone (1962)
You could say this of Harvey Hennicutt—he was an exceptional liar.
The narrator continued: “When Harvey peddled one of his used cars, his lying was colorful, imaginative, and had a charm all of its own.”
“The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner,“ title story of The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner (1959)
As soon as I got to Borstal they made me a long-distance cross-country runner. I suppose they thought I was just the build for it because I was long and skinny for my age (and still am) and in any case I didn’t mind it much, to tell you the truth, because running had always been made much of in our family, especially running away from the police.
This delightful opening comes from a young British working-class teenager known only as Smith. After his arrest for robbing a bakery, he’s been sentenced to a youth detention center known in England as a borstal. Shortly after his arrival, authorities become aware of his prowess as a runner and attempt to use him for their own purposes.
In 1962, the story was adapted into a critically acclaimed but commercially unsuccessful film, with novice actor Tom Courtenay in the starring role (he went on to win a BAFTA award for Most Promising New Actor).
C. W. Smith
“Hugo Molder and the Symbol of Displaced Persons Everywhere,” in Letters from the Horse Latitudes: Short Fiction (1994)
Hugo Molder’s Gas & Grocery sat next to a weedy, mesquite-choked pasture vacant but for an eight-foot concrete statue of an Indian bearing the words “Srs. ’73” in crude black letters across its belly.
The narrator continued in the opening paragraph: “The statue was to have been donated to the State of New Mexico by an old widow, who hadn’t intended for it to stay in the lot, although Hugo didn’t know that. She told the workmen to set it down there until she could find a permanent place for it, but she died before she got around to it. Travelers who stopped for gas at Hugo’s usually asked how it came to be there.”
This is a perfectly serviceable opening line, but it fails to match the splendor of the second paragraph, which, in my opinion, would have made a far superior beginning of the story: “Hugo Molder had a false front tooth that he used like a valve to let air into his mouth while he pursed his lips in thought. When someone asked about the Indian, he’d push the bottom of the tooth out with the tip of his tongue, suck air through the hole, and gaze over at his son, Weldon.”
“The Unicorn in the Garden,” in The New Yorker (Oct 31, 1939)
Once upon a sunny morning a man who sat in a breakfast nook looked up from his scrambled eggs to see a white unicorn with a golden horn quietly cropping the roses in the garden.
“The Secret Life of Walter Mitty,” The New Yorker (March 18, 1939)
“We’re going through!” The commander’s voice was like thin ice breaking. He wore his full-dress uniform, with the heavily braided white cap pulled down rakishly over one cold gray eye.
This now-legendary short story opens with a bang, but we will shortly learn that it is only a daydream of the mild-mannered Walter Mitty. Even though the scene is only in Mitty’s mind, it is filled with rich, bold detail. The daydream continues in full force for several more moments as Mitty—with his wife in the passenger seat—is driving his car on a Connecticut highway. The daydream is finally interrupted when Mrs. Mitty exclaims: “Not so fast! You’re driving too fast! What are you driving so fast for!”
“My Boyhood Dreams,” in The Man That Corrupted Hadleyburg and Other Stories and Sketches (1900)
The dreams of my boyhood? No, they have not been realized. For all who are old, there is something infinitely pathetic about the subject you have chosen, for in no gray-head’s case can it suggest any but one thing—disappointment.
“My First Lie, and How I Got Out of It,” in The Man That Corrupted Hadleyburg and Other Stories and Sketches (1900)
As I understand it, what you desire is information about “my first lie, and how I got out of it.”
“The Man That Corrupted Hadleyburg,” in The Man That Corrupted Hadleyburg and Other Stories and Sketches (1900)
It was many years ago. Hadleyburg was the most honest and upright town in all the region round about. It had kept that reputation unsmirched during three generations, and was prouder of it than of any other of its possessions.
“Extracts From Adam’s Diary” in The Man That Corrupted Hadleyburg and Other Stories and Sketches (1900)
Monday—This new creature with the long hair is a good deal in the way. It is always hanging around and following me about. I don’t like this; I am not used to company. I wish it would stay with the other animals.
Because we know the title of the short story, we immediately deduce the identity of the new creature. And since Eve has been only recently created, there is no female pronoun for Adam to use. She is most certainly not a “he,“ so he uses the only available option: “It.“ And then, in what I regard as one of Twain’s most brilliant lines, Adam provides a hint about how his world is unalterably changing: “Cloudy today, wind in the east; think we shall have rain….We? Where did I get that word?—I remember now—the new creature uses it.”
“The Snow,” in All Soul’s Night: A Book of Stories (1933)
The second Mrs. Ryder was a young woman not easily frightened, but now she stood in the dusk of the passage leaning back against the wall, her hand on her heart, looking at the grey-faced window beyond which the snow was steadily falling against the lamplight.
In the story’s second paragraph, the narrator continued: “The passage where she was led from the study to the dining-room, and the window looked out on to the little paved path that ran at the edge of the Cathedral green. As she stared down the passage she couldn’t be sure whether the woman were there or no. How absurd of her! She knew the woman was not there. But if the woman was not, how was it that she could discern so clearly the old-fashioned grey cloak, the untidy grey hair and the sharp outline of the pale cheek and pointed chin? Yes, and more than that, the long sweep of the grey dress, falling in folds to the ground, the flash of a gold ring on the white hand. No. No. NO. This was madness. There was no one and nothing there. Hallucination…” [ellipsis in original]
I can’t be certain, but I have a feeling that Daphne du Maurier might have been inspired by this Walpole story when she created the second Mrs. de Winter for her classic 1938 novel Rebecca. In both cases, the second wives are unable to free themselves from the ghosts of their husbands’ first wives.
“The Tarn,” in The Silver Thorn: A Book of Stories (1928)
As Foster moved unconsciously across the room, bent towards the bookcase, and stood leaning forward a little, choosing now one book, now another with his eye, his host, seeing the muscles of the back of his thin, scraggy neck stand out above his low flannel collar, thought of the ease with which he could squeeze that throat and the pleasure, the triumphant, lustful pleasure, that such an action would give him.
One of the great pleasures of my Great Opening Lines project has been discovering intriguing openers from authors I’ve heard of, but never read. “The Tarn” is one of Walpole’s darker short stories, and the opening scene is so beautifully described you can close your eyes and bring every detail to life in your mind’s eye. Go ahead, try it.
A guest in another man’s home, absorbed by the books in his library, has no idea that the man standing just behind him is having dark, delicious fantasies of strangling him. At this point, readers have no idea what the man has done to stimulate such ferocious rage, or if the host will actually follow through. How could they stop themselves from reading on?
As the story unfolds, we learn that both men are writers—and a familiar literary theme emerges. In a 2021 blog post, speculative fiction writer Matthew Rettino described the story this way: “A highly relatable tale of literary jealousy and sweet revenge.”
“A Worn Path,” in The Atlantic Monthly (February 1941)
It was December—a bright frozen day in the early morning. Far out in the country there was an old Negro woman with her head tied in a red rag, coming along a path through the pinewoods. Her name was Phoenix Jackson. She was very old and small and she walked slowly in the dark pine shadows, moving a little from side to side in her steps, with the balanced heaviness and lightness of a pendulum in a grandfather clock. She carried a thin, small cane made from an umbrella, and with this she kept tapping the frozen earth in front of her.
The best way to begin any piece of writing is to craft a beautifully-written, multi-layered first paragraph—and that is the case here with Welty’s description of an elderly black woman trudging slowly but purposefully along a wooded pathway. When I first read the story, I wondered to myself if she had chosen the name Phoenix for a reason—and, not surprisingly, it turned out to be exactly the case.
In a 2012 essay in the literary journal Soundings (titled “The Life of a Sentence”), writer Suzanne Berne highlighted the artistry and significance of the fourth sentence in particular, writing:
“The sentence’s vitality, of course, springs from the comparison between an old woman and the pendulum of a grandfather clock, a comparison built in stages, starting with the way she walks, ‘from side to side,’ to the ‘balanced heaviness and lightness’ of her steps. Perfectly weighted in that simile also rests the whole story: Phoenix Jackson is headed to town to buy medicine for her chronically ill grandson, a long journey repeated ‘as regular as clockwork’…. On her way, Phoenix surmounts obstacles, confronts monsters and outwits foes, an odyssey signaled visually, metaphorically, even structurally in nearly every sentence.”
“There is No Conversation,” in The Harsh Voice: Four Short Novels (1935)
There is no such thing as conversation. It is an illusion. There are intersecting monologues, that is all.
This has become one of West’s most popular quotations, to be found in hundreds of print as well as internet quotation compilations. And it started off as the opening line to one of her short novels.
“Paranoia,” in Leah, New Hampshire (1992)
My name is Aaron Benham, and I am a writer of fiction, a college professor, and an unwilling collector of paranoiacs. Perhaps I am no more surrounded by paranoiacs than anyone else, but sometimes I wonder.
After reading the opening words of this short story several decades ago, I could not get the intriguing phrase collector of paranoiacs out of my mind—and the notion that Benham was an unwilling collector of further fascinated me. In the opening paragraph, he continued:
“Like those who fear dogs only to excite in all dogs an immediate aggressive affection, I seem doomed to be the chosen confessor of those who have systematized their delusions. I wonder if they know how much they frighten me.”
“It Had to Be Murder,” in Dime Detective magazine (February 1942; orig. published under the penname William Irish)
I didn’t know their names. I’d never heard their voices. I didn’t even know them by sight, strictly speaking, for their faces were too small to fill in with identifiable features at that distance. Yet I could have constructed a timetable of their comings and goings, their daily habits and activities. They were the rear-window dwellers around me.
This is the opening paragraph of a story Woolrich originally titled “Murder from a Fixed Viewpoint,” but the Dime Detective editors decided to change it. In the story, protagonist Hal Jeffries’s broken leg has confined him to the bedroom of his apartment. To pass the time, he unobtrusively peers out of his bedroom’s bay window to eavesdrop on his neighbors on the other side of a courtyard. After a time, he begins to suspect that one of his neighbors has murdered his wife. Given his immobility, there’s not much he can do on his own, so he enlists the help of Sam, a “day houseman” who makes daily visits to his flat, and a police detective named Boyne. If the story sounds familiar, read on.
Two years after the short story’s publication, it was re-issued in After-Dinner Story, a 1944 anthology of Woolrich’s crime-fiction tales. This time, the title was changed to “Rear Window,” and that was one of the things that attracted Alfred Hitchcock’s attention. Almost immediately, he decided to adapt it into a film—and it would ultimately become the 1954 cinema classic starring James Stewart and Grace Kelly.
Even though few modern readers are familiar with his name, Corrnell Woolrich is one of a handful of writers who invented the crime-fiction genre now known as noir.
“The Man Who Lived Underground,” in The Man Who Was Almost a Man (1940)
I’ve got to hide, he told himself. His chest heaved as he waited, crouching in a dark corner of the vestibule.
With these words, the reader is thrust immediately into a scene in which the unnamed protagonist senses a great deal of danger. The opening paragraph continues: “He was tired of running and dodging. Either he had to find a place to hide, or he had to surrender. A police car swished by through the rain. Its siren rising sharply. They’re looking for me all over.”
“Big Boy Leaves Home,” in Uncle Tom’s Children (1938)
Yo mama can wear no drawers.
Clearly, the voice rose out of the woods, and died away. Like an echo another voice caught it up.
Ah seena when she pulled em off.
So begins the first of the four novellas that comprised the book, and they feature a voice that the overwhelming majority of American readers—think white people—had never before heard.
“The Ethics of Living Jim Crow,” in Uncle Tom’s Children (1938)
My first lesson in how to live as a Negro came when I was quite small.
These are the understated—yet highly dramatic—first words of “An Autobiographical Sketch” that appeared at the beginning of Wright’s debut book, a collection of four short novellas. From our modern-day perspective, the “Jim Crow education” story he went on to tell is powerful and sickening—and definitely worth your while to read if you get the chance (I’d recommend using the Internet Archive, my favorite resource for out-of-print books). The title of the book was inspired by Harriett Beecher Stowe’s 1852 classic, Uncle Tom’s Cabin.
The publication of Wright’s first book represented the emergence of an important new voice in African-American literature. About it, the critic Alain Locke wrote: “With this, our Negro fiction of social interpretation comes of age.”
“Doctor Jack-o’-Lantern” in Eleven Kinds of Loneliness: Stories (1962)
All Miss Price had been told about the new boy was that he’d spent most of his life in some kind of orphanage, and that the gray-haired “aunt and uncle” with whom he now lived were really foster parents, paid by the Welfare Department of the city of New York.
The narrator continued: “A less dedicated or less imaginative teacher might have pressed for more details, but Miss Price was content with the rough outline. It was enough, in fact, to fill her with a sense of mission that shone from her eyes, as plain as love, from the first morning he joined the fourth grade.”
“Snow in Summer,” in How to Fracture a Fairy Tale (2018)
They call the white flower that covers the lawn like a poplin carpet Snow in Summer. And because I was born in July with a white caul on my head, they called me that, too. Mama wanted me to answer to Summer, which is a warm, pretty name. But my Stepmamma, who took me in hand just six months after mama passed away, only spoke the single syllable of my name, and she didn’t say it nicely.