I have just about completed four new short stories. I'm going through the four one last time right now. I'll run some stairs shortly, then come back for a final look.
I can look at single clause with which a writer begins a work, and know that they have nothing, and I need never look at anything they do again. One cannot overstate the importance of any sentence. That is a key to my writing--I give nothing away. I don't take a word off. But sentences have different roles, naturally, because writing, at the level of art, is a symphony of geometry, of sound and sense, shapes, with levers and treadmills of movement. One must move a reader. Move them forward, deeper, in. And also move them emotionally, mentally, and though it is never discussed, you wish to move them physically. To produce certain changes in their biochemistry as they read. The heart should beat at different rates, depending. The fingers should feel a certain way. The forehead. The back of the neck. The pit of the stomach.
The first sentence must grab and it must impel. It both catches someone and moves them by making them wish to move with what has just begun. They're struck, their curiosity is heightened. It can help to start in the middle of things which isn't really a middle of things. That's hard to do. I see next to no one with that ability. To make a start seem like one has already been caught up in something. You cause a reader to feel like they've already been part of a journey even as it begins on the page, and that makes them invested. You've not missed out on anything as a reader, and it feels like you're where you should be, but there's not that ramping up which is what you get with MFA stories. Blah blah blah blah background blah, blah blah blah background blah, description description description blah, background blah blah, etc.
It's like you're looking for someone's stats for the last season, but first you have to read through the stats for the first twelve years of their career. But the story is the last season. And it might reach back to the seasons before, but it has to do so naturally, not because of heavy-handed recounting. That's how MFA people write. And immediately, from the first clause, you are, as the English say, bored off your tits. If you are even trying to read it. At which point, you will stop, and do something else.
MFA people write that way because they can't tell a story infused with life. They have to stack remedial building blocks. Nothing interesting happens via remedial building blocks. Narrative doesn't function that way. Life doesn't function that way. Imaginative storytelling doesn't function that way. Limitations in skill and creativity function that way. And you can certainly teach someone to be limited that way, or to work in that limited way. It's re-producable. Imitable. Another reason why the MFA system produces so much work that is indistinguishable from the rest of the MFA system work.
It's not so much starting fast--though it can certainly help to start fast--but what I could call starting involved. Begin with involvement. Everything in a story must be a form of involvement. Start with it, and then you change it, channel it, move it forward, pull it back so it can move forward again later with greater surprise, and so forth.
Geometry really comes into play with writing when you begin with involvement. Because that is the larger form--the big shape--you are working off of. Which you hone and alter. Then it cycles down through the levels, where a paragraph break--because it is altering the geometry--becomes massive because of when and where it occurs, what it does to the shape and the flow and progression of what shapes have been until that point.
A first sentence should almost be able to function as a story unto itself, but it must not stand out incongruously from the second sentence. It can't be a set piece. It needs to be different, but it also needs to fit and not be different in that regard. Let me put this in baseball terms: a first sentence needs to have an OBP of 1.000. That number stands out, but the first sentence wears the same uniform as the rest of the team.
A first sentence is actually quite existential, in its way, in that it makes us ask, subconsciously, why are we here? How did we get to this point? What do we do next? Where are we going?
See the involvement? The emotional investment? That's what a first sentence must summon. Already one needs to know what happens next.
When you make someone feel like they need to know what happens next, an amazing thing happens--they feel like they know you. Only, in this case, the you is not you, the writer, the "you" is the character or characters. A first sentence provides multiple forms of immediate connection. First sentences ask and answer questions, but they don't do all of the asking and answering. For that, we must continue on. The first sentence has helped insure that we will. For we must.
We also want to be able to return to a first sentence after the work is complete, and experience that first sentence a new way. Works--the best works--must also be able to be read "backwards," even if that is just in memory, and not actually going backwards through the pages. A reader will come to the end of the story, and the first sentence--like many parts--will have additional resonance, and a different resonance. Which isn't to say that you falsified that first sentence, or tricked someone; but there was also more to it, even as it felt as compelling as it did in the first part of the reading experience. The partaking experience. The best writers do not give you a reading experience--they give you a partaking experience. A life experience. In some ways, it's not even really reading at all. It's beyond reading. But also, the ultimate in reading and in what writing and reading can do.
So these are the first four sentences of four new stories.
Here is the one from a story called "Drop Paper":
"No one gets to drive you away," my friend announced.
This is the first sentence of a story called "Ringeth Over":
A man set down a steaming cup of coffee on his desk and prepared to begin a stupendous project of towering significance for the human race when the coffee cup started to ring.
This is the first sentence of a story called "Walk Off":
“I’ve had enough,” she said, her words sounding as if they were made of water and the ghosts of spent cigarettes.
And this is the first sentence of "Ready to Go":
Maribeth had everything she wanted.