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The Opening Sequence: What it Means to Hook

by MR Sheffield

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Your opening sequence is incredibly important to your story because it is what will “hook” your readers; it’s what is going to make them want to continue reading. Because of this, every word counts. The opening section of your short story should be written in the same way poets write poetry. You must have a lot of attention to language, not that you don’t need that in the rest of the story, but I think you need it most to start with. If you have really intense attention to language to start, this will also probably keep you focused on language as you revise.
So that was just a quick disclaimer. This essay will be mostly about once you get to the revision stage. You have to let yourself write freely on first and second drafts. It’s only once you get to the revision stage that can you employ your inner critic to carefully review word choice.
In Freshman Composition classes, instructors will tell you that you can tell what grade an essay should get by just reading the introduction. Why would it be any different for creative writing? You call tell what kind of “grade” you’d give a story within the first few minutes of reading.
I have some examples of opening sequences I want to show you. I’m going to focus on sort of non realist stories here because I think they do interesting things, and also it is really important that experimental sorts of stories pay an especially large amount of attention to the opening sequence. It is vital in these types of stories that the expectations set up in the opening are carried throughout the story. Of course, this is also important in realist stories, but I’ll save their study for you, or for a later date.
Let’s look at the first example below. This excerpt is from the short story “At the Auction of the Ruby Slippers” by Salman Rushdie:

The bidders who have assembled for the auction of the magic slippers bear little resemblance to your usual saleroom crowd. The Auctioneers have publicized the event widely and are prepared for all comers. People venture out but rarely nowadays; nevertheless, and rightly, the Auctioneers believed this prize would tempt us from our bunkers. High feelings are anticipated. Accordingly, in addition to the standard facilities provided for the comfort and security of the more notable personages, extra-large bronze cuspidors have been placed in the vestibules and toilets, for the use of the physically sick; teams of psychiatrists of varying disciplines have been installed in strategically located neo-Gothic confessional booths, to counsel the sick at heart.

Most of us nowadays are sick.

There are no priests. The Auctioneers have drawn a line. The priests remain in other, nearby buildings, buildings with which they are familiar, hoping to deal with any psychic fall-out, any insanity overspill. (Rushdie 87)

As you can see here, Rushdie has made each word count. The beginning of the paragraph reads almost like a business memo, but then it also, from the first sentence, reveals to the reader the absurdity of this world. This is key. If Rushdie had tried to fool his readers by starting in a realistic voice, then we’d all be confused by what happens later in the story. He set’s everything up, right away, and with even just that opening sentence we know, right? We know we’re in a different world, and we’re able to then accept what happens.  By using the opening line “The bidders who have assembled for the auction of the magic slippers bear little resemblance to your usual saleroom crowd” the reader knows immediately that she is in a different world. Using magic slippers as the item up for auction also plunges the reader into (probably) well-known associations with The Wizard of Oz; the reader is clued in that she is far from “home.”
Also in this paragraph, you’ll note how Rushdie uses strange adjectives paired with objects that might startle the reader. For example, there are “-large bronze cuspidors” which some readers will be familiar with, I was not (they are spittoons), and they have been placed “in the vestibules and toilets, for the use of the physically sick.” This again shows us that the world we’re in now is not Kansas; it is some place entirely different. Using an object like a “cuspidor” and describing what it looks like and its purpose makes this sentence highly effective for showing the reader what is going on. Each word here is important; each word works to brilliantly describe a place, time, theme, character, and story. Any excess fat, if you will, has been trimmed.
A really specific example of him trimming the excess fat, the extra words, is the sentence “Most of us nowadays are sick.” This one sentence, set apart from the rest of the description, does a lot of work for Rushdie. If you ever read this whole short story, you’ll see that you never actually find out what’s totally wrong; the world is a mystery. This one sentence, set up right at the beginning, really prepares the reader for that mystery. He accomplishes a lot with those six words.
Something else to look at in this sentence is the first person plural and the conversational tone he adopts. He paints a really vivid picture of his sick world with just this one sentence, and the first person plural draws his readers into that world.
That last little section raises the stakes. We realize we’re in a place where people can lose their minds at any moment – that anything could happen.
For your own writing, remember to always keep in mind what each word is doing for you. Think about pairing objects with interesting descriptions and functions. Think about where in the action you want to start. You can always go back and cut your piece up, start with what you think is the strongest section. You can also write the entire piece, and then go back and open it.
It’s important to consider where you’re going to open your story. In this example, Rushdie brings us in as the action is happening, on a very important day for his character. He could have started this story with the bidding for the shoes. He could have started it after the bidding, the year before, the year after; the options are endless, but he choose to start here, right before the proverbial fireworks begin. This is something you need to take really seriously in your own writing. Where the action starts sets the pace for the entire piece. I recommend chopping your story into sections and experimenting with where those sections go. For example, you could consider one whole part “the main action” a second “the background” and the third part could be “lessons learned” or something. Ok, so these are really lame section headings, and you might have many more than just three, but you get the idea, right? After naming your sections,  experiment with moving them around, start with “Lessons learned,” for example, see if you like it, and then try starting the story off with “The Main Action” instead, etc. If you keep moving sections around, you will learn where the best place to start is, and you will also get a stronger feeling for your story and the arc of action or character or theme within it.
Because it’s often that the theme of the story comes out as we write, so you have to sometimes give it room to grow. Like for example in this Rushdie excerpt, you can kind of tell the theme, if you will, might have something to do with isolation and/or alienation. You get this a bit from “tempt us from our bunkers,” this line lets us know that everyone is sort of secreted away. So as you work on your story, try to figure out what theme you’re working with, and then fit it into the opening. At least just a whisper of it, as you can see here. It doesn’t have to be spelled out for your reader like “and then he realized what the problem was. He was alienated.” But you can, like Rushdie does, drop in a little hint.
To get another idea of how and where you can start your story, please turn to example number the second. This is from the short story “Cat’s Eye” by Luisa Valenzuela”:

They are walking down the hallway in the dark. She turns around suddenly and he cries out. “What is it?” she asks. And he says: “Your eyes. Your eyes are shining like a wild animal’s. (Valenzuela 111)

You can see here how brief her first paragraph is, but it does so much, it entirely sets up the story, the conflict between the characters, and the mood. With only four sentences, Valenzuela whisks us into a different world. She also sets up here a question for the reader. Are we in a magical world? The possibility is there, but it is not fully revealed to us. The characters could be delusional, or there could be something really strange going on here; we just don’t know. This prepares the reader for the mystery of the rest of the story.
She uses a dark hallway, which could be a cliché, but here it works, because it’s followed by action you don’t necessary expect. So maybe to a certain extent you expect something scary to happen in a dark hallway, but I think it’s surprising that he cries out, and he does so because she turns around. Her eyes are described as “shining like a wild animal’s,” which immediately makes the reader question her humanness. Is she an animal? Is he crazy?  Again there is this mystery here. She is not giving us concrete answers. This is something to consider for your own writing. How much of your world to you want to give away in the opening? It is, of course, important to set up a general idea of the rules of your world, but you can also leave things a bit gray, rather mysterious. Rushdie used this same tactic; with his opening we all know we’re not in Kansas, but we don’t know where we are. What we do know with Rushdie is that we are in a different world, definitely strange and possibly magical. In “The Cat’s Eye,” the setting is more ambiguous, we’re not certain if the world is different, if it is magical. With Valenzuela we’re given even less of the world, less to go on, but it is enough to establish that there is the potential for the strange.
Keep in mind this is written in third person, which in the opening sequence works well here because it lets the reader hover over all the action. We see the story as it unfolds from an arguably objective perspective. Also think about where in the story we start. We start with a scary, mysterious moment. This choice by Valenzuela makes the story feel more immediate and compelling. Another reason for this immediacy is the use of present tense.
So here we have an opening sequence of only four sentences, third person perspective, and the use of present tense; there are also well placed clichés which lead the reader to expect something she doesn’t necessarily get here. It is not surprising that something scary and/or mysterious happens in dark hallways, but it is surprising what that something is; a woman looks like a wild animal. She sets up an expectation and then eloquently contradicts it.
She also, through this surprise, sets up the tone and theme for her short story. You have an idea, even if it’s rather nebulous, about this story already just from the opening.
Now if you turn to the third example, this is an excerpt from William H Gass’s “Order of Insects.”

We certainly had no complaints about the house after all we had been through in the other place, but we hadn’t lived there very long before I began to notice every morning bodies of a large black bug spotted about the downstairs carpet; haphazardly, as earth worms must die on the street after a rain; looking when I first saw them like rolls of dark wool or pieces of mud from the children’s shoes, or sometimes, if the drapes were pulled, so like ink stains or deep burns they terrified me, for I had been intimidated by that thick rug very early and the first week had walked over it wishing my bare feet would swallow my shoes. The shells were usually broken. Legs and other parts I couldn’t then identify would be scattered near like flakes of rust. Occasionally I would find them on their backs, their quilted undersides showing orange, while beside them were smudges of dark-brown powder that had to be vacuumed carefully. We believed our cat had killed them. She was frequently sick during the night then- a rare thing for her – and we could think of no other reason. Overturned like that they looked pathetic even dead. (Gass 156)

As you can see from the opening, it definitely sets up a certain mood. There is, like in the Valenzuela section, a feeling of mystery. We only know as much as the narrator knows, and she obviously does not know much. So from this open we know less about the kind of world we did with Valenzuela and much less than we did with Rushdie. This could be a strange, magical world, or it might not be. We’re just not sure yet. This opening does leave the possibility for the strange, but not in the same way that Valenzuela does; here it’s less obvious that this world might not be our world.
As the story progresses, the narrator becomes more and more interested in the insects, and this prompts her to reexamine her life. Her self reflection begins in this opening, the reader is altered to the nature of this story with this line, for example “legs and other parts I couldn’t then identify” – this shows the reader the narrator herself will go through a change. If Gass hadn’t added this line, we wouldn’t be prepared for all her questioning as the story moves forward. It is important to establish for the reader where the story is going, what sort of story it is, and what the world is like in the opening sequence.
We can see here that the world is pretty normal, but is still rather mysterious. This aspect is again rather like the example from Valenzuela that we looked at a moment ago. Like in that passage, Gass has set up some expectations for us, because we’re starting in a new house, and we know the narrator is a mother, and other conventional characteristics like that, but like Valenzuela, what happens in the story itself is surprising, and this surprise is predicated on the mystery we get in this opening.
Gass writes about the insects as “looking when I first saw them like rolls of dark wool or pieces of mud from the children’s shoes” – this pairing of images, both domestic, sets up this expectation of the known. Like how when we were in a dark hallway we expect something to happen, when we are in a domestic setting, we have expectations and assumptions about what will happen. Using the expectation of the known as Gass does here allows the writer to more deeply startle the reader. This is so because much of the time, it is when we are where we expect to be that we least expect to be taken to any other place. It is important, however, to give the reader that little slice of possibility of the strange. Like I said earlier, it wouldn’t do to set up a perfectly normal world, and then later introduce fantastic elements which are out of sync with the rest of the story. Actually, I’m sure someone has done this well, I don’t want to make you think it would be impossible, but I’m going to caution against it, because it would be incredibly difficult to set up world rules in a story and then break them and still have a working story. By working I just mean a story that makes a certain amount of sense – a story that is successful in portraying whatever it aims to portray to the reader.
As I hope to have shown here, the opening sequence of your short story is of utmost importance. The opening sequence also offers nearly limitless options for you as a writer. You set up everything in the open; the decisions you make here are going to either make your story work or make it fail. And although I said earlier that it can (albeit very rarely) work to set up a realist world and then introducing the strange, a lot of people attempt this and fail. They make the mistake of starting with their realist kind of world in and then go on to introduce fantastic elements and magic. This is a mistake because instead of surprising the reader, which is possibly the argument to write the open in this way, this type of opening will usually just work to confuse the reader, discombobulate her, make her wonder what world exactly she is in. You don’t want this. With a few extra sentences and or well placed details, you can let your reader know what is ahead of him. So if there are going to be unicorns, or ghosts, or talking animals, or angry gargoyles in your story, you need to let your reader know right away. In your opening, set up for him that this is a world where flying Draculas are possible.
You don’t have to do this by writing something like “and yes, in this world, there are zombie-Frankensteins,” but you do have to include at least a sentence that lets the reader know that something is up. Even just writing something like “these days, nearly anything seemed possible” could work. So that’s not the best sentence in the world, but it would definitely clue your reader into the fact that this story does not have to follow the rules of a realist world. This story can, in fact, break those rules.
Rushdie, as we’ve discussed, does this in his first sentence. Valenzuela leaves it a bit murky, and Gass simply sets up the possibility. These are three of the types of ways you can think about introducing what type of world your story is in. You can come right out and declare it, you can hint at it, or you can leave things very ambiguous, just leaving subtle doors to the weird open.
Of course this is just as important for a realist story, but in my experience it hasn’t been as big a problem. People writing realist stories rarely have opening sequences that promise magic and then don’t deliver. But again, no matter how rare this might seem, it is of course possible, and although probably a writer has already accomplished this to a breath-takingly affective degree, you should likely steer clear.
If you write your opening sequence in the same way you write poetry (and if you don’t write poetry, you should think about taking it up, at least for practice, because it is very good practice – it will teach you an attention to language that you need to write as well as you can) with that same intense attention to detail and word choice, your entire story will benefit. As you can see from these examples, Rushdie, Valenzuela, and Gass set up their worlds in the opening sequence. They let the reader know what she’s to expect. They surprise the reader and draw her into their worlds with well chosen details and interesting images and language.
So don’t be afraid of writing that short story about chocolate bunnies who want to take over the world; if you write a strong opening sequence, then your story will most likely be successful, or if it’s not, it’ll be a little bit closer to being successful. I think it might be difficult to make a story about chocolate bunnies successful no matter how advanced you are as a writer.

Works Cited

Gass, William. “The Order of Insects.” Extreme Fiction: Fabulists and Formalists. Ed. Robin Hemley. NY: Longman Publishing, 2003. 156-162. Print.
Rushdie, Salman. “East, West.” NY: Pantheon Books, 1994. Print.
Valenzuela, Luisa. “Cat’s Eye.” Extreme Fiction: Fabulists and Formalists. Ed. Robin Hemley. NY: Longman Publishing, 2003. 111-114. Print.

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