In the first instalment in a new series where we ask authors to revisit the opening sentences of their stories, Miroslav Penkov talks us through the beginning lines of ‘Blood Money’, his story from the latest issue of Granta, and his formula for the best opening lines.
At first the Gypsies didn’t know how to answer their cellphone. Toshev had sent it to them in a box with written instructions, but every time he called, the phone went straight to voicemail. ‘Gypsies can’t read,’ his editor told him. ‘No disrespect to you my boy, but that’s a fact. And one more fact – the cost of the phone comes out of your pocket.
You are the fisherman, they are the fish. Agents, editors, the general reader: you’ve got to hook them from the get-go. Or else they’re gone. Dear author, thank you for your story/essay/poem, but . . . Time is money. Life is short. So, like all workshops tell you, you turn your opening sentence into a hook. You sharpen it and sharpen it some more. ‘It was a wife’s worst nightmare.’ ‘I was the first one to drive a convertible on my reservation.’ ‘I should have been careful with the weed.’ Intriguing, inviting, suggestive. And then what?
And then here is the thing: it takes more than a hook to catch a fish. It takes bait, the right one, to get a tug; good timing and precision to ‘set’ the hook; tension on the line to keep the hook in the fish’s mouth. In other words, after the first sentence there needs to come a second one that’s just as good and maybe even better. A third and fourth and fifth . . .
And here is one more thing: this whole analogy is stupid. The reader is not a fish, the writer – not an angler. The writer is a shaman, pulling visions from a tall, great fire; a shaman who can turn the visions into words and give them flesh in living stories which anyone who sits around the flame can dream.
It’s not surprising: most great stories have great openings. Terrific first lines, masterful first paragraphs. That’s because the shamans who tell them know exactly what they’re doing; because they long to make us live their dream as vividly as they themselves can live it. These shamans know the simple truth: it’s always dark in the beginning. That’s how we come into their vision, completely lost. We strain our eyes to see, our ears to hear. In vain. It isn’t within us to conjure up the sights and sounds and odours. That power is the shaman’s. Ours is only to break the dream, wake up. And we’re ready to do just that when suddenly – a voice and then a flash. The shaman has called our name and brought the light. The dream begins, hold tight!
Consider Chekhov’s ‘The Lady with the Little Dog’. Gurov has been in Yalta for two weeks, and used to it already. He is the kind of man who goes to the most fashionable Black Sea resort, alone; who sits in pavilions and ogles the ladies, who takes a particular interest in one new arrival – a blondie with a little white spitz, standing out just enough to generate some ‘talk’ among the bored vacationers. The lap dog, the beret, oh how she longs to fit in, to appear high-class, and how she fails – she must be from a small, ordinary town, Chekhov shows us subtly, or why else would her beret remain unchanged for days? In other words, she’s perfect: the kind of woman Gurov preys on. By the time we’re done with the first paragraph we have at least some sense of where we are in space and time, how the story is told, who our hero will be and what the whole conflict might be all about.
All the basic building blocks of fiction – setting, point of view, voice, character, conflict – Chekhov addresses within the first paragraph of his story. Sure, I’m oversimplifying things, but perhaps that’s how you keep the dream vivid: not by lighting a torch so bright it blinds the reader; not by creating a spark so timid it only makes the darkness appear more terrifying. You shine the light precisely on what your readers need to see. Then, holding their hand, you lead them deeper into the dream.
‘It was now lunch time and they were all sitting under the double green fly of the dining tent pretending that nothing had happened.’ A single sentence. Naturally, we can’t be certain of where we are exactly, but knowing it’s lunch time under a dining tent certainly helps. We don’t know who they might be – and what the hell has happened? This Hemingway doesn’t tell us for eight whole pages of steadily escalating tension.
Or how about this one from Eudora Welty? ‘I was getting along fine with Mama, Papa-Daddy and Uncle Rondo until my sister Stella-Rondo just separated from her husband and came back home again.’ A voice so strong it carries with itself even the story’s setting.
I’m not arguing that every first paragraph should follow a checklist of necessary ingredients. But when you read them carefully, you notice that many of the really good ones do.
It was an old woman’s racism that inspired the first line of ‘Blood Money’. I was in Sofia, waiting for the bus at a crowded stop. Close by a gypsy man was pulling sheets of cardboard out of a dumpster, tearing them into manageable squares and loading them onto a little cart. Stray neighbourhood dogs were barking at him, but he didn’t pay them any mind. Nor did the people waiting for the bus grace him with their attention. That is, until his cell-phone rang. Then, even the dogs grew quiet. ‘A gypsy, but with a cellphone,’ an old woman said spitefully beside me. Sure, it was an unlikely combination. Still though, that ‘but’ angered me something fierce. In this grandma’s worldview, being a gypsy and owning a cell-phone were two mutually exclusive propositions. For her, the formula had been chiseled in stone a long time back: P(Gypsy and Cell-phone) = 0.
So when months later I sat down to write my story I felt the urge to start with that particular stereotype. At first the gypsies didn’t know how to answer their cell-phone. It is not the catchiest of openers, but honestly, I’ve grown to be annoyed with first lines that try too hard to grab us by the throat. This one, I think, does enough. Like a snag in the sleeve of a sweater, it provides me with an opening. All I need to do, whether I’m the writer or the reader, is pull on the hanging thread and begin to unravel the sweater cleanly. Here comes the first pull: Toshev had sent it to them in a box with written instructions, but every time he called, the phone went straight to voicemail. So we have our protagonist now, the hero of the story; a sense of the point of view (third person close) and of the setting (a world where gypsies are a thing). We’re also left with a set of questions: Who is this guy and why is he so desperate to speak with the gypsies that he’s gone to the trouble of mailing them a phone? Who are the gypsies, how far away do they live and how come they don’t have a phone of their own? Then comes the second pull of the thread: ‘Gypsies can’t read,’ his editor told him. Right. So our hero is a writer, or a journalist. And this editor of his must be a real piece of work, because, surely, all gypsies the world over are illiterate. ‘No disrespect to you, my boy, but that’s a fact.’ Oh, it is, is it? And why would this ‘fact’ disrespect our hero? Does he have an investment with the Roma and if so, how personal is it? ‘And one more fact,’ the editor adds to end the paragraph, ‘the cost of the phone comes out of your pocket.’ So the publication isn’t too crazy about the hero’s prospective assignment. It’s also too strapped for cash to pay him, but certain that he’s invested into the story just enough to pursue it at his own expense; details that ought to put the protagonist under pressure, which, as the story progresses should intensify and build towards a point of no return.
Thus, the story climbs on. Its second paragraph begins like so: Toshev knew all that, of course. Knew what exactly? That the editor isn’t excited about the assignment? That the paper won’t pay? That gypsies can’t be expected to read and answer cell-phones? Who is this guy really and, once more, what is his connection with the Roma?
Already the questions outnumber the sentences. But there is a difference, I hope, between mystery and confusion. And if the questions pique the reader’s interest, if finding the answers is worth a walk in the dark, then perhaps the story has a chance of leaping off the page and becoming not just the writer’s, but also, the reader’s dream.
Image by Malias