Get Writing

Titles and first sentences – 1. Five women writers

To get you thinking about how the two go together as a hook, I picked some short story collections randomly from my shelves. As it happened, they were all collections by women. (I promise to choose a group of male writers tomorrow). I read the stories long ago and now can’t remember what happens next.  I’ve noted my reactions and why I’m hooked to read on.

Alice Munro – Save The Reaper (from her collection The Love Of A Good Woman)

“The game they played was almost the same one that Eve had played with Sophie, on long dull car trips when Sophie was a little girl”.

Here, I was hooked by how they would play this game, and whether its name was  “Save The Reaper”. Reaper also has associations with the Grim Reaper. We also know  from this sentence that Eve is likely to be Sophie’s mother Where is she going? Why are they making a long journey?

Grace Paley –Wants –(from her collection Enormous Changes at the Last Minute)

A simple one word title. I think it sharpens the impact of the first sentence which is:

“I saw my ex-husband in the street.”  Immediately I was interested in what the narrator might want from the ex, if anything and what does he want from her although none of this is said.

Tessa Hadley –A Card Trick  – (from her collection Sunstroke)

“It was 1974: not a good year, clothes-wise if you were an eighteen-year-old girl, tall with thick, curling hair and glasses.”

Here the character hooks me – someone  out of place. I wonder what the card trick is? Does she play it? Is it a metaphor? Is there a sleight of hand in this story?

Edith Pearlman – Binocular Vision – (from her collection Binocular Vision)

“For his fortieth birthday, my father was given a pair of binoculars”

The title is the first big hook  because of the phrase ‘binocular vision’, which suggests both seeing things from a great distance and close up. Also, we’re given the age of the father and in the first sentence, we don’t know whether he likes the binoculars. I’m intrigued to find out what happens to them, how old the narrator is and his/her relationship with the father.

Lorrie Moore – You’re Ugly, Too.  – (from her collection Like Life)

“You had to get out of them occasionally, those Illinois towns with the funny names: Paris, Oblong, Normal.”

I like the humour in this and  wonder if this character (seems like a woman) thinks she is ugly. The towns are likely to be ugly. The inclusion of the word, ‘occasionally’ makes me wonder if she is going to go back or  if the action will take place in one of these towns,

( A nod here to poet and Bath Spa MA tutor, Carrie Etter, who comes from the Illinois town called Normal)

Reading On

In a bookshop, most people  read the first paragraph of a story to see if they are hooked.  I think all  five writers above do a great deal to help us become involved with just the title and the first sentence. You could check your own  short story titles and openers to see if they work together well. If you haven’t written your title yet, check how it goes with the first sentence/paragraph and adjust accordingly. You might also  want to alter your first sentence to fit with the title.

Jude, BSSA team, February 18th.

Titles and First Sentences 2. Four male writers

Antony Doerr – Memory Wall (from the collection ‘Memory Wall’)

“Seventy-four-year-old Alma Konachek lives in Vredehoek, a suburb above Cape Town: a place of warm rains, big-windowed lofts and silent, predatory automobiles.”

The first sentence has such a strong sense of place. It’s the adjective ‘predatory’ connected interestingly with automobiles (rather than their owners) that hooks me. Chilling. And, as Alma is seventy-four, is she losing her memory?

You can read an interview with Antony Doerr on  on the  interviews page. (Scroll down a little). I asked him about the collection, ‘Memory Wall.’

Raymond Carver – Elephant (from the collection ‘ Elephant)

“I knew it was a mistake to let my brother have the money.”

Straight in there with a situation between two siblings. That’s a hook – simple and brilliant. The title is intriguing here. It doesn’t obviously go with the first sentence, but it made me wonder how an elephant is connected with the narrator’s relationship with his brother.  There is also the idea of  ‘the elephant in the room’. Is there something in this family that is secret or never discussed?

Colin Barrett – Diamonds (from the collection ‘Young Skins”)

“I left the city with my connections scorched and my prospects blown looking only for somewhere to batten down for the winter to come.”

Here the  strong voice and the marvellous use of language hooks me. The title seems ironic  Can this character (must be male) as described, find something as precious as diamonds in his life? Maybe, but maybe not.  And we have the phrase ‘prospects blown’ in the sentence, which makes me think of prospecting for diamonds without much luck. What is going to happen to him during the winter?  I don’t imagine it will  turn out well.

(This award winning  story is online if you want to read on. A google search will easily find it)

Haruki Murakami – Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman.

“When I closed my eyes, the scent of the wind wafted up towards me.”

I like the juxtaposition of ‘Blind Willow and Sleeping Woman’ I don’t know what ‘blind willow’ means but can see a Japanese ink drawing.  The title, with its associations, is as  poetic and dreamy as  the first line.

If you check through all these first lines, you’ll notice a variety of view points and tenses. You could also consider if a particular view point or tense hooks you. It maybe worth trying out different view points and tenses in your story.

Jude, BSSA team,  February 19th 2015