How to begin a short story



The first words of a story are what breathe life into it.

I notice now, in this stage of my life, I prefer first words over the rest.  The rest are window dressing; the first those which draw me in.  They are an end unto themselves. I really don’t care what happens after the kickoff. The game is less important than the opening whistle.

Take these words, for instance.

The house was built of rose-colored plaster that had peeled and faded with the dampness and from its porch you could see the sea, very blue, and the end of the street. There were laurel trees along the sidewalk that grew high enough to shade the upper porch and in the shade it was cool. A mockingbird hung in a wicker cage at a corner of the porch, and it was not singing now, nor even chirping, because a young man of about twenty-eight, thin, dark, with bluish circles under his eyes and a stubble of beard, had just taken off a sweater that he wore and spread it over the cage.  The young man was standing now, his mouth slightly open, listening.  Someone was trying the locked and bolted front door.

Any guesses as to the author’s identity?

Does it help if I give you another slice of his work?

In the late summer of that year we lived in a house in a village that looked across the river and the plain to the mountains. In the bed of the river there were pebbles and boulders, dry and white in the sun, and the water was clear and swiftly moving and blue in the channels. Troops went by the house and down the road and the dust they raised powdered the leaves of the trees. The trunks of the trees too were dusty and the leaves fell early that year and we saw the troops marching along the road and the dust rising and leaves, stirred by the breeze, falling and the soldiers marching and afterward the road bare and white except for the leaves.

Recently I was at the front desk of a public library in a college town, when a mother came in with her middle-school daughter. They inquired about a book the mother wanted her child to read.

“The title is something like ‘A Goodbye,'” she said.

The librarian stared at her blankly.

I couldn’t help myself.

“Maybe ‘A Farewell,’?”, I asked.

“Yeah.  I think that’s it,” the mother said. She and her daughter and the librarian all were looking at me blankly now.

“A Farewell to Arms?  It’s by a guy named Hemingway.”

The blank stares doubled down.

“Ernest Hemingway. He was a pretty big deal back in the day.”

The librarian hit a few keystrokes on her computer.

“We have it, but it looks like it’s checked out.” She shrugged a why don’t you leave me alone now shrug.

The mother glanced at her daughter before she spoke to the book guardian again.

“Do you have video games we can check out?”

The lady at the counter pointed over their heads to a far corner of the room. “Over there,” she said.

The mother and daughter retreated to the corner.

“Hemingway really was a pretty big deal,” I said to the librarian.

She didn’t look up at me and waited for me to leave.

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