Laying the Groundwork: The Importance of Opening Lines in Crafting Atmosphere

Posted by Morgan Staub, GD Creative Nonfiction Reader for 5.1

Not a wasted word. This has been a main point to my literary thinking all my life.” 

                        —Hunter S. Thompson

“Call me Ishmael.” “124 was spiteful.” “Mrs. Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself.” The literary nerds out there, such as myself, recognize that these opening sentences set the tone of the story to follow. Used to express tension, style, or character, these opening lines raise the bar of expectations for the narrative. While these lines are novel openings, the same can be said for short story openings, with the difference being that in the latter medium, there is less room to expand. When we write short stories, it is even more vital to use the first few lines of the story to set the tone for what will follow.

Consider the mechanics of one of Flannery O’Connor’s masterworks, “A Good Man Is Hard To Find,” a “road story” published in the mid-1950s. O’Connor begins the story in the mind of her main character, a more-or-less sympathetic matriarch only titled “the grandmother”:

The grandmother didn’t want to go to Florida. She wanted to visit some of her connections in east Tennessee and she was seizing at every chance to change Bailey’s mind. Bailey was the son she lived with, her only boy. 

Through these understated lines, O’Connor both paints her protagonist as a stony, stubborn woman and instills in the reader an implicit sense of foreboding for what is to come. Reading on, O’Connor unravels the yarn further, expanding on the characterization of the grandmother and continues her masterful foreshadowing:

Her collars and cuffs were white organdy trimmed with lace and at her neckline she had pinned a purple spray of cloth violets containing a sachet. In case of an accident, anyone seeing her dead on the highway would know at once that she was a lady.

When we are confused by a story, it is often best to pause and ask ourselves what information the author has provided us. In “A Good Man Is Hard To Find,” only a few lines in, the reader can see the grandmother, cloaked in lace, stubborn and reluctant, thinking grimly of her corpse lying on the side of the road. O’Connor’s approach initiates several themes central to her story, namely the dark fears inherent in the grandmother’s mind immediately before setting off on their journey.

The atmosphere O’Connor creates in “A Good Man Is Hard To Find” takes on the tone and rhythm of a funeral dirge, unfolding slowly, making the reader cringe at what will inevitably follow. This is not unique to O’Connor, as other authors utilize a similar strategy to kick off their story. For instance, the iconic J.D. Salinger, in his 1948 piece “A Perfect Day For Bananafish,” sets off his action in media res, with a wildly different atmosphere in mind:

There were ninety-seven New York advertising men in the hotel, and, the way they were monopolizing the long-distance lines, the girl in 507 had to wait from noon till almost two-thirty to get her call through. She used the time, though. She read an article in a women’s pocket-size magazine, called “Sex Is Fun – or Hell.”

 If O’Connor’s beginning resembled the opening strains of a dirge, this, for all intents and purposes, is a cacophony of chaos, thrusting us neck-deep into a world of chatter and bustle. We can glean, just from this opening description, that Salinger’s unnamed female protagonist is uneasy, almost nervous, waiting to make an important telephone call. Salinger, a master of his craft, is able to mold a visceral atmosphere of anxiety in only four lines.

College-age short story writers should not be expected to craft on the level of a Salinger or an O’Connor, but we can extrapolate lessons from these opening lines and apply them to our own narratives. One of the most important things to take away from these lines is the way they foreshadow the story’s setting.  “The grandmother didn’t want to go to Florida” is succinct, cautious, and gloomy. In a way, it mirrors the swampy Southern setting the readers are destined to travel through as they flip O’Connor’s pages. Meanwhile, Salinger’s description of the hotel, humming with conversation, sets the tone for a chaotic narrative, with the disarray of the protagonists’ lives at the center.

When we write, we often do not take into consideration the limits of our time and space. In drafting, short story writers may find themselves putting every sentence in their mind on the page, but in revising, it makes sense to work on a strong and evocative opening—a concise hook–one that sets the tone and instantly plunges the reader into the story’s atmosphere.. In this way, much like O’Connor and Salinger, we can control the reader’s expectations of what is to come.

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