One of the things I’ve enjoyed most about my creative writing program is that the experience has helped give words to many things I’ve been trying to do in my writing. A prime example is something a professor of mine once said in class, a bit of craft advice originally from Steven Millhauser: “The first line of a story should be in conversation with its title.”
I’ve thought about this advice a lot, and I quite like how it’s worded. The phrase “in conversation” requires you, here, to be intentional about the link between the title and your first line, but it’s loose enough to allow multiple ways that this could happen.
If you’re reading this and thinking, “Well, this advice sounds nice enough, but what does this actually look like?” that’s where this blog comes in. Below, we’ll investigate how to start a short story—five ways of putting your first line in conversation with your title, with examples. Some will be quite obvious, others more indirect, but all of them can suck a reader in and draw them forward, right from the very first sentence.
How to Start a Short Story: Pairing Your First Line with Your Title
1. Start your first line with your title
Now, I don’t necessarily recommend using this tactic if the title of your story is the name of a common object (“The Spoon”), place (“The Park”), or name (“John”). In my opinion, this tactic works best when you can use it to build an air of mystery around the titular person/place/thing. Stephen King does this well in his short story, “The Reach,” but the example we’ll look at here is closer to home, from a piece written by phoebe reader Andrew Joseph White that is forthcoming in Sci-Fi & Scary’s Twisted Anatomy Anthology, named “The Foal with Two Heads.”
What makes the beginning of this story so effective is that we see the title and start thinking, Wait, this is metaphorical, right? There won’t actually be a foal with two heads, will there?
And then we get to the first line, which reads, “The foal with two heads huddles against the fence, wet and squealing and trying to tear out its own throat, and Papaw bites on the end of his cigarette and looks over and says, ‘Well fuck, Joey.’ ”
And, sure, that sentence answers some of our questions (we have two characters and know the foal is very much not metaphorical) but leaves us with many more: How in the hell did the foal get to have two heads? And why is Papaw so damn nonchalant about it? Not only is that contrast between the foal trying to tear its own throat out and him nibbling on his cigarette incredibly intriguing, but the first line effectively uses that dichotomy to satisfy some of our initial curiosity while beckoning us forward into the story.
2. Use the title as the first line
One riff on the above is to forgo repeating the title altogether and just use it as the first line. I’ve seen this in poetry a couple of times (like here) but rarely in fiction. Lesley Nneka Arimah, however, does this quite artfully in her story “What It Means When a Man Falls from the Sky”, with the following opening:
“It means twenty-four hour news coverage. It means politicians doing damage control; activists egging on protests. It means Francisco Furcal’s granddaughter at a press conference defending her family legacy.”
This opening has a similar effect to what we saw above, in which the title makes us ask a question (“Wait, do you mean literally?”), which the first line answers while causing us to ask many more. Plus, this literal question-and-answer format artfully lends the story a poetic economy of words right off the bat. In all of these ways, it makes the reader do a double-take—causing them to sit a little longer with these lines while simultaneously piquing their interest.
3. Answer a small question; ask a bigger one
This next strategy is more of an umbrella technique that both of the above examples do incredibly well. I wanted to point out that stories can use this approach even if they aren’t speculative fiction (as the first two examples are) or don’t follow the two specific rules listed above.
A great example of how an opening can play off the title to answer one question but ask an even larger one, without repeating its exact wording, comes from a story in phoebe issue 49.2: “Virginia Is Not Your Home,” by Jocelyn Johnson. The first time I came to this story, I asked myself one question after reading the title: “Is this a story about a never-accepted newcomer to Virginia or one about a Virginia native who doesn’t identify with her home state?” And, within the first four sentences, the story answers and more:
“They hung that name on you at birth, but Virginia was never your home. Read Nausea by Sartre and give yourself a new one. Trumpet your new name to the liver-spotted washroom mirror, like a coronation. Gape your mouth then angle your tongue behind your teeth. While you’re at it, work to remedy those other afflictions: that fetid high-hill r that has planted itself in the middle of words like wa-r-sh.”
By playing off the title’s language, the story tells us that our main character is not only stuck in a state she feels alien to but named after it as well. And with that unfortunate irony, we have the premise of the story, which—along with the use of second-person POV—draws us forward.
As with most aspects of writing, once you understand a rule well enough, you can figure out how to break it in an intriguing way. Here, for example, if you can anticipate how the reader will look for connections between the title and the beginning of the story, you can subvert their expectations by giving them a false answer to the question(s) the title raises.
For an example of this, let’s look at the story “Lizards” by Laura van den Berg. For me, the question this title provoked was a simple one: “How will lizards be important to the story?” And by the end of the first couple of sentences, I thought I had an answer:
“The judge is still in the news. The story has been unfolding for weeks and every time she sees his face she feels so angry she’s surprised surfaces don’t ignite when she touches them. By dinnertime, a third woman has come forward.”
By now, I know the story takes place during the Brett Kavanaugh confirmation hearings, and—looking for the simplistic connection—my mind thinks, “Men like Brett Kavanaugh = Lizards.” And for a moment, I let myself believe that I’ve solved the riddle and am one step ahead of the story.
But van den Berg never picks that low-hanging fruit. Perhaps she intentionally allows readers to make that connection themselves, but that easy analogy is never written on the page. Instead, throughout the story, lizards come to symbolize multiple nuanced themes, such as the main character’s discomfort living in Florida (where she moved for her husband), feelings of powerlessness, and the influence of the amygdala (the “reptilian brain”) on our behavior. As the story goes deeper, this progression of ideas resembles something like a kaleidoscope, shifting in pleasantly surprising ways right from that initial moment of misdirection between the title and opening.
5. Foreshadow by contrasting the first line with the title
Like the previous tip, this technique also uses dissonance between the title and first line to draw the reader in. By creating a noticeable shift between these two elements, you can immediately clue the reader into key plot and/or character changes to come.
As an example, let’s look at the novella Death in Venice, by Thomas Mann, which starts: “Gustave Aschenbach—or von Aschenbach, as he had been known officially since his fiftieth birthday—had set out alone from his house in Prince Regent Street, Munich, for an extended walk.”
The contrast here isn’t earth-shattering—the title warns us of a death in Venice, while the first line gives us a living character in Munich—but it’s enough to let us sketch a rough outline of what’s to come. In doing so, it also raises some central questions, like “What brings Gustave to Venice, then?” and “Is it Gustave who dies, or someone else?” From the very beginning of the story, we see a glimmer of mystery that beckons us to read further.
All of these techniques share a crucial characteristic: they anticipate questions the reader may have after seeing the title and use the first line(s) to play off those questions in a compelling way. And it’s precisely that ability to foresee the reader’s thought process and answer their questions in a controlled manner from the very first sentence that makes for a captivating story.
And now, it’s my turn to ask: What are some other examples of striking first lines in stories that play off the title of the piece? Do they follow one of these techniques or achieve something different? Reach out on Twitter or Facebook to let us know!
is phoebe’s assistant fiction editor and a second-year fiction candidate in George Mason University’s creative writing MFA program. He typically writes satire and dystopian works, but his mind’s also been known to jump to places far beyond those genres. His work is published or forthcoming in McSweeney’s, Slackjaw, Weekly Humorist, SPANK the CARP, and Points in Case. When he’s not writing, Kevin is usually guilt-tripping himself for browsing social media instead of writing.