On Openings

What is a great opening? When this topic comes up, the suggestions usually skew to the dramatic and/or zany, for (made-up) example:

When I woke up I was covered in blood, clutching a stuffed parakeet.

The idea is that you hook the readers with a compelling image and they are suckered into reading the whole story.

I get the teaser-style opening, but what do you think of this one?

Her doctor had told Julian’s mother that she must lose twenty pounds on account of her blood pressure, so on Wednesday nights Julian had to take her downtown on the bus for a reducing class at the Y. The reducing class was designed for working girls over fifty, who weighed from 165 to 200 pounds. His mother was one of the slimmer ones, but she said ladies did not tell their age or weight. She would not ride the buses by herself at night since they had been integrated, and because the reducing class was one of her few pleasures, necessary for her health, and free, she said Julian could at least put himself out to take her, considering all she did for him. Julian did not like to consider all she did for him, but every Wednesday night he braced himself and took her.*

We learn so much from these few sentences. We know it’s a mother and son, that the mother is “a working girl over fifty” (note the oxymoron), and that she is (or thinks she is) the slimmest fat woman in the weight reduction class (another paradox). Can’t you just hear her telling her son that? Whispering it, in the middle of a long recap on the ride home,  judging the rest of the women, conceding bitterly that she can’t be sure (oh, but she’s sure).  The rhythm of the sentences gives us that hectored feeling that Julian must have all the time. And what about Julian? He’s a grown man, still obliged to usher his mother around — and obliged is the right word, it’s not love or generosity, but because his mother does so much for him (which he doesn’t like to think about).

And all of this information about a mother, her son, and their strained relationship wraps around a single deftly-placed knife of exposition: she would not ride the buses by herself at night since they had been integrated. That sentence alone serves every end: it’s setting, it’s character, it foreshadows the plot, it’s thematic. And on top of all that, it’s dry and witty and sardonic. Maybe some readers don’t give a fig about this woman’s bus ride to the Y, but I’m hooked.

The blood and the parakeet might coax readers to read on, but this is the kind of writing that makes me think, “Oh, that’s how it’s done!”

*Flannery O’Connor, “Everything that Rises Must Converge”

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