I use this handout to support a discussion of what gets accomplished at the beginning of a story. Especially in the case of a story the students haven’t read, I like to ask, “So what do you know about the story, just from this?” and get them to pull all the meaning they can out of the beginning. Often a group of attentive readers will be able to tell you a lot of what the story’s about, and some of what happens in it. This comes as a pleasant surprise and, I think, a valuable lesson to a beginning student of fiction writing.
I read about it in the paper, in the subway, on my way to work. I read it, and I couldn’t believe it, and I read it again. Then perhaps I just stared at it, at the newsprint spelling out his name, spelling out the story. I stared at it in the swinging lights of the subway car, and in the faces and bodies of the people, and in my own face, trapped in the darkness which roared outside.
James Baldwin, “Sonny’s Blues”
From the beginning his martyred presence seriously affected them. They had a disquieting familiarity with it, hearing the spit of his despising that went into his bugle. At times they could hardly recognize what he thought was playing. Loch Morrison, Boy Scout and Life Saver, was under the ordeal of a week’s camp on Moon Lake with girls.
Eudora Welty, “Moon Lake”
People were telling one another that a newcomer had been seen on the promenade – a lady with a dog. Dmitry Dmitrich Gurov had been a fortnight in Yalta, and was accustomed to its ways, and he, too, had begun to take an interest in fresh arrivals. From his seat in Vernet’s outdoor café, he caught sight of a young woman in a toque, passing along the promenade; she was fair and not very tall; after her trotted a white Pomeranian.
Anton Chekhov, “The Lady with the Dog”
The hills across the valley of the Ebro were long and white. On this side there was no shade and no trees and the station was between two lines of rails in the sun. Close against the side of the station there was the warm shadow of the building and a curtain, made of strings of bamboo beads, hung across the open door into the bar, to keep out flies. The American and the girl with him sat at a table in the shade, outside the building. It was very hot and the express from Barcelona would come in forty minutes. It stopped at this junction for two minutes and went on to Madrid.
Ernest Hemingway, “Hills Like White Elephants”
I sit in the sun drinking gin. It is ten in the morning. Sunday. Mrs. Uxbridge is off somewhere with the children. Mrs. Uxbridge is the housekeeper. She does the cooking and takes care of Peter and Louise.
It is autumn. The leaves have turned. The morning is windless, but the leaves fall by the hundreds. In order to see anything – a leaf or a blade of grass – you have, I think, to know the keenness of love. Mrs. Uxbridge is sixty-three, my wife is away and Mrs. Smithsonian (who lives on the other side of town) is seldom in the mood these days, so I seem to miss some part of the morning as if the hour had a threshold or a series of thresholds that I cannot cross. Passing a football might do it but Peter is too young and my only football-playing neighbor goes to church.
John Cheever, “The Fourth Alarm”
The grandmother didn’t want to go to Florida. She wanted to visit some of her connections in east Tennessee and she was seizing every chance to change Bailey’s mind. Bailey was the son she lived with, her only boy. He was sitting on the edge of his chair at the table, bent over the orange sports section of the Journal. “Now look here, Bailey,” she said, “see here, read this,” and she stood with one hand on her thin hip and the other rattling the newspaper at his bald head. “Here this fellow that calls himself The Misfit is aloose from the Federal Pen and headed toward Florida and you read here what it says he did to these people. Just you read it. I wouldn’t take my children in any direction with a criminal like that aloose in it. I couldn’t answer to my conscience if I did.”
Flannery O’Connor, “A Good Man Is Hard to Find”
You can download this as a Word document here: Some Beginnings