Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Direction and Misdirection in the First Sentence of a Story

Story writers love first sentences. Probably more time goes into crafting first sentences than any other sentence, even the last. Already in the first few words the author is conveying tone, style, and mood, and usually also making a start on character, setting, and theme. That's a lot to do! The reader is already absorbing all of these things. Of course one must start on the right path.

What about plot? You might think plot is the one major story element the first sentence doesn't need to establish. Plot is necessarily spread across the story -- a matter of how things change away from what is established the first sentence. Except in unusual cases, you might think, the outcome of the story isn't already there to be seen in the first sentence.

Aliette de Bodard, Ann Leckie, Cati Porter, Rachel Swirsky, and I decided to try an experiment: Guess the plots of five new stories based on the first sentence alone. We chose the stories from July’s issue of Lightspeed Magazine. Although it seems impossible to fully guess the plot from the first sentence (else where would the suspense be?), to the extent the first sentence already sets up the plot, our guesses might not be entirely off target.

Here are the five stories and their first sentences:

1. "Magnifica Angelica Superable" by Rochita Loenen-Ruiz:

A woman from the street came in laughing from the cold.

2. "The One Who Isn't" by Ted Kosmatka:

It starts with light.

3. "Some Pebbles in the Palm" by Kenneth Schneyer:

Once upon a time, there was a man who was born, who lived, and who died.

4. "5x5" by Jilly Dreadful:

Sugarloaf Fine Sciences Summer Camp
Bunk Note: Cabin Lamarr

Dear Scully,
I should've been suspicious of the girl in the lab coat offering me psychic ice cream.

5. "The Child Support of Cromdor the Condemned" by Spencer Ellsworth:

Cromdor the Caldernian, thrice-condemned, (I've forgotten the rest, but believe you me, there is thrice more) had nearly finished his tale when the traveler slipped in.

The details of our guesses are here, here, here, here, and here.

At the end of the exercise, I was struck by three main things about these first sentences.

First: As expected, all the first sentences do set up a tone, style, and mood (1 is spunky, 2 is serious and straight, 3 is metafictional and preachy, 4 and 5 are lighthearted and funny). Character, setting, and theme are also off to a clear start in most. In 1, 4, and 5, Angelica, the girl in the lab coat, and Cromdor are starting to take shape. In 2, 4, and 5, we begin to see the lit but undefined space, the summer camp, the epic fantasy world. Sentences 1, 2, and 3 open the themes of responding to adversity, of beginnings, of life cycles. Most have hooks: The "psychic ice cream" of 4 is a great tease. In 5, the author has so efficiently sketched setting and character that already by the end of the first sentence, I'm wondering how the traveler will disrupt things. In 3, I'm intrigued by the strange abstractness.

Second: Somewhat to my surprise we actually weren't too bad at guessing plot. That doesn't mean we were good, but usually at least one of the five of us seemed already to have been able to guess something of the arc of the story. Story 2 would be a creation story with metaphysical themes and a dark ending. Story 4 would focus on the deepening relationship of the narrator and Scully. Story 5 would be about an old warrior's past family catching up with him.

Third: Most of these stories also have a bit of misdirection in the first sentence. This is clearest in Story 4: We all thought the "psychic ice cream" would be important to the plot -- but it wasn't. It launches us, and it works great for hook, tone, character, and setting, but the plot doesn't turn on it. In Story 5, we thought the three condemnations of Cromdor would be important, but again though it helps efficiently set character, setting, and tone, it doesn't matter to plot in the way we had guessed. In Story 1, where Angelica came in to doesn't matter as much as we'd thought.

So I wonder about this misdirection. It is a feature or a bug?

I want to say feature. These are good stories, in a top magazine. I liked them all, and they all stood up to close rereading. Why would the author misdirect us? Maybe it prevents us from too fully guessing what's coming, keeping the surprise, keeping us on our toes. Maybe it also makes the worlds richer, suggesting elements unmentioned or unexplored, pointing outside the frame of a story that might otherwise be too tidy.

So now I'm curious -- do famous, classic SF stories also tend to have this oblique entry or partial misdirection in the first sentence? I've arbitrarily chosen four personal favorites that are widely celebrated. Before this exercise, and up to this point in writing this post, I had no memory of exactly how these four stories began. As of now, the outcome is as much a mystery to me as to you.

So... here goes:

"Flowers for Algernon" by Daniel Keyes:

Progris riport 1 -- martch 5 1965

Mr. Strauss says I shud rite down what I think and evrey thing that happins to me from now on.

"The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas" by Ursula K. Le Guin:

With a clamor of bells that set the swallows soaring, the Festival of Summer came to the city Omelas, bright-towered by the sea.

"The Paper Menagerie" by Ken Liu:

One of my earliest memories starts with me sobbing.

"Bloodchild" by Octavia Butler:

My last night of childhood began with a visit home.

Hm! I'd say almost no misdirection in these first sentences. "Flowers for Algernon" is of course the tragic story of a psychological experiment in which a man with low IQ is given an intelligence enhancement. "Omelas" is the story of people refusing to live in a beautiful city built on a terrible crime. "Paper Menagerie" is the sad story of a boy alienated from his mother's culture, failing to appreciate her magic. "Bloodchild" is about a parasitic alien species using human boys as hosts. The first sentences of these famous stories are tightly focused on theme, setting, and entry into the plot, taking us right there without misdirection.

The sample is too small. I am going to have to read more, with this issue in mind. Of course, there is more than one way for a story to work. Maybe I've chosen stories with a driving philosophical point, rather than with looser arcs, just because that is my taste....

ETA: As Ann Leckie suggests, another possibility is that the misdirection is less obvious to me in the four classic stories because I already knew how they would go and wasn't on the hook for a first guess.

[image source]


Callan S. said...

Is it that important - is the way you met your significant other for the first time the important thing? I mean, it's nice if it happens in a nice way - but it could just as much happen on a dark and stormy night...

But seriously, how important is it?

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Interesting question!

I'd say two reasons, at least:

(1.) Readers often choose whether to keep going after just a few sentences. If you're off on the wrong path, then you lose readers, or keep mainly the wrong ones who are later disappointed. Compare: If the first date had gone badly, or had led to a misimpression of who you were, that person might never have become your spouse. This can be so -- of first dates and of first sentences -- regardless of whether the first date is memorable or actually remembered.

(2.) Furthermore, authors make it so. They put thought into the opening of their stories, so you know it's not an accident how it's done. This justifies reading substantial significance into the first sentence, giving it interpretative weight, and looking at it in retrospect, after having read that story, to think about why the author chose to start in that specific way, given how the story went.

Callan S. said...

Does it seem a bit of a contradiction though between the numbers game of maximal reader retention vs actual personal connection? If it can't survive a first date going badly, what could it survive anyway?

And as you say some of these start off alluding to one thing but then it's not important latter on. How does 'later disappointment' tie in there?

Is the urgent question really one of how to get traction out there amongst people and people who read?