Q: Is it ever appropriate to kill off or maim a character in the first sentences of a short story?
A: Conflict of this nature has the potential to sabotage a story. It can come off as forced, appealing only to the reader’s sense of shock. It can also render the rest of the story anti-climatic. So, there are certainly risks with an opening like this.
However, there are instances where such dramatic openings work in the story’s favor. Will Allison’s short story “Atlas Towing” begins like this:
Around the time Wylie’s daughter was born, he had the bad luck to get mixed up with a man he knew—a brand-new father like himself—who got drunk one night and accidentally killed his infant son.
This story isn’t about the infant son’s death. Instead, it’s about Wylie’s own coming to terms with the birth of his daughter. Addressing this tragic detail early in the story makes it a fact of this fictional world, taking away its power to shock or distract the reader later in the story.
Bharati Mukherjee’s short story “The Management of Grief” begins on the morning Shaila Bhave learns the plane her husband and sons were on has gone down. The opening lines don’t state this directly, but instead focus on the activity in the house:
A woman I don’t know is boiling tea the Indian way in my kitchen. There are a lot of women I don’t know in my kitchen, whispering, and moving tactfully. They open doors, rummage through the pantry, and try not to ask me where things are kept.
It is not long before the story turns to the speculations surrounding the tragedy—accident or terrorist bomb—and reveals the death of her husband and sons. The opening does not serve only to shock. Instead, it sets the action of the story into motion.
“Close Your Eyes and Think of England,” a short story by Heidi Julavits, opens with Mitzi revealing her hand—now missing its pinky—to her friends during Female Physics class. The very first line of the story suggests that she has done this to herself:
Now that Mitzi’s back from the Galápagos with her father, I’m the only one of us who hasn’t done it.
The opening offers intrigue. Why has she done this? What does this mean for the narrator now that she’s the only one left who hasn’t? These are compelling questions that motivate the reader forward in the story.
Brandi Reissenweber teaches fiction writing and reading fiction at Gotham Writers’ Workshop and authored the chapter on characterization in Gotham’s Writing Fiction: The Practical Guide. Her work has been published in numerous journals, including Phoebe, North Dakota Quarterly and Rattapallax. She was a James C. McCreight Fiction Fellow at the Wisconsin Institute for Creative Writing and has taught fiction at New York University, University of Wisconsin and University of Chicago. Currently, she is a visiting professor at Illinois Wesleyan University.