Opening Imitation Exercise

 First Lines from 100 Years of the Best American Short Stories

Here are the opening lines from every story in this anthology. Let's read through it looking for trends in the techniques used to open a piece of short fiction.

 

1.     Those of you who have dwelt—or even lingered— in Chicago, Illinois (this is not a humorous story), are familiar with the region known as the Loop. “The Gay Old Dog” by Edna Ferber

 

2.     I am at my house in the country and it is late October. “Brothers” by Sherwood Anderson

 

3.     I guess looking at it, now, my old man was cut out for a fat guy, one of those regular little roly fat guys you see around, but he sure never got that way, except a little toward the last, and then it wasn’t his fault, he was riding over the jumps only and he could afford to carry plenty of weight then. “My Old Man” by Ernest Hemingway

 

4.     I got another barber that comes over from Carterville and helps me out Saturdays, but the rest of the time I can get along all right alone. “Haircut” by Ring Lardner.

 

5.     “And where’s Mr. Campbell?” Charlie asked. “Babylon Revisited” by F. Scott Fitzgerald.

 

6.     Dennis heard Rosaleen talking in the kitchen and a man’s voice answering. “The Cracked Looking Glass” by Katherine Anne Porter.

 

7.     We could hear the water running into the tub. “That Will Be Fine” by William Faulkner.

 

8.     The long, clear American summer passed slowly, dreaming over the Connecticut Valley and the sound, square houses under the elms and the broad, living fields, and over the people there that came and went and lay and sat still, with purpose and without, but free; “Those Are As Brothers” by Nancy Hale.

 

9.     Mother said, Where have you been, son? “The Whole World Knows” by Eudora Welty.

 

10. Jim and Irene Westcott were the kind of people who seem to strike that satisfactory average of income, endeavor, and respectability that is reached by statistical reports in college alumni bulletins. “The Enormous Radio” by John Cheever.

 

11.  I stand here ironing, and what you asked of me moves tormented back and forth with the iron. “I Stand Here Ironing” by Tillie Olsen

 

12. I read about it in the paper, in the subway, on my way to work. “Sonny’s Blues” by James Baldwin

 

13. “You’re a real one for opening your mouth in the first place,” Itzie said.”The Conversion of the Jews” by Philip Roth

 

14. 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. “Everything That Rises Must Converge,” by Flannery O’ Connor.

 

15. When they moved to Firetown, things were upset, displaced, rearranged. “Pigeon Feathers” by John Updike

 

16. When he was 18 and left home for the first time, in the fall, Ralph Wyman had been advised by his father, principal of Jefferson Elementary School in Weaverville and trumpet-player in the Elks’ Club Auxiliary Band, that life today was a serious matter; “Will You Please Be Quiet, Please?” by Raymond Carver

 

17. Helen thought: “Am I in love again, some new kind of love? Is that that why I’m here?” “The River” by Joyce Carol Oates

 

18. Well, we had all the children out planting trees, see, because we figured that . . . that was part of their education, to see how, you know, the root systems . . . and also the sense of responsibility, taking care of things, being individually responsible. “The School” by Donald Barthelme

 

19. Ellerbee had been having a bad time of it. “The Conventional Wisdom” by Stanley Elkin

 

20. To put us at our ease, to quiet our hearts as she lay dying, our dear friend Selena said, Life, after all, has not been an unrelieved horror—you know, I did have many wonderful years with her. “Friends,” by Grace Paley

 

21. In the small Ohio town where I grew up, many homes had parlors that contained pianos, sideboard, and sofas, heavy objects signifying gentility. “Harmony of the World” by Charles Baxter

 

22. I steal. “Lawns” by Mona Simpson

 

23. My mother once had a boyfriend named Glen Baxter. “Communist” by Richard Ford

 

24.  One gray November day, Elliot went to Boston for the afternoon. “Helping” by Robert Stone

 

25. Mrs. Chow heard the widow. “Displacement” by David Wong Louie

 

26. I used to dream about my mother, and though the details in the dream varied, the surprise in it was always the same. “Friend of My Youth” by Alice Monro

 

27. John Morton came down the aisle of the plane, banging his luggage into people’s knees and sweating angrily under his suit. “The Girl On The Place” by Mary Gaitskill

 

28. My mother died at the moment I was born, and so for my whole life there was nothing standing between me and eternity; “Xuela” by Jamaica Kincaid

 

29. Late one June afternoon, seven months after my wedding, I woke from a short, deep sleep in love with my husband. “If You Sing Like That For Me” by Akhil Sharma

 

30. Mami’s youngest sister—my Tia Yrma—finally made it to the United States that year. “Fiesta, 1980” by Junot Diaz

 

31. I left India in 1964 with a certificate in commerce and the equivalent, in those days, of ten dollars to my name. “The Third and Final Continent” by Jhumpa Lahiri

 

32. By the end of our first day at Camp Crescendo, the girls in my Brownie troop had decided to kick the asses of each and every girl in Brownie Troop 909. “Brownies” by ZZ Packer

 

33. One day you have a home and the next you don’t, but I’m not going to tell you my particular reasons for being homeless, because it’s my secret. “What You Pawn I Will Redeem” by Sherman Alexie

 

34. They caught him after he had killed the second man. “Old Boys, Old Girls” by Edward P. Jones

 

35. When school let out the two of us went to my backyard to fight. “Refresh, Refresh” by Benjamin Percy

 

36. Sergeant Morse was pulling night duty in the orderly room when a woman called, asking for Billy Hart. “Awaiting Orders” by Tobias Wolff

 

37. They’re in our house maybe ten minutes and already Mark’s lecturing us on the Israeli occupation. “What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank” by Nathan Englander

 

38. She remembers her name. “Diem Perdidi” by Julie Otsuka

 

39. Having just turned forty, have resolved to embark on grand project of writing every day in this new black book just got at OfficeMax. “The Semplica-Girl Diaries” by George Saunders

 

40. Jude was born in a cracker-style house at the edge of a swamp that boiled with unnamed species of reptiles. “At the Round Earth’s Imagined Corners” by Lauren Groff.



Okay, now we're read all 40. Take a few minutes and write 3 separate openings (to different stories) closely imitating the openings here. Try some different opening styles than you usually use. When you're done, post your 3 openings in the comments below.

Comments

  1. 9. Mother said, Where have you been, son? “The Whole World Knows” by Eudora Welty.

    My Version: “How is it you came knocking at my door?” Esther, my ex, harrumphed


    17. Helen thought: “Am I in love again, some new kind of love? Is that that why I’m here?” “The River” by Joyce Carol Oates

    My Version: Lyla complained internally: “Is this something I don’t know? Does she love me, or the idea of me, or does she just want to be me.”

    22. I steal. “Lawns” by Mona Simpson

    My version: She died.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. She died. It felt quite sudden, I saw her alive one day, and then a few days later her car hit a patch of black ice. It horrified me to think that life could end so suddenly.

      Delete
    2. In continuation of 22:

      She died. Her wounded heart finally found footing in a decaying soul and a cold corpse. The funeral was quant; empty of platitude and commitment.

      Delete
    3. She died. But before she set every house on the block on fire. Yes, Mrs. O'Leary's cow certainly went out with a bang.

      -Logan

      Delete
  2. 2. I am in my apartment in the city and it is the middle of July.
    34. They arrested them after the third bank was robbed.
    12. I read about it on Twitter, in the student center, on my way to class.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. 2-c. My girlfriend is coming over; she wants to talk.

      - Ben

      Delete
    2. 2. I am in my apartment in the city and it is the middle of July. The sweltering sun beat through the main window as my partner and I stood in front of our freezer trying to cool down. We had just come back from buying groceries for the week, the grocery store being only a block away, and on the walk back could only think of how the pavement was reflecting the summer heat, so we were then cocooned into an inescapable heat bubble.

      34. They arrested them after the third bank was robbed. The children then proceeded to place pretend handcuffs on the two "criminals", leaving no room for their little wrists to wiggle out of them and escape. Although the cuffs were on tight, it didn't stop the bank robbers from fleeing the scene—police officers hot on their heels.
      "Stop! Don't reset arrest," the boy police officer shouted.
      "Resist, not reset," the older girl police officer chided.

      12. I read about it on Twitter, in the student center, on my way to class. The second impeachment was happening. There were Capitol riots and now this. It's all too much. I logged off of Twitter for the rest of the day.

      Delete
  3. -Papa said the Nazis were comin' on the 'leven thirty train from Birmingham.

    -He was an old man, older than he had any right to be.

    -The ducks have gone.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. The ducks have gone.
      Strange considering it’s the middle of summer and I’m sweating my ass off in the mid California heat. They say a woman shouldn’t curse, but this is 20 fuckin 20. I know I think I don’t want to act like I'm a Victorian woman, who needs a fainting couch to show up. My mom says I need to be a bit nicer, but when everyone else acts the same, I don’t want to sound like I’m pretentious. I’d make no friends if I acted as prim and proper as Susan Q from down the street.

      Nicole's Response!

      Delete
  4. Virginia
    1. In my home town the drug store was downhill from our house.
    2. “Why is Francis late?” Mr. Ross asked.
    3. Frank Eller tried to quietly walk down the aisle of the lecture hall, but had a hard time of it due to people leaving their backpacks next to their seats.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Just to note that the numbers are not associated with the numbers above.

      Delete
    2. 2. " I heard he might have gotten into a bad accident on the freeway." Alice replied. The whole classroom was silent, worried about there fellow classmate.

      Delete
    3. The reply was from me. Michael

      Delete
  5. Taylor
    3. She turned out to be not what I expected, prettier than I thought she could be, but not as tall, which meant she could easily stand a head under me; I can't say that is her fault though, more a product of genetic pairings given to her by her parents, meaning she was at a disadvantage on the track.

    26. I never let myself think about the past, although I have plenty of memories, it was always more painful than I remember.

    38. He forgot my birthday.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. He forgot my birthday. Or rather I wished he had. The burned cake forgotten in the oven was worse then a simple memory slip.

      -Logan

      Delete
  6. They caught him after a three-block chase.

    I was on the news, in the headlines, and trending on the internet.

    I dream about that moment often, and with every slight variance, the result is always the same.

    - Ben

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. “They caught him after a three-block chase.”

      He hadn’t been planning to outrun them, but he wished he’d been able to evade them for just a moment longer all the same. It would have been nice to get to leap from building to building like they did in movies.

      “I was on the news, in the headlines, and trending on the internet.”

      Turns out, internet virality is just as unwelcome a plague as the regular old virality. I never thought a video titled “Hot Takes on Otter Pop Flavors (explicit)” could generate such controversy.

      “I dream about that moment often, and with every slight variance, the result is always the same.”

      I wonder if that says more about me than the people in my memory. My roommate tells me I can’t keep dwelling on the past, but I think I’ve earned the right to wallow—at least a little bit.

      -Cassie

      Delete
  7. 1. The cold, quiet Fall lingered into Winter, resting on the redwoods and the short, squat shrubs shaded in the undergrowth and the gentle, whispering leaves of the ferns, and the mists that settled and stayed till midday, when the sun finally reached the forest floor. (No. 8)

    2. At the start of my cousin’s wedding, my brother and I were determined to outdrink every obnoxious uncle of our to-be in-law. (No. 32)

    3. Kei was raised in an industrial apartment bordered by warehouses and their fleet of dove grey delivery trucks. (No. 40)

    -Cassie

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. At the start of my cousin's wedding, my brother and I were determined to outdrink every obnoxious uncle of our to-be in-law. We started subtly, picking up drinks in between songs, but eventually people began to catch on. It became a competition for the crowd to see who could down more alcohol, regardless of consequences.

      -Bailey

      Delete
  8. 7. We knew what was coming.

    16. When he was 16 and had moved to a new school, that spring, Brandon Roger had been informed by a senior, the coolest kid of Lincoln High School in American Falls and the quarterback of the football team, that they were going to be friends.

    23. I had a friend once named James Brown.

    -Bailey

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. We knew what was coming. We'd been warned for generations that we were headed down a dark path. And yet we persisted. In some areas, we deliberately increased the pace at which we strode further past redemption.

      Delete
    2. I had a friend once named James Brown. He was an odd fellow, but not to where you wouldn't want him around. He was more iconic that James Brown the singer. Well, at least in my eyes.

      - Elizabeth S.

      Delete
  9. #11: Here I am composing, and this suggestion of yours disrupts the notes I create in a pendulum fashion.

    #29: Late one December evening, deep in the heart of a depressive state, I woke up longing for anything but loneliness.

    #40: Vernow was born by the crypt off Gavin’s Bow amongst many unknown graves.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. - Tomio (I should really remember to include this in the original post...)

      Delete
  10. The doctor had told Buzz’s father to always carry an epipen on his person, on account of a fatal allergies to bee stings, and his father’s hobby of apiculture saw Buzz driving his father to the pharmacy every Saturday on his days off.

    I steal, if sampling from the bulk bins at Winco can be considered stealing.

    Those of you who have dwelt—or even lingered— in Chicago, Illinois (this is not a humorous story), are familiar with the region known as the Loop. “The Gay Old Dog” by Edna Ferber

    -Logan

    ReplyDelete
  11. 4. I got another friend who comes over from New Orleans and bothers me on Sundays, but the rest of the time I am an annoyance all on my own

    5. "What did Ms. Winters do to you?" Larry asked.

    6. Clarissa heard David arguing in his room and a chorus of voices whispering in response.

    - Elizabeth S.


    ReplyDelete
  12. 2. I am at my house in the country and it is late October. “Brothers” by Sherwood Anderson
    My version: Behind the protection of my house I don't feel as the last remnants of fall blow through the countryside, but I see it in the dip and sway of the land.

    24. One gray November day, Elliot went to Boston for the afternoon. “Helping” by Robert Stone
    My version: The gray November day led Elliot out of his home and into boston for the afternoon.

    35. When school let out the two of us went to my backyard to fight. “Refresh, Refresh” by Benjamin Percy
    my version: When the final school bell we traded schoolwork for punches.

    -Zoe!

    ReplyDelete

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