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.