Friday, April 1, 2011

Between the First & Last Lines

Open any book of short stories, pick one,  and read the first and last lines. In most cases, the first line sets up the desire, conflict, or dilemma and the last one contains a kind of resolution or change. The first line also often includes the setting or shows us a direction. Think of the first line as the place and point of attack, the last line as the emotional landing point.

Here are two samples that may be found in the anthology The Art of the Short Story:

First line: "I stand here ironing, and what you asked me moves tormented back and forth with the iron."
Last line: "Only help her to know—help make it so there is cause for her to know—that she is more than this dress on the ironing board, helpless before the iron."
From "I Stand Here Ironing" by Tillie Olsen. pp. 741, 746.
In Olsen's story, the evocative first-line word is "tormented" and the emotional landing point is the phrase "she is more than this dress…[she is not] helpless before the iron." The title assures us where we are.

First line: "The hermit invariably shuddered when he looked out of his window."
Last line: "He touched her tray with the tip of his finger as a token of acceptance, and went down the street without a word."
From "The House Opposite" by R.K. Narayan. pp. 1198, 1200.
In one interpretation of Narayan's story, the active word in the first line is "shuddered," (additionally, "hermit") in the last line the resolving word is "acceptance." The title, "The House Opposite" clues us in to where the conflict lies: probably someone who lives in that house.

I think each example suggests a world between the lines, particularly when viewed with the title. Thinking about the space between the three points—first line, last line, and title—creates a movement within the world.

Try writing a random first line. Take a look at it and see where the conflict might lie. Then try writing a last line that resolves the tension. Or start with a title, then work on the lines. You might also choose two words, one for the beginning, one for the end, then create a title linking them together.

A box project might work well for this: put a title on the front cover/top lid, put the first line on the top inner tray. Put the last line on the bottom inner tray. What can you put inside the box that adds to this world or changes it? Conversely, start with the objects, then create a title and first/last lines.

Jury Box, 2010
Jury Box uses a related concept. The title is on the cover. On one side is the word "prosecution" and the other side says "defense." Each of the twelve felted corks are numbered as if they were the jurors meant to be manipulated between the sides.

A sentence or two can tell a story. A few words can open up a world.

Photo: Sibila Savage
Note: the story included in the one-of-a-kind Jury Box is due to be published under the title, "Compassion" in the forthcoming Generations Literary Magazine, Spring 2011, "Influences" issue #2.

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