Last Saturday, June 22, I had the good fortune of attending a three-hour craft workshop hosted by the South Carolina Writers’ Association and am still pondering all the information I learned. Davis Enloe, SCWA board member, shared material on the importance of openings, and I left Greenville vowing to write a short story when I got home.
No story—not yet. I’ve been considering various possibilities though, and it’s going to happen. Soon. I keep thinking of the opening to one of my latest favorite books, In the Beginning by Chaim Potok: “Beginnings are always hard.” They are, but after attending the SCWA workshop last week, I have a better idea of how to make them work.
In the meantime, I’ve been going over my copious notes and the several handouts Davis gave the attendees. I’ve also been doing a little independent research for famous opening lines. Good openings draw the reader in and arouse his interest, yes. But they often do more than that. As Davis said, they can set up tension; impart vital information to the reader, create curiosity in the reader’s mind; establish tone, sense of place, and setting; introduce the main character; and point toward a germ of conflict and dramatic tensions.
Here are two of Davis’s examples—and a couple of my favorites.
- Most readers will recognize “Call me Ishmael” from Melville’s Moby Dick.
- Listening to Davis read the above brought the beginning of My Name is Asher Lev by Chaim Potok to mind: “My name is Asher Lev, the Asher Lev, about whom you have read in newspapers and magazines, about whom you talk so much at your dinner affairs and cocktail parties, the notorious and legendary Lev of the Brooklyn Crucifixion.” That sentence reeled me in and kept held me captive.
- Davis read, “You better not tell nobody but God” from Alice Walker’s The Color Purple. Uh-oh,I thought, something bad is going on.
- During the workshop, I recalled reading The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, a novel that begins, “In the town there were two mutes, and they were always together.” Right away the reader knows these two people are important characters.
To illustrate his instruction on writing openers, Davis provided dozens of examples from literature, including “Mr. Voice” by Jess Walter. “Mother was a stunner,” the first four words from “Mr. Voice,” generated a lot of discussion. After dissecting every sentence of the 136-word paragraph, Davis invited the dozens of attendees to write and share openings to potential stories. I wrote a little something, but it was frail (pathetic really), and I didn’t share. Others did, and all were encouraged by workshop participants and Davis.
In addition to imparting an astounding amount (truly) of information and facilitating several lively discussions, Davis shared some of Elmore Leonard’s “Ten Rules of Writing” and added the eleventh: “If it sounds like writing, rewrite.” He provided “The Rules” by Lee K. Abbott, went over “Freytag’s Pyramid” about story structure, discussed ten questions related to story shape (Whose story is it? What’s at stake? Why should we care?), distributed copies of “Writing in the Cold,” and gave everyone a copy of Benjamin Dreyer’s Dreyer’s English: An Utterly Correct Guide to Clarity and Style.
And that’s not all. As we began thumbing through our books, Davis handed out a four-page quiz based on Dreyer’s book, further proof of his solid preparation for the workshop. I’ve completed the quiz, and all I can say is that I earned a satisfactory score–proof that I need a refresher course in a few areas.
It was a long drive from Camden to Greenville, but the excellent workshop made every mile to and from worthwhile. Kudos to Davis Enloe and the South Carolina Writers’ Association for providing the experience.