That Opening Paragraph

Ever wonder why you can find your way to a distant location in town, even if you only know a few, if any, of the names of the streets on the way? Erik Jonsson, in his book Inner Navigation: Why We Get Lost and How We Find Our Way, claims that we all create “cognitive maps.”

“Navigation is knowing where you are and how to get to where you want to go. In an unfamiliar area this means that you have to use a map and compass to find your way. But if you know the area you need no such help. You know where you are, and you know how to get to where you want to be next. It is all in your head: you have a ‘map in the head,’ a cognitive map to go by.”

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Once we come to know a place, we develop an “inner compass,” that turns with us, so that no matter where we’re facing we don’t get disoriented; we can find our way.

I remember how hard it was, at first, to memorize the grid of New York City when I worked nights as a cab driver in the summer of 1972. Street by street I learned to orient myself, memorize the names and numbers of streets and avenues, the direction of one-way streets, the entrances and exits through Central Park. Soon enough, though, when a rider slipped into the backseat and named an address, I could see in my mind’s eye alternate routes, could quickly pick the one I thought might get us there faster. Yet I couldn’t say exactly how I had come to know this. Practice, yes, but something else was at work.

photo of grid

Jonsson claims that this is “another neural system that operates at a level below awareness, the one that keeps us in balance as we stand and move around. It is automatic: we rely on it unthinkingly, taking it for granted, but when something goes wrong with it, we get in big trouble.”

And it can indeed go wrong. When the Vermont College of Fine Arts administrative offices were moved to the top floor of College Hall, I first visited the new digs by walking up the stairs on the west side of the building.

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Once there, the floor’s space imprinted itself on me, without my knowing it. Entering by the west stairs, however, was an unfortunate mistake, since the more convenient entry is from the stairs on the east side, an entry that I’ve usually taken ever since.

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And when I climb the eastern stairs, once at the top I feel disoriented for a moment, everything seems in the wrong place, because my initial mapping of the floor came from a western approach. I have to turn the floor around in my head before continuing.

First impressions, spatially, indeed count. And this reminds me of that crucial moment in any short story or novel: the opening paragraph.

Those first words serve as a crucial orientation, of the physical and emotional landscape of what is to follow. A reader begins a story as if opening a door to a new room: is that initial view inviting, intriguing, does it promise a path to perhaps more interesting rooms, does it encourage a step forward?

Here is the opening paragraph to Debra Eisenberg’s story “Transactions in a Foreign Currency” (from her story collection of the same name), which deftly defines the physical terrain and intrigues with unanswered questions:

I had lit a fire in my fireplace, and I’d poured out two coffees and two brandies, and I was settled down on the sofa next to a man who had taken me out to dinner, when Ivan called after more than six months. I turned with the receiver to the wall as I absorbed the fact of Ivan’s voice, and when I glanced back at the man on the sofa, he seemed a scrap of paper, or the handle from a broken cup, or a single rubber band–a thing that has become dislodged from its rightful place and intrudes on one’s consciousness two or three times before one understands it is just a thing best thrown away.

rubber band

We see the fireplace and sofa, we can imagine the type of cozy living room that contains them, the brandies, even the poor hapless man who has been so trumped by the unexpected call from Ivan that his value has plummeted to a near worthless bit of nearly nothing. We see the narrator, her back to him, phone by her ear. And yet much remains unanswered: who is this Ivan, why has he been silent for six months? And is the narrator reliable, is Ivan worthy of her so easily recharged devotion, or is she clinging to the promise of a man who hasn’t treated her well in the past and won’t in the future?

Eisenberg gives us details that allow us to create a cognitive map of the living room, and the likely social class of the narrator those details hint at. Yet we’re no sooner settled in this room than Ivan calls, and we realize that we won’t be hanging around here for long, the wider world outside beckons, as well as stretches of the narrator’s as yet unrevealed past, and some explanation for Ivan’s sudden reappearance. In one short paragraph Eisenberg has guided us beautifully into her story, blending concrete detail with emotional mystery.

Here’s another opening paragraph, one that orients us in a different way. It’s from “The End of the World,” by the Italian writer Dino Buzzati, from his Restless Nights: Selected Stories:

One morning about ten o’clock an immense fist appeared in the sky above the city. Then it slowly unclenched and remained this way, immobile, like an enormous canopy of ruin. It looked like a rock, but it was not rock; it looked like flesh but it wasn’t; it even seemed made of cloud, but cloud it was not. It was God, and the end of the world. A murmuring, which here became a moan, there a shout, spread through the districts of the city, until it grew into a single voice, united and terrible, rising shrilly like a trumpet.

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This rather frightening image catches a reader’s attention: if the end of the world does come, it might look something like this, and those voices in the city below convey humanity’s understandable terror. So, who wouldn’t read on to the second paragraph?

Buzzati doesn’t continue in this monumental vein, though. The setting established, he then floats down to the city’s street level, showing the reactions and fears of first crowds and then individual people, finally focusing, until the end of the story, on the plight of a single priest who must decide, in the short time remaining, whom to absolve among the supplicants crowding around him. Yet even though the perspective has long shifted from the hand of God to a single individual below, that threatening fist still hovers in the mind, its clenching like some terrible ticking clock. Buzzati can depart from that arresting initial image because it never really leaves the imagination of the reader.

Writers take great care with the opening paragraph, because the reader, however unconsciously, is looking for clues of what will follow. A false move—either an excess of detail, or not enough; contradictory metaphorical language; or a passive narrative voice—can jar a reader’s “inner compass,” and delay the entry into the fictional world. When writers begin the construction of those first crucial steps, we would do well to remember the words of the novelist Allan Gurganus, who says of the writing process, “You have to maintain your critical sensibility and not just assume, because it was an extraordinary dream for you, that it will be a dream for other people. Because people need maps to your dreams.”

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