Wednesday, January 11, 2012

My favorite opening sentence

I have to start the real "writing and editing" part of this blog off with the opening of one of my favorite short stories of all time. It's George Lassos Moon by David Gates, originally published in GQ magazine and then collected in the 2002 edition of the O. Henry Prize Stories book.

Here's the first sentence:

Aunt Lissa's saying something very serious, and bad Carl's playing with the metal creamer thing.

My mind boggles when I think about how much of this story's world the author creates with one simple sentence. Look what we can deduce:

1) Carl's easily distracted and probably kind of dopey. We don't know how old he is but we suspect he's fairly young. 

2) The word "bad" in front of "Carl" is, to me, amazing. Who's saying that? In whose view is Carl "bad"? This is not a first person story, and the narrator isn't omniscient either (though you can't tell that from the first sentence alone). "Bad" is such a value judgment. Who's forming that value? It's either Carl, or the world. You can read that sentence both ways, and both ways, it works. (Can you tell it's not the aunt?) I think the word "bad" is what elevates this sentence into something multi-layered. Try reading the sentence aloud, once without the word "bad" and once with it. See what I mean?

3) "the metal creamer thing." Now, here the story makes an assumption that you, the reader, have been in one of those chain restaurants that has a little metal pitcher of milk or creamer on the table. Something like an IHOP or a Denny's. If you grew up in a country other than the US, you might have no idea what a "metal creamer thing" is, but even such a reader can tell Carl doesn't know what else to call it and probably, right about then, doesn't care. "Metal creamer thing" indicates lazy thinking and a lackadaisical attitude, as does the fact that he's "playing" with it. And of course, he's playing with it so he doesn't have to hear the "very serious" thing that his Aunt's saying. 

I smile every time I read this sentence.

Are there any first sentences of short stories you find especially powerful and effective? If so, go ahead and put one in the comments section. Be sure to name the story and the author, though. 

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