On the title and opening line of a short story

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“The opening line of a story is absolutely crucial. It’s so crucial that the mere thought of it ought to terrify any writer into a lifetime of silence. That first sentence has to excite me into the rest of the story. It has to be so seductive that I can’t bear not to continue. I work on the opening sentence relentlessly, in my mind, and can’t begin writing until I have one I believe in—one that thrusts me as if violently into the story. I revise fanatically, but I don’t discover the first sentence on page 3. If I did, I’d throw the whole story away.

“That said, it’s also true that the opening line isn’t the opening line. The first words a reader sees in a story come in the title. The true opening line of a story is the title. The apparent opening line is actually the second line. What this means isn’t simply that the title is as crucial as the opening sentence, but that the opening sentence plays off the title. Whenever I hear that a writer chooses a title after the story is done, I’m astonished, baffled—for me, that would be like leaving out the name of the main character and deciding on it at the end. Think of how much information you get from a title like ‘Death in Venice.’ The first sentence takes place in Munich, but already you know that the story is going to Venice. You know that a death will take place. Death infects the opening sentence.”

—Steven Millhauser in an interview with failbetter.com

I think Millhauser writes a short story in order to capture a feeling, and he knows what the feeling is when he begins. The title, the opening line, the main character’s name all have to feel right in order for him to proceed. For me (perhaps in part because I lack confidence), the process is usually more open-ended. Often I start with a bit of a scene or a hint of a voice or just an idea; I keep writing until I’m able to envision this thing as some sort of story; I try to come up with a title that fits the essence of the story I have in mind; I have doubts about the major characters’ names and change them. It’s inefficient. I much prefer it when I manage to do something like Millhauser.

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