Common advice to short story writers is to “front load” the story, meaning to provide key information right away, in the first few lines or paragraphs. The classic example is the opening of Kafka’s Metamorphosis: “One morning, as Gregor Samsa was waking up from anxious dreams, he discovered that in bed he had been changed into a monstrous verminous bug.” Nothing coy there—the conditions of reality for that particular story are all up front, creating suspense and urgency that pulls the reader along. What does Samsa do next? How does he cope with his newfound bugginess?
As useful as this strategy might be, I’d like to offer a variation that could be called “up front characterization.” Here’s an example: “Scarlett O’Hara was not beautiful, but men seldom realized it…” Despite its not-insignificant social and racist complexities, Gone with the Wind’s opening line does a remarkably good job of telescoping a key fact about the protagonist—that her force of personality more than made up for any physical lack and, in fact, the line even hints at duplicity, an ability to manipulate to get what she wanted. This is pivotal to understanding Scarlett, driving her story line; it’s also what up front characterization is all about—introducing a character in a few deft but meaningful strokes within the first paragraph or so, thus priming the reader for the ensuing action. A second example comes from Elizabeth Strout’s short story, “Criminal”: “That morning Rebecca Brown stole a magazine, even though Rebecca was not, ordinarily, the type of person who stole things.” Here we’re being told what this character is not—she’s not a thief, despite the suggestive title. Yet she’s acting like one. This is important to know about her, right up front, and now that we do, what we want to know next is—why? What is different now?
Before I go any further, let me clarify what up front characterization is not. It’s not prolonged detailing or backstory minutiae. You can’t (and shouldn’t!) stuff everything into the first paragraph or even first page. In this case, less is more (okay, a cliché, but true). It’s also not a panacea for every story. While character-driven stories might use this strategy, more situationally-focused works may reveal characters as the plot proceeds—and, sure, this is a general observation, not meant to be prescriptive. Moreover, the kind of information conveyed shouldn’t be mere window dressing, but rather key to understanding not just the character as a character, but those aspect(s) of personality pertinent to or further amplified by the central action of the story. After all, characterization doesn’t happen in a vacuum, but occurs as an interplay between who characters are as people and the decisions they make, which ideally fuel the forward momentum of the plot. So, choose well.
An analysis of two stories from T. C. Boyle’s 2010 collection Wild Child offers useful instances of how up front characterization can work. Boyle’s stories are populated by believable characters, often introduced via their thoughts (interiority) within the first paragraph or two. For example, “The Lie” introduces the first person protagonist within a concrete setting entirely congruent with who he is as a character. Here are the opening lines:
I’d used up all my sick days and the two personal days they allowed us, but when the alarm went off and the baby started squalling and my wife threw back the covers to totter off to the bathroom in a hobbled, two-legged trot, I knew I wasn’t going in to work. It was as if a black shroud had been pulled over my face; my eyes were open but I couldn’t see. Or no, I could see—the pulsing LED display on the clock radio, the mounds of laundry and discarded clothing humped around the room like the tumuli of the dead, a hard-driving rain drooling down the dark vacancy of the window…
I don’t know what this guy looks like but his emotional state radiates from this opening, even though it is mostly physical description—but, of course, from his perspective,. We’re in a messy apartment (with a “squalling” baby and “hobbling” wife) and there’s synchronicity between that setting and the character’s thoughts—that is, the interiority is consistent with the setting, so that both work to create a vivid impression of the protagonist. And this is key, because it is this character’s depth of desperation, which seems tied to the desolate apartment, or maybe reflected in it, through the use of phrases like “clothes humped around…,” “the tumuli of the dead,” and “dark vacancy,” that leads him to tell the lie which is the main plot line. The lie is extreme (he tells his boss that his baby has died) but is convincing because of the strong depiction of this character, right out of the gate.
Similarly, in “Balto,” Boyle offers a convincing up front characterization of a little girl. This example, like the previous one, uses description, but from a close third person perspective; what is being conveyed is not as much personality or emotional state (although those are there) but clues as to the pivotal role she will have in the unfolding of the story. Here are the opening two sentences:
There were two kinds of truth, good truths and hurtful ones. That was what her father’s attorney was telling her, and she was listening, doing her best, her face a small glazed crescent of light where the sun glanced off the yellow kitchen wall to illuminate her, but was hard.
Angella, the twelve-year old, is “illuminated,” as if under a spotlight which is, in fact, what happens in the story. At the same time, she is described as “glazed,” almost as if frozen in place. The spotlight is eventually turned on her quite literally as, later, she becomes a key witness in her father’s trial, but it is “hard.” This is her perception, though told in close third person. That final clause creates an interesting syntactical moment—what is hard, exactly? Within the immediate sentence, “hard” refers, technically and grammatically, to the act of listening to her father’s attorney, trying to make sense of what he was saying, yet “hard” hangs there at the end of the sentence, linked visually to the idea of illumination. As it turns out, that is ultimately what is so hard for Angella, as readers learn by the end of the story.
In the opening first paragraph, we see through her eyes how the afternoon light fills the kitchen, her father sitting across from her at the table, and his attorney standing beside him, asking her questions. Later in the same paragraph, Angella’s focus is on her father, how he’s drinking “something out of a mug but not coffee, definitely not coffee.” Dramatic irony, here, because of course, it’s believable that this young girl would recognize that her father wasn’t drinking coffee but we understand that she’s not sophisticated or knowledgeable enough to know what it is (but we are, as readers). This accomplishes two things at once. It not only sets up who she is as a character—the issues around which her struggle will center–but also readies the reader for the plot line, which has to do with her father’s drinking and driving, and her role in the spotlight, the complexity of being an illuminator herself.
So what’s the takeaway? As writers, we need to remember that we are inviting readers into a foreign world. Carefully crafting the opening paragraph is important, not just to get overloaded editors to keep reading but, more importantly, to make the foreignness beguiling, to guide readers through that foreignness so deftly that it replaces the mundane noise around them. Up front characterization is one way to do this, by letting readers get an early handle on a character who, in turn, will hopefully grab onto them and not let go.
Boyle, T. Coraghessan. Wild Child. The Penguin Group, 2010.
Kafka, Franz. The Metamorphosis. Translated by Ian Johnston. n. p., 1915. Planet eBook, www.planetebook.com/ebooks/The-Metamorphosis.pdf. Accessed 27 June 2017.
Mitchell, Margaret. Gone with the Wind. The MacMillan Co., 1936.
Strout, Elizabeth. Olive Kitteridge. Random House, 2008.