Opening Paragraphs Don’t Always Have to Be Exciting
The author Emily Ruskovich discusses the uncanny restraint of Alice Munro and the art of starting a short story.
By Heart is a series in which authors share and discuss their all-time favorite passages in literature. See entries from Karl Ove Knausgaard, Jonathan Franzen, Amy Tan, Michael Chabon, and more.
There’s a widely circulated truism that short stories should start with a spring-loaded “hook,” a can’t-miss-it first line that foregrounds conflict right away. (You know the kind of thing: “On the morning of the day my brother killed my father, I spent an hour unburying my truck from new snow.”) But Emily Ruskovich, the author of Idaho, teaches her writing students not to grab at the reader so directly—the technique, she says, tends to result in desperate, dishonest openings.
In her conversation for this series, Ruskovich discussed Alice Munro’s “The Love of a Good Woman,” a novella that begins in the least flashy way possible: on the musty shelves of a local museum, with drawn-out descriptions of the objects displayed there. The dramatic plot includes a murder, a cover-up, the discovery of a body, a life destroyed by guilt—but the narrative proceeds with great discipline, revealing its secrets carefully over time. Ruskovich explained how the story’s power, horror, and beauty derive from Munro’s restraint, and how its central image—a red box full of optometrist’s tools—becomes a powerful reminder of what’s missed when we move too quickly to look closely.
Like “The Love of a Good Woman,” Idaho is a murder mystery—but the mystery is not who did it so much as so much as how, why, and with what consequence. The novel centers around Wade, an Idaho man who has lost both his daughters; when his ex-wife, Jenny, murdered one child, the other fled into the woods and disappeared for good. As Wade slips into dementia—with catatonic episodes that can turn violent—we, like his second wife, Ann, try to reconstruct, understand, and ultimately come to terms with the sorrowful events of the past. Emily Ruskovich is a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, where she was my classmate, and was a James C. McCreight Fiction Fellow at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Her fiction has appeared in Zoetrope, One Story, and the Virginia Quarterly Review; in 2015 she won an O. Henry Award for her story “Owl.” She teaches writing at the University of Colorado-Denver, and spoke to me by phone.
Emily Ruskovich: I first read Alice Munro when I was in college, and I’d never heard of her before. My professor, Deirdre McNamer, gave me a copy of her story “Runaway”—and when I read it, I felt as if I’d been unlocked. It wasn’t that I had something in common with the character. It was that I had something in common with the story, with its very structure. Munro completely captured the mysterious way my own memory works.
I remember going up to my professor, having no idea who Munro was, having only read this one story in a bad photocopy. I was just kind of concerned. I said, “I don’t understand why this woman isn’t famous. Does she know how good she is?” My teacher laughed. “She’s pretty famous,” she said. “I think she knows.”
I don’t actually recall the first time I read “The Love of a Good Woman.” I’ve read it so many times, because I teach it in many of my classes. But every time I read the story, I find something new—I become obsessed with some new discovery.
The story is about a woman, Enid, who finds out that the husband of the sick, dying lady she cares for has committed murder. That plot, in the hands of a lesser writer, would already be interesting. But even though the plot of this story is intense—there is murder, there is lust, there are secrets, there are many vivid, mysterious scenes—the whole story, especially the beginning, is so quiet. And the quietness is where the story’s intensity comes from.
It begins like this:
For the last couple of decades, there has been a museum in Walley, dedicated to preserving photos and butter churns and horse harnesses and an old dentist’s chair and a cumbersome apple peeler and such curiosities as the pretty little porcelain-and-glass insulators that were used on telegraph poles.
Also, there is a red box, which has the letters D.M. WILLENS, OPTOMETRIST printed on it, and a note beside it, saying, “This box of optometrist’s instruments though not very old has considerable local significance, since it belonged to Mr. D.M. Willens, who drowned in the Peregrine River, 1951. It escaped the catastrophe and was found, presumably by the anonymous donor, who dispatched it to be a feature of our collection.”
This opening shows such amazing restraint. Munro is so confident in her writing that she never feels the need to “grab” a reader right away, which is something I think a lot of writing teachers try to get their students to do—advice that often results in dishonest beginnings. This idea that you’re going to lose your reader if your first paragraph doesn’t contain something really exciting—I just think that’s false. I don’t want to be hooked or grabbed. I don’t need to be tricked into reading a story.
Of course, a story does need to have some kind of tension from the first line. In this case, it’s the confidence of this mysterious voice, the assurance with which the narrator lays out these ordinary details. The mystery is: Why here? Why is this brilliant author starting the story in this seemingly straightforward way? I am grabbed by this beginning not because it is especially exciting, but because I trust Munro’s voice. If she believes that she must begin with a plain-spoken description of an item in a museum, then I am fascinated by that item because she is fascinated by it, and because I sense all that she is withholding in her attempt to be honest and straightforward. I trust her absolutely, and I don’t think there is anything more important than that to a reader.
But the subdued tone here is more than stylistic. We come to discover that it is intricately tied to character, as everything in a Munro story is. If Munro feels that she wants to start a story in a very restrained way, it’s because the character shows an immense amount of restraint. And though she is not introduced until many pages into the story, restraint is the defining trait of Enid, the protagonist. She’s a nurse, which means she puts aside her needs to attend to the needs of others. Enid has this story she tells herself about who she is: She is the person who gives up what she loves because other people ask her to. It’s this romantic notion she has that seeps out of the cracks in her otherwise very restrained, very orderly and medical outlook on her life.
Restraint is central, too, to the murder at the heart of the story. Rupert, the husband of the woman Enid cares for, is an extremely restrained person—when Enid gives him a compliment about something his smart little girl said, he can’t even acknowledge her compliment, though she senses he’s pleased. He’s the kind of person who spends his life ignoring anything that is remotely emotional or uncomfortable, deflecting those things with idle remarks about the weather or the cutting of the hay.
But we find out that, one day, he came home and found the optometrist, Mr. Willens, examining his wife—he was kneeling on the floor, with his hand on her leg, and accidentally her skirt had been pulled up slightly above her knee. Somehow, this enrages him. Emotion just overflows in him, and he commits murder just like that. A lifetime of restraint builds up to the point that he has an absolute lapse of control.
Munro describes the aftermath of the murder this way: “Rupert jumped out of the chair so that it was still rocking, and he started picking up all the things and putting each one back where it went in Mr. Willens’ box.”
To me, that’s such a human response. It’s what most characterizes Rupert, this repression, this obsession with order. Here he’s got Mr. Willens’s dead body in his room, with strawberry-colored foam coming out of his mouth—and yet, the first thing he does after that lapse of control is put all the spilled-out instruments back into this red box. Everything in him is entirely under the surface. And so, later, when Alice Munro puts a hatchet in that man’s hands and has another character tell him that she knows all his secrets, the danger is so much greater.
If you only read the story once, it’s easy to miss that we’ve been introduced to this red box already. But it’s right there on the first page: “Also, there was a red box,” with this casual little “also” there, as if it’s an afterthought. Of course, it’s not at all an afterthought—it’s the key to an unsolved murder, even though we could never know that at the beginning. We can only sense it the quiet intensity of Munro’s voice.
The last thing we learn about this box is that Mrs. Quinn, Rupert’s wife and Enid’s patient, hid it somewhere—Mrs. Quinn will never tell where. Yet, here, at the beginning of this story, we know exactly where it is. It’s in the museum, but how did it get there? The museum offers its own explanation: “It was found, presumably, by the anonymous donor.” “Presumably”: an official-sounding, distant, museum word. Yet it contains the whole aching mystery of these characters’ lives, a mystery that the story is too perfect to outright name.
It’s so hard to exercise this level of restraint. In flashier stories, I often encounter images that feel to me, ultimately, to be dishonest. I’m thinking of a story I read recently by a renowned author, that begins with a first-person narrator describing the drowning of his daughter. She’s on a lake playing hockey, and the ice breaks and she drowns—but the way that this narrator describes his daughter drowning is so beautiful. There’s something about her hair drifting upward as she goes under, the hockey stick left spinning on the ice like a compass. These are amazing similes and descriptors. But I was kind of appalled, because this is not how a father would remember the drowning of his daughter. He simply would not use language that way. There would be absolutely nothing beautiful about it. The story was well-written and it was published in a great magazine, but something that Alice Munro never does is privilege language over character, or anything over character.
This is something I try to think about when I’m writing—there are times, definitely, when I feel like I have to cut back on what I’ve just written because it’s not quite honest yet. In my novel, I wrote about an event that’s so shocking and ugly—the murder of a little girl. I struggled the whole book with how to make clear what happened, the actual events of what took place, without the language being too direct as to be vulgar, or too vague as to be beautiful. It was a challenge to describe something so ugly and unfathomable in language that was both plainspoken and mysterious, while also remaining true to the voice of the novel, which is a poetic voice. I had to go back and exercise restraint sometimes, really struggle over certain paragraphs for a long time. The challenge is to word something clearly while also leaving enough room for mystery, to let things remain open and complex for the reader even if I’ve made up my mind. That’s always very hard.
At the end of “The Love of a Good Woman,” Enid imagines that she’s going to tell Rupert that she knows he committed murder. In her vision of things, she’s going to lead him back to the police station and he’s going to confess, and they’re going to kind of have this weird romance while he’s in prison. I remember teaching this story, once, and trying to explain about open endings: Even though we don’t get to see Enid follow through, the fact that she has made the decision to do what she’s going to do is an ending in its own.
But then one of my students raised her hand. “But Ms. Ruskovich,” she said. “We do know what happens. Or at least we know what doesn’t happen.” And she read out loud the passage from the very beginning, about the red box: “This box of optometrist’s instruments though not very old has considerable local significance, since it belonged to Mr. D.M. Willens, who drowned in the Peregrine River in 1951.”
And she was right—though, in all the times that I had read this story, I never saw it. I never saw that the answer to the ending was in this little aside, right here in the second paragraph. Because if Enid had turned Rupert in, the local museum certainly wouldn’t have had a sign saying that Mr. Willens drowned in the Peregrine River. We know, then, she did not do what she’d resolved to do. So how did the box get there? The only conceivable answer is that Enid… well, I don’t know, actually. I guess that’s why I love this. The closer you get to a character, the more mysterious he or she becomes. The closer you get to that red box, the more mysterious it becomes.
When you start the story, the box is just an object sitting among other objects, covered in dust—next to a horse harness and an old dentist’s chair and an apple peeler. But as you read and re-read, you start to sense the human history that can be told through these objects. Each one is suffused with a whole lifetime of compassion and secrets and suffering. And though Munro gives us the privilege of looking at one of them, the red box, the other objects are left unspoken for. That’s very moving: you get the sense that you could write an entire novel about the horse harness, too, or the dentist’s chair, or the apple peeler.
The story itself is as self-sacrificial as its characters in the way that it’s told, the way scenes are arranged, with no great attention at all paid to the most crucial of details—even though those details are there, plainly, for everyone to see, infused with a mystery so profound that they can only be articulated plainly. Some of my students have even remarked that these opening passages are “boring.” And yet this beginning—this distant, restrained, non-flashy beginning—is the key to everything. It’s so honest. So real. The greatest mysteries of humanity are hidden in plain sight here, hidden inside of such plain-spoken language.