I plan on giving them a short story to read every week. This week, I gave them Italo Calvino's "The Adventure of a photographer." It's one of my personal favorites and I wanted to introduce them to Calvino. None of them knew who he was; it was nice to be able to introduce them to one of the best.
After telling them a little bit about Calvino, we spent the rest of the class talking about the opening line, "the hook". I first read them the opening line of a novel by Tsitsi Dangarembga, a writer from Zimbabwe. Her novel, "Nervous Conditions," opens: "I was not sorry when my brother died." I think this line epitomizes the hook. It is interesting, troubling, puzzling, inquisitive, and every other word that describes a sense of mystery. I explained what I thought the hook was - a line that immediately draws in the reader. We then read the first line of "Photographer" together: "WHEN SPRING comes, the city’s inhabitants, by the hundreds of thousands, go out on Sundays with leather cases over their shoulders." We compared the two lines and concluded that Calvino's was less of a hook than Dangarembga's. Interestingly, Dangarembga's begins a novel and Calvino's begins a short story. I explained to the students why I found this interesting. Correctly or incorrectly, I usually think that hooks are more useful in short stories. Because short stories are usually twenty pages or less every line must be evocative, especially the first line. Short stories don't have the luxury to be 200 or so pages; for this reason, the sooner the writer can set up a conflict, the better. I think the students agreed - they nodded enthusiastically.
I then read them the first line of Gloria Naylor's "Mama Day." She begins, simply, "Willow Springs." I intentionally chose this book because I wanted to also tell them that sometimes your first line is nothing without your second, and that's ok. Because when Naylor goes on to write: "Everybody knows but nobody talks about the legend of Sapphira Wade," she introduces the relevance of Willow Springs and makes the reader very interested in the story she's about to tell.
My goal with this lecture was to give them an elementary place to start. I don't believe that every short story must start out with a hook; in fact, Calvino's doesn't and the story is one of my favorites. I encouraged them to go for the hook because it is a good, safe place to start. It sets up a possibly interesting narrative, even if it ends up going nowhere.
I had asked them to write one pagers for this week. I asked each of them to read the first lines of their stories. We discussed each line after it'd been read and I think the students really understood what I was trying to get through to them. Their comments were very informed and very thoughtful. We got through only five of the stories. They were all pretty damn good. There was not a single story I was not interested in. I am yet to read them...I will have more to say about their first writing assignments next time.