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Let’s Start at the Very Beginning

Great short stories, great first lines
Kimberley Jones, 9:00am, Tue. Nov. 27, 2012

As we near the Dec. 10 deadline for submissions to our annual ‘Austin Chronicle’ Short Story Contest, some of you may still be staring at a blank page. Need a little inspiration? We’ve collected some of our favorite first lines from some of the greatest short stories ever written.


“You had to get out of them occasionally, those Illinois towns with the funny names: Paris, Oblong, Normal.”

“You’re Ugly, Too” by Lorrie Moore


“There were ninety-seven New York advertising men in the hotel, and, the way they were monopolizing the long-distance lines, the girl in 507 had to wait from noon till almost two-thirty to get her call through.”

“A Perfect Day for Bananafish” by J.D. Salinger


“The grandmother didn't want to go to Florida.”

“A Good Man Is Hard to Find” by Flannery O’Connor


“Anders couldn’t get to the bank until just before it closed, so of course the line was endless and he got stuck behind two women whose loud, stupid conversation put him in a murderous temper.”

"Bullet in the Brain" by Tobias Wolff


“We are on the front porch at Frank Martin's drying-out facility.”

“Where I’m Calling From” by Raymond Carver


“A man stood upon a railroad bridge in northern Alabama, looking down into the swift water twenty feet below.”

“An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” by Ambrose Bierce


“It was said that a new person had appeared on the sea-front: a lady with a little dog.”

“The Lady With the Dog” by Anton Chekhov


“One beautiful April morning, on a narrow side street in Tokyo's fashionable Harujuku neighborhood, I walked past the 100% perfect girl.”

“On Seeing the 100% Perfect Girl” by Haruki Murakami


Photo 1 June Sheidegger, maid of honor, leans on the porch railing of the Rocky Mountain Lodge.

“Violet’s younger sister, June, refuses to wear a slip beneath her sheer silk bridesmaid dress.”

– “Marry the One Who Gets There First: Outtakes From the Sheidegger-Krupnik Wedding Album” by Heidi Julavits


“First Lieutenant Jimmy Cross carried letters from a girl named Martha, a junior at Mount Sebastian College in New Jersey.”

– “The Things They Carried” by Tim O’Brien


“Wash the white clothes on Monday and put them on the stone heap; wash the color clothes on Tuesday and put them on the clothesline to dry; don’t walk barehead in the hot sun; cook pumpkin fritters in very hot sweet oil; soak your little cloths right after you take them off; when buying cotton to make yourself a nice blouse, be sure that it doesn’t have gum on it, because that way it won’t hold up well after a wash; soak salt fish overnight before you cook it; is it true that you sing benna in Sunday school?; always eat your food in such a way that it won’t turn someone else’s stomach; on Sundays try to walk like a lady and not like the slut you are so bent on becoming; don’t sing benna in Sunday school; you mustn’t speak to wharf-rat boys, not even to give directions; don’t eat fruits on the street – flies will follow you; but I don’t sing benna on Sundays at all and never in Sunday school; this is how to sew on a button; this is how to make a button-hole for the button you have just sewed on; this is how to hem a dress when you see the hem coming down and so to prevent yourself from looking like the slut I know you are so bent on becoming; this is how you iron your father’s khaki shirt so that it doesn’t have a crease; this is how you iron your father’s khaki pants so that they don’t have a crease; this is how you grow okra – far from the house, because okra tree harbors red ants; when you are growing dasheen, make sure it gets plenty of water or else it makes your throat itch when you are eating it; this is how you sweep a corner; this is how you sweep a whole house; this is how you sweep a yard; this is how you smile to someone you don’t like too much; this is how you smile to someone you don’t like at all; this is how you smile to someone you like completely; this is how you set a table for tea; this is how you set a table for dinner; this is how you set a table for dinner with an important guest; this is how you set a table for lunch; this is how you set a table for breakfast; this is how to behave in the presence of men who don’t know you very well, and this way they won’t recognize immediately the slut I have warned you against becoming; be sure to wash every day, even if it is with your own spit; don’t squat down to play marbles – you are not a boy, you know; don’t pick people’s flowers – you might catch something; don’t throw stones at blackbirds, because it might not be a blackbird at all; this is how to make a bread pudding; this is how to make doukona; this is how to make pepper pot; this is how to make a good medicine for a cold; this is how to make a good medicine to throw away a child before it even becomes a child; this is how to catch a fish; this is how to throw back a fish you don’t like, and that way something bad won’t fall on you; this is how to bully a man; this is how a man bullies you; this is how to love a man; and if this doesn’t work there are other ways, and if they don’t work don’t feel too bad about giving up; this is how to spit up in the air if you feel like it, and this is how to move quick so that it doesn’t fall on you; this is how to make ends meet; always squeeze bread to make sure it’s fresh; but what if the baker won’t let me feel the bread?; you mean to say that after all you are really going to be the kind of woman who the baker won’t let near the bread?”

“Girl” by Jamaica Kincaid


The Austin Chronicle is currently accepting submissions for its annual Short Story Contest. (Postmark deadline Dec. 10, 2012; see more rules and regs.) Check the Books blog all week for more short story themed content, including advice from authors and past Short Story Contest winners.

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