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Monday, April 14th, 2008 by

Gerald Duff, author of the short story collection Fire Ants, describes a recent session at the Virginia Festival of the Book:

I recently attended the Virginia Festival of the Book where I participated in a reading and book signing session devoted to short story collections, Along with my book Fire Ants, short story collections by Nin Andrews and Cary Holladay were the focus of the session and questions afterwards by members of the audience.

Among other excellent questions, one query had to do with what the first sentence of a short story must do as compared to the initial sentence of a novel. Each of us three writers addressed the topic. I suggested that the first sentence of any work of fiction must lead the reader to want to read the second one, and so on, or the work fails. But in the short story in particular, the first sentence must pose a question which the rest of the story must answer. In other words, if the situation of imbalance implied in the first sentence is not satisfactorily addressed in such a fashion that a rebalancing is not accomplished by the end of the story, the reader will not be satisfied psychologically by the work.

As an example, I cited the first sentence of the title story of Fire Ants, in which the narrator begins by stating “She had kept the bottle stuck down inside a basket of clothes that needed ironing.”

The reader must want to know who “she” is. Why is she hiding a bottle? What’s in the bottle? And since this is a work of fiction, the reader knows that bottle must be drunk from somewhere along the way. That drinking must have an effect on action. What will that effect be?

Unless the reader has these questions answered in a narratively satisfying way by the time the story ends, the short story will certainly be flawed and perhaps fail.

In that session at the Virginia Festival, the questions raised by the audience can be as interesting and productive as the stories being presented.

Gerald Duff’s Fire Ants is available directly from NewSouth Books, Amazon.com, or your favorite local or online book retailer.

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