A Story is a Promise


A Story 
is a Promise

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Posted 6/24/2001

Unfolding a Story from a First Sentence

A review of the opening pages of Meshugah, by Isaac Bashevis Singer


Review by Bill Johnson
A photo of Bill Johnson, author of A Story is a Promise and the Spirit of Storytelling.

One aspect of writing a novel is beginning with a first sentence that sets a story into motion, then following that first sentence with other sentences that create the effect of a story unfolding from its starting point. This process of unfolding can draw an audience forward in a natural, compelling way. A story unfolding from an opening sentence can also create a natural revelation of information that makes assigning meaning to those details easy for a story's readers.

Struggling or inexperienced writers often start novels with an introduction of characters or plot events while withholding that which would give those details a greater sense of dramatic purpose. The net effect, the opening scenes of stories can feel arbitrary as writers jump from one character introduction to another. These interruptions in what should be the on-going flow of the story are jarring. A story's audience can be put into the position of needing to keep track of unrelated details. This quickly makes reading some novel manuscripts tedious and difficult.

Isaac Bashevis Singer is rightly renowned as a great storyteller. His prose is lyrical, graceful, and, on the surface, simple. His writing offers a great demonstration of how a story can unfold from a first sentence.

The opening sentence of Meshugah demonstrates Singer's gifts as a storyteller.

First sentence,

It happened more than once that someone I thought had died in Hitler's camps suddenly turned up alive and well.

This simple sentence says a great deal about the narrator, that he survived the death camps, that more than once he's run into someone he thought had died. It also raises the immediate question, who has shown up that led the narrator to have this thought?

I usually tried to hide my surprise.

This raises another question, why does the narrator try and hide his surprise? This second sentence unfolds from the first sentence. This creates a seamless-effect.

Why create a drama or melodrama or let the other know I had resigned myself to his or her death?

This sentence offers an answer to the question raised in the second sentence. Again, the sentences are unfolding, raising and answering questions that continue to draw the audience forward. Struggling writers often 'jump' from sentence to sentence as they try and offer information about characters and story environments, without creating a reason for the audience to desire or need that information.

But on that spring day in 1952, when the door to my office at the Yiddish newspaper in New York opened and Max Aberdam walked in, I must have looked startled and grown pale, because I heard him roar, "Don't be frightened, I haven't come from the Great Beyond to strangle you!"

This sentence accomplishes a great deal. Itů
Gives a time and place for the story.
Gives an occupation for the narrator.
Offers the name of the person who the narrator thought was dead.
That the narrator looks 'startled and grown pale' suggests some kind of strained relationship with this man he thought dead. That raises the question, what was the nature of their relationship?
The description of the other man's dialogue, the 'roar,' the line about "Don't be frightened," suggests a larger than life character who has cause to be angry at the story's narrator. Why he would be angry is another question to be answered.
We also get the 'name' of this character, Max Aberdam, which begins to answer the question, who is this man who the narrator thought to be dead?
While this sentence offers a great deal of information, it offers that information within the flow of the story's unfolding from that opening sentence.

I stood up and made a motion as if to embrace him, but he put out his hand and I grasped it.

This suggests the narrator is unsure of Max's feelings toward him, and that Max clearly doesn't want to be embraced. This offers more definition of their relationship, while still leaving to be answered the question of why the relationship is strained.

He still wore a flowing tie and a plush hat with a wide brim.

First, we get a sense of who Max is, his presence, then we get a description of Max that begins to make his presence concrete. The details also fit in with the description of a larger than life character.

He was much taller than I.

By having the narrator compare himself to Max, the audience is allowed to begin to 'see' the physical presence of the narrator. Here, that Max is both large and larger than life makes the details about Max ring true.

He had not changed much since I had last seen him in Warsaw, although I noticed specks of gray in his black beard.

This sets out where the narrator and Max knew each other, and adds another detail about Max's looks.

Only his stomach had grown larger and more pointed.

This sentence tells us that Max has done well since the war, while it also suggests he was leaner when younger. If Singer had simply mentioned that Max's 'stomach had grown larger,' that would have been an ordinary detail. That his stomach is 'pointed' is unusual; it continues to suggest that even in his physical form, Max is interesting.

Yes, it was the same Max Aberdam, the Warsaw patron of painters and writers, the well-known glutton, guzzler, womanizer. This sets out the kind of man Max was in Warsaw. There are several questions here, is he still the same kind of man? Did the war change him? How did Max survive the extermination of the Jews in the Warsaw ghetto?

He held a cigar between his fingers, a gold watch chain hung on his vest, and gems sparkled in his cuff links.

There's a beautiful blend of setting out who character are while offering details that speak to a dramatic truth about each character.

Max Aberdam did not speak, he shouted -- THAT was his style. He loudly declared: "The Messiah has come and I arose from the dead. Don't you read the news in your own newspaper, or maybe you yourself are dead? If that's the case, go back to your grave."

This sentence speaks to a deeper story issue, that which is dead coming back to life, or that which is dying slipping into the grave. These sentences also continue to speak to the presence of Max.

"I'm alive, I'm alive."

How alive the narrator is will be a question answered by the story.

"You call this living? Holed up in a smoke-filled office reading proofs? A corpse could do this. It's spring outside, at least by the calendar. Have you noticed there is no spring in New York. Here either you freeze or you fry. Come, eat lunch with me, or I'll tear you apart like a herring."

Max is a larger than life character not just by how he is described, but by what he does.

"They are waiting upstairs for these proofs. It will only take five minutes."

I did not know whether to address him by the familiar "thou" or the formal "you." He was almost thirty years my senior. His loud voice had been heard in the outer office and several of my fellow journalists stuck their heads in the open door. They smiled at me and one of them winked, perhaps thinking I had another mental case as a visitor. Since I had begun my column of advice in the paper, I often had strange types in my office-distraught wives of vanished husbands, young men with plans for redeeming the world, readers convinced they had made some startling discovery. One visitor confided that Stalin was a reincarnation of Haman. I quickly read through the proofs of my article, "Scientist Predicts People Will Live to Be Two Hundred," and handed it to the elevator man to be delivered to the tenth floor.

These sentences offer a much stronger overview of the narrator, that he writes an advice column that is read by many people.

When we got into a descending elevator, it was crowded with writers and typesetters going down to the cafeteria for lunch. But Max Aberdam shouted over their voices: "You didn't know I was in America? Where do you live--IN the World of Chaos? I've been trying to reach you for weeks. Yiddish papers are all the same. You call up and ask for someone and they tell you to hold the phone, but nothing happens-they've forgotten you."

These sentences suggest that Max has been living outside the country, leaving the details of where and what he was doing to be answered later. This passage also sets out that the narrator writes for a Yiddish newspaper. Since the Yiddish language is no longer as prominent in American Jewish life, the question of what is slipping into a grave in this story has been made clearer.

This is the first page and a half of Meshugah. These pages demonstrate Singer's ability to suggest a story's promise with wonderful, poetic language that unfolds from an opening sentence.

To be continued.

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