The Atlantic

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.
Source: Doug McLean

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

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