Anatomy of an opening: A telling scene, background & stakes, add a dash of suspense

Don't back down (40mm, Kodak Portra 400)

Don't back down (40mm, Kodak Portra 400)

This is a test case in genius storytelling. I cried. Big sloppy tears. And not because I was hit over the head with a bunch of tragedy. I cried without warning. I was gripped, and I was reading along, and then I was crying. Fuck. How did she do it?

The Reckoning is a story about a woman, Claire Wilson, who survives the 1966 shooting at the University of Texas, perpetrated by Charles Whitman, a former Marine sharpshooter. It's not the kind of story I would normally jump into. I tend to like stories that, with a glance at the DEK, make me want to be in them. This decidedly isn't that story. And that's not what Pamela Colloff does. She goes after the tough topics that society tends to look away from. And with powerful storytelling, she makes it matter.

After reading this carefully once and skimming for structure another time, I have a decent sense of how she pulled it off. It starts with my favorite kind of opening section--the kind that basically tells you all the background you need to know and sets up the stakes.

I should contextualize that a bit. When I sit down to write a piece, my instinct is always to draw up a sustained, gripping opening scene. Lots of beautiful writing, deep description, incredible action.

It almost never works. I spend an inordinate amount of time writing that opening scene. Almost invariably, I (or my editor) toss it out. Left without an opening, and staring down the barrel of a fast-approaching deadline I swore I wouldn't flirt with *this time*, I dash off a new opening section. Without time to think and Craft the thing (big-C), I write something that works well to quickly engage the reader and then, in a very denuded, easy-to-follow way, gives all the necessary context to enter the story and set up the stakes before ending with a dangling "what happens next?"

I've noticed, for whatever it's worth, that the New Yorker writers tend to use the same opening section format. New Yorker stories are famously told chronologically, which is a bit misleading, because often the opening section is in-scene to start, then reaches back for context, then ploughs ahead with the scene before ending on a riveting question, which propels the reader forward.

Oh New Yorker. Is there anything you haven't thought of?

Colloff's opening section starts with her main character (and I'm going to call Claire Wilson, along with every other person featured in a longform article, a character, because that's what they become in the hands of deft storytellers, no matter how adept those storytellers are at being journalists as well). Wilson is at the University of Texas library pulling a back issue of Life Magazine off the shelf, as she often does. It's the issue that deals with the University of Texas shooting. Claire reads the article to gain some insight into what happened to her. She finds the name of her boyfriend among those killed, along with his photo. It's not that she needs proof this horrible thing happened. Colloff makes it clear that the bullet wound on Wilson's hip is enough evidence to convince the UT student she was a victim. Rather, she's trying to make sense of a thing she can't fully remember, or rather validate the memories she now doubts. This is the first event of its kind, taking place long before the mass school shootings at Columbine, Virginia Tech, and so, so many other places. The subject had quickly become "taboo" on campus.

As Colloff gives us this background information -- the basic details of the event, the fact that it was the first in what would become a long line -- she let's slip one more pertinent piece of information. When Wilson and her now-dead boyfriend were shot on their way to class, Claire was eight months pregnant. We don't know what happened to the baby, and that question, I believe, is the velocity that thrusts us into the next section.