Good beginnings: the best of Saki
I have just re-read ‘The Lumber Room’, a short story by the former Burma police officer H H Munro, who wrote under the name of Saki. More than 30 years after having the story read aloud to me when I was 15 years old, its language and tone are still vividly familiar, even though until this week I had had only one encounter with it.
Saki captivates the reader from the very start: ‘The children were to be driven, as a special treat, to the sands at Jagborough. Nicholas was not to be of the party; he was in disgrace.’ With these 27 words, Saki invites us into the household of ‘The Lumber Room’.
We find that it is one of privilege (there is a car or carriage available, pre-First World War) and one with rules (trips to the seaside don’t happen every day). Nicholas is the only child named, so takes his place as the central character of the tale. The use of the passive ‘were to be driven’ places the children in a formal social hierarchy in which adults are in charge, paving the way for the central tension of the story, the power play between Nicholas and the aunt, who also unnamed and designated by the definite article rather than the more familiar ‘his’, assumes the role of representative grown-up and authority figure.
The second sentence, without a single adjective or adverb and by the measured pause introduced by the semi-colon, succeeds in emotionally engaging us in what is to follow. Already, our loyalties are divided. On the one hand, we are asked to do the right thing by siding with the adults in chastising an errant child. On the other, our curiosity is aroused as we do not yet know what terrible deed has led to Nicholas’ exclusion from the family group. Saki has us on tenterhooks for just long enough to keep us intrigued without boring us.
The next sentence reveals that Nicholas is doubly responsible for his own fate: not only did he refuse to eat his bread-and-milk breakfast ‘on the seemingly frivolous ground that there was frog in it’, but we also discover that ‘he had put it there himself, so he felt entitled to know something about it’. Now, we transfer fully to the side of Nicholas, confident of his ability to outsmart his elders and therefore unwilling to align ourselves with them.
The short story is the miniature of the creative writing world. To the creative writer whose natural bent is the airy mansion of the novel, the form offers the discipline of succinctness and the associated delight of savagely trimming the fat. Short story writers must turn their attention from the first paragraph to enticing the reader into a time and a place which anchors the brief narrative that follows. They must introduce a handful of characters who are clearly distinguished one from the other. And they must do all this in as few as six pages, or two and a half thousand words. In ‘The Lumber Room’, Saki achieves it in just two sentences.
What makes a short story opening work for you – and are you able to point to one you admire above all others?