Foreshadowing and Establishing Conflict

James Tiptree Jr. also known as Alice Sheldon, speculative fiction writer

Tiptree's beginnings always pack a punch, signaling the conflict of the story without being overly overt about the strategy.

In an earlier post I mentioned establishing the story’s conflict as something that is often best done in the story’s first three paragraphs. In order to expand on that, I’ve drawn examples from one of my favorite speculative fiction writers, James Tiptree Jr. aka Alice Sheldon, all of which are available in the collection Her Smoke Rose Up Forever.

One of Tiptree’s classic stories, “The Women Men Don’t See” may be one of her most celebrated, leading to responses from other writers like Karen Joy Fowler’s “What I Didn’t See” (Kindle version) and my own “Clockwork Fairies” (Kindle version). Tiptree uses her titles to maximum effect and you’ll notice that each of these beginnings interacts in a significant way with the title preceding it.

I see her first while the Mexicana 747 is barreling down to Cozumel Island. I come out of the can and lurch into her seat, saying “Sorry,” at a double female blur. The near blur nods quietly. The younger blur in the window seat goes on looking out. I continue down the aisle, registering nothing. Zero. I never would have looked at them or thought of them again.

The title plays off nearly every line: “I see her first,” (who? is it one of the women from the title?) “a double female blur,” “the near blur,” “the younger blur, “registering nothing,” finishing up with “I never would have looked at them or thought of them again,” at which point the reader is screaming why? why don’t you see them? The answer to that question is crucial to the story.

Here’s another Tiptree beginning, this time of “Houston, Houston, Do You Read?” which uses the strategy of referring to a memory to reveal the conflict. The memory is connected to gender and embarrassment, which will also turn out to be crucial to the story.

Lorimer gazes around the big crowded cabin, trying to listen to the voices, trying also to ignore the twitch in his insides that means he is about to remember something bad. No help; he lives it again, that long-ago moment. Himself running blindly — or was he pushed? –into the strange toilet at Evanston Junior High. His fly open, his dick in his hand, he can still see the gray zipper edge of his jeans around his pale exposed pecker. The hush. The sickening wrongness of shapes, faces turning. The first blaring giggle. Girls. He was in the girls’ can.

“Houston, Houston, Do You Read” is Tiptree at her best, examining gender norms and conventions with a ruthless, scathingly honest eye. Somehow that first moment of embarrassment, that moment of being in “the strange toilet” encapsulates so much of what that story is about and how alien the sexes can be to each other as well as how strange their container, the norms that make them up, which constitute the walls of “the can” itself, are. Look at how the center of his masculinity is framed visually: the gray zipper edge of his jeans around his pale exposed pecker. There is so much going on in that first paragraph, including sensory details like the twitch of his insides, the blare of a giggle, the pattern and threat of a zipper, that it’s worth copying out, pulling apart sentence by sentence to figure out how it’s working.

Let’s finish up with Tiptree in a moment that puts everything up front, in the short story “We Who Stole the Dream”:

The children could survive only twelve minims in the sealed containers.

Woah. We don’t know what’s going on precisely, but we know crucial details. We have a deadline and it is only twelve minims. While we don’t know how long a minim is, we know it’s not much time because of that “only”. Plus, there’s an auditory echo of “minute” that makes us think they’re of similar length.

What’s at stake? This lives of children, for pete’s sake. Not just child, but children, multiple. And we know how they’ll die: suffocation. It would be hard to write a tauter, more dire beginning.

Writing exercise: write three first lines. They can state the stakes, as in the third example, or refer to some memory or object that encapsulates the conflict, as with the example from “Houston, Houston, Do You Read?” Include two titles for each, one that plays off the beginning and one that does not.

For bonus points, read “The Women Men Don’t See” and use that as your inspiration.

Feel free to post some of your best first lines on here, I’d love to see some!

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About Cat

Cat Rambo lives, writes, and teaches by the shores of an eagle-haunted lake in the Pacific Northwest. Her 100+ fiction publications include stories in Asimov's, Clarkesworld Magazine, and Her short story, "Five Ways to Fall in Love on Planet Porcelain," from her story collection Near + Far (Hydra House Books), was a 2012 Nebula nominee. Her editorship of Fantasy Magazine earned her a World Fantasy Award nomination in 2012.
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  • DeAnna

    An interesting experiment.

    First opening line: “When you’re the kind to get depressed, boredom’s about as dangerous as a gun to the head.”

    Didn’t spark anything after the first paragraph; moved on. No titles.

    Second opening line: It started out as “Someone had given me an apron, a grown-up’s apron, when I was just a kid.” The story that developed grabbed me so much that I finished it, but I had to change the opening line: “I knew what the package for my daughter was before I even opened the box: my grandmother’s apron.”

    The two titles on the second story:
    –Doesn’t play: Inheritance
    –Does play: Inappropriate Gifts

    I went with the second.

    I didn’t get to the third opening line :)

    • Cat

      I think the apron’s a really evocative and interesting gift. Are you writing that story?

  • Sän

    Thank you! This was quite inspirational. I only wrote one first line, because I just kept going. So here is my first line, and then what came next:

    At the sound of footsteps on the dock overhead, Lime took a silent breath and let her head slip beneath the filthy waves. In blackness, she climbed down the pylon toward safety, her fingers gripping clumps of mussels like the rungs of a ladder. She couldn’t afford to swim down, to risk stirring the surface where she’d been.

    • Cat

      I love that as a beginning, it’s got tension, it lets us know something’s at stake, and gripping the clumps of mussel is a great tactile moment. Write the rest of the story!

  • Sunder C. Addams

    Like San (please imagine the umlaut) my first one turned into a paragraph. Which turned into a kick-start for a WIP that’s been driving me bats:

    On her ten-thousandth trip between the van and the new house, Dantang realized she was now wearing the path deeper all by herself. And wearing out her left shoulder. In the shade of the monster chestnut tree, the one embracing the entire roof, she let the box slip from its perch into her hands and then thump down, puffing dust across her toes. The talcum path delighted bare feet, but its dust desiccated eyes and tongues. Dantang worked her shoulder, wincing. Mustn’t switch arms, oh no. Let her just think about hoisting somebody’s cinderblock collection using her sword arm, and Mom and Dad would reappear like magic, never mind she’d heard that lecture already.

    Have no clue if that HTML will work. Oh, titles? I hate them. I have two approaches, ask somebody else and start with the title. The title that doesn’t play: “Undercover.” It’ll do for a working title.

    Anyway, thanx, Cat!

    • Cat

      I love how deeply inside the character’s head that is. Lots of great sensory stuff and a real sense of impending conflict.

  • An

    Late to the party, but I’ve been referring back to this, so here’s mine:

    The crows warned her. Whenever someone came down the road they’d start a racket in the trees, cawing high intrigue, like every village gossip on every market corner given rough voice and imperative tone and stuffed into the branches to declaim. The sound startled the rest of the birds from their perches, sending them up in a gust of shadow and form. Mostly, the racket was nothing to worry about – a delivery from Iden, or wagons pacing by on their way north toward the Capital – but today, as Cael rinsed her hands under the cold pump faucet, she heard a thunder of hooves.

    • Cat

      I love that, but you also had me at “crows.” Are you writing the rest of the story?