Dropping the Reader Into a Scene: ‘A Wedding Dress I Never Expected: A Sari’

Dropping the Reader Into a Scene: ‘A Wedding Dress I Never Expected: A Sari’

Here is how this essay begins:

Ten minutes after meeting my future mother-in-law, I was wearing only underwear and socks. Acres of magenta chiffon and piles of gold sequins and faux-emerald jewelry — the regalia for my engagement ceremony — lay on the bed. I sucked in my stomach as she deftly wrapped the fabric around my waist. But in the Kolkata humidity, the sari clung to my skin like Saran Wrap. My consternation must have been apparent, because she rushed to reassure me. “Don’t worry!” she said warmly. “You will look sundor!” That means beautiful in Bengali.

  • What does this first paragraph tell you about the characters and situation? Can you picture the scene as you read it? What details help you do that?

  • What questions do you have about the story and characters now that you’ve read the opening? Where do you predict the essay will go from here?

Now, take a look at the next two paragraphs:

My fiancé, Gourab, had for the most part abandoned me to his mother’s ministrations. But as she pinned and tucked the sari around me, I periodically saw his face bob up behind me in the mirror with an approving smile. For several months before our trip, he had asked me to study a Bengali-English dictionary. He also rehearsed with me the gestures of respect for Bengali elders, leading me to believe that his family was very traditional. So I was quite nervous about our stay in his hometown, worried that I would embarrass everyone with my boisterousness or incorrect pronunciations.

My parents left India for the United States 40 years ago, and we returned only occasionally for brief visits to see my grandparents. This trip to Kolkata was my first exposure to a modern Indian family, albeit one that could trace its roots in the city for generations, and I was meeting them not as a casual visitor but as a bride. Among the American-born Indians I knew, I was perhaps the least likely to fall in love with someone from my parents’ homeland. I grew up in a household that only selectively embraced Indian culture. We adhered to the basic values: respect for elders, education and hard work. But when it came to religious rituals, superstition, three-hour Bollywood bonanzas and strict vegetarianism, my parents — both physicists — opted out. By the time I met Gourab, I was an expert in rolling my eyes at Indian tradition.

  • Did these next two paragraphs help answer some of the questions the first paragraph raised? How?

  • Let’s say this writer decided not to start as she did, but instead began with the kind of background she gives in paragraphs two and three. How would that change the piece?

Take a look at a narrative essay or story that you have written. How does it begin? Can you experiment with dropping your readers directly into a key scene instead? How does that change the piece? What background will you need to include in the paragraphs that follow?

For more inspiration, check out the openings of the five additional essays we’ve included in the “More Mentor Texts” section below. You might even borrow ideas from them to practice.

For example…

  • Have you ever had a horrible job, whether paid, volunteer, or just a household chore? Write a first paragraph taking us directly into the action, the way “The Monkey Suit” does.

  • What are some memorable moments from the summers of your childhood? Choose one — whether from camp, a vacation, or just hanging out with family or friends — and write an opening that starts right at a dramatic moment, like the one in “What I Learned at Summer Camp.”

  • Another option: Start your essay with a key conversation, the way “The Good Student in North Korea” does. (You might also take a look at our Mentor Text edition on writing dialogue for help.)

  • Has there ever been a moment in your life when you just “knew there would be trouble”? Look at how the narrator in “My Mother’s Water Cure” sets a scene and briefly introduces the characters, all in just a few sentences. Try writing your own version that sets the reader up for whatever “trouble” you are describing.

  • Remember that you can pull a reader into a scene with just one great first sentence, like the one that begins “A Rat’s Tale.” Use that sentence as a template to experiment. Focus on a family relationship, whether with a parent or guardian, sibling, aunt, uncle or cousin, and fill in the blanks: “I was _________[age] when my _________[relative] ___________ [did or said something I’ll never forget.]”

Below each title, we’ve excerpted the opening from each piece to show you five ways to “drop the reader into the scene.”

The Monkey Suit,” a 2011 essay from the Lives column, by Joel Lovell

There were a couple of dozen costumes to choose from — Superman and spaceman and muscleman and Popeye and, inexplicably, Baby Huey — but unless the customer had something specific in mind, I went with the gorilla suit every time. I delivered cakes and flowers and balloons. I sang songs upon request. I was just old enough for it to be a horrible job.

What I Learned at Summer Camp,” a 2019 Op-Ed, by Jennifer Finney Boylan

We were up to our necks in the gurgling swamp.

The counselor in charge of Nature Walk, Tom, had taken us to this pungent fen, filled with snapping turtles and croaking frogs. “Can we go in?” asked one of the campers. Counselor Tom didn’t see why not.

The Good Student in North Korea,” a 2014 essay from the Lives column, by Suki Kim

The student was not interested in small talk.

“Have you heard of ‘The Song of General Kim Jong-il’?” he asked.

“Yes,” I said cautiously.

“What do you think of it?” he asked.

I froze. Complete honesty was out of the question.

My Mother’s Miracle-Water Cure,” a 2014 essay from the Lives column, by Michelle Herrera Mulligan

When my mother pulled up in front of our house in a flatbed truck, my stomach dropped. It was summer, and she’d been away for two weeks. Her boyfriend was carrying a large plastic container. I knew there would be trouble. My younger brother, Dan, who was not quite a teenager yet and used a wheelchair to get around, rushed to the front door to lock it.

A Rat’s Tale,” a 2011 essay from the Lives column, by Tony Gervino

I was 6 when my brother John leaned across the kitchen table and casually whispered that he had killed Santa Claus.

  • How does being dropped into a scene pull you into the story? Does it make you want to keep reading? What do you learn from just these few first lines?

  • What questions does this opening raise? What background does the reader now need to understand the story? How does the writer supply it?

  • Consider how else the writer might have started the story. Was this the best choice? Why?