Short Stories: The Art of the Start

 

One of my favorite things to read is a good short story. A great one is perfection: you can read it in one sitting, and it achieves its effect in a short amount of time and words.

And the best short story grabs you immediately, yanks you like the a gamer snatching a fresh Nintendo Wii as soon as it hits the shelves.Novels are amazing, but the drawback is that they are a whole bunch of elements that have to be corralled and marshaled to create the desired effect.

And as it’s not easy to read a novel in one sitting (though I’ve done it, and I’m sure many of you have too) … the illusion of the world to which we’re transported by the magic of fiction is constantly interrupted and ruined by everyday life.

A short story, however, won’t do a thing for the reader if it doesn’t have a great opening.

Consider Poe’s A Tell-tale Heart … a classic. Here’s the opening paragraph:

“True! – nervous – very, very dreadfully nervous I had been and am; but why will you say that I am mad? The disease had sharpened my senses – not destroyed – not dulled them. Above all was the sense of hearing acute. I heard all things in the heaven and in the earth. I heard many things in hell. How, then, am I mad? Hearken! and observe how healthily – how calmly I can tell you the whole story.”

Within a few words — just the first three or five words really — Poe sets the tone of the story, and brings the insanity of the narrator to the opening sentence. He catches our attention and makes us curious to read more. It’s hard to beat an opening like that.

Poe knew the value of a great opening — he was one of the masters of this art form, and he took advantage of the first few sentences like few others. Now, not every first paragraph has to be as over-the-top as that of the Tell-tale Heart, but it sets a great example for us.

Creating the Great Opener
While revision is important for the entire short story — you should rip it apart and massage it and mold it until you have it right — I recommend paying special attention to the first paragraph or three.

Here are my suggestions for creating a great beginning to your short story:

  • What effect are you going for? In a short story, you have a limited time to create an effect in the reader’s mind. Think of our example, A Tell-tale Heart … and think of what effect it creates in your mind by the end. You can be sure that Poe was going for that effect, and that he worked hard to craft it … and you can see that he began that effect in the first paragraph. Think about your desired effect, and then see how you can begin the process of creating it in your first couple of paragraphs. Every sentence, every word, should somehow contribute to that effect.
  • Grab their attention. This is one of the main jobs of the short story opener — get the reader’s attention. Imagine that your story is being published in a magazine — you’re competing for the reader’s attention with feature articles about how to win a man or how to please her in bed. You’ve got to get that attention immediately.
  • Get them curious. Beyond just getting their attention, you have to arouse their curiosity, so that you can hold their attention, and get them to want to read more. Be different. Raise a question in the reader’s mind. Draw them into your world.
  • Be true to the story. While the last two points above are important, it’s also not good to try to have a flashy opener when your story is more subdued. If you get the reader’s attention and draw them in, and the story turns out to be completely different from the opening, you’ve broken an implied promise to the reader. The opening is a promise about what the story will be like. Be true to the spirit of the story, or you’ll break that promise.
  • Have something happen immediately. You don’t need to do this in every story opening, of course, but it’s good to start in the middle of the action rather than in the beginning, when nothing is happening. For example, “I woke up that morning with no idea that today would be different from any other” is not as interesting as if you started in the middle of the action: “So things started going downhill after I accidentally tripped the bank’s alarms and the guards began shooting at me.” Actually, that’s past tense — if I were to rewrite that opening, I’d probably begin in the present tense, describing the tripping of the alarm and the bullets flying by.
  • Eschew adjectives. The novice writer adds a whole bunch of adjectives to achieve the desired effect. They’re a shortcut, but they’re telling instead of showing. Don’t tell the reader that the character is wacky or tough. Show him, through action and dialogue.
  • Consider dialogue. Sometimes the best openings are dialogue. Not always, but sometimes. It’s an option to think about, at least.
  • Describe an interesting character. While description can be a boring way to start a story, if the character is incredibly interesting, such a description can definitely help create the story’s desired effect, and catch the reader’s attention and curiosity.
  • Be concise. Cut out all unnecessary words. You don’t have a lot of time to create your desired effect, to catch the reader’s attention, to draw him into the story.
  • Don’t be trite. You probably have to read a bunch of short stories to know what’s trite, but if you’ve seen it in bad stories before, avoid it. Describing the weather (“It was a dark and stormy night”) is but one example.
  • Feel free to break the rules. The rules I spelled out above were meant to be broken, as are all writing rules. They’re guidelines, really, so if you have something that breaks the rules and works, go for it.
  • And always rewrite. No matter what your first attempt, chances are it can be improved. Look over the points above and see if there’s some way you can make it better. Can you put the reader even more in the middle of the action? Can you cut out unnecessary words? Would present tense be better? Can the dialogue be improved? Do several rewrites if you can.
About the author

Leo Babauta

Leo Babauta is the blogger behind the superblog, Zen Habits, which is about finding simplicity in the daily chaos of life.

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