Short Stories: The Art of the Start


Photo courtesy of Gio JL

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.
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18 Responses to “Short Stories: The Art of the Start”

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  1. Alyson Hill says:

    Such a concise list, you’ve beautifully summed up a class that took half the year to study at Uni! The skills utilised in writing a good short story are the absolute essentials for any good writer, I believe: economy of words, use of tone and beginning, middle and end that flow. Many writers that I’ve come across dismiss short stories as the amateur writers’ domain, but many writers of the classics made their bread and butter on short stories that are still being handed around in classrooms all over the world. I’d love to see short stories (and their publication) enjoy the popularity they had back in the day.

  2. Kristen says:

    Another great post! And ties in well w/ your post on conciseness…

    Just a thought… ask your new readers what their favorite first lines from short stories are? Or favorite short stories in general? Might be interesting…

  3. Thanks for the very useful tips!

    I think you’re absolutely right when you say it’s important to create an affect that invokes emotion interest in the reader from the very beginning.

    In my opinion if your words can create vivid images in the minds of readers right from the get-go then you’re off to a good start.

  4. amypalko says:

    I was fortunate enough to gain access to the Stephen King archives in Maine a few years back, and in there was an unpublished article about precisely this subject. He talks about opening lines and how, in a short story, they need to ‘hook’ the reader in a way that’s just unnecessary for a novel. I’m so glad you chose the opening line from Tell Tale Heart as an example. That’s one of my absolute favourites, as it packs so much into such few words. It establishes the frantic madness of the narrator whilst simultaneously intimating his inherent unreliability through the exaggerated affirmation. Brilliant!

  5. remirthlessly says:

    I want to write… someplace. A place for readers to discuss writing, and share plots and characters would be great. Could there be an area in this blog for readers to exercise their own creativity?
    If not here, could someone recommend a good website for sharing prose? …and do people get too paranoid about theft and copyright issues to post their original ideas?

    thanks,

  6. @Kristen,

    You’re right-it might be interesting to share and read what others consider their favorite first lines or lead in paragraphs from a short story. While we’re waiting and hoping that Leo takes you up on this suggestion, here’s one that I’d like to share. Why? Amypalko’s mention of Stephen King reminded me of this lead in paragraph from “Home:A Trip Down Memory Lane ” published on printnpost.

    “Some say home is where the heart is. Others proclaim it’s where you hang your hat. Query Stephen King, he’d probably reply, “Home is where they’ll always let you in.” Just don’t ask my overly animated, “potty humor” obsessed husband; he might regurgitate something like “Home is where I can peacefully pinch a loaf! And in case you’re worn out from all the mutated variations of this ancient cliché, I’d say power up for one more. I intend to whip out a home –grown rendition of my very own…just for you, before this story is over!”

    Who’s next?

  7. I love the idea of grabbing attention and making readers curious. Dale Carnegie talks about in the context of writing speeches. I used the advice and came up with this opening paragraph for my book:

    A voice came over the intercom. “Try not to move,” it said, “Or the scan won’t come out clearly.” All I could do was lie there in silence. I closed my eyes and took a deep breath, hoping it would make me stop trembling. But it didn’t. I was scared and I was alone. The only comfort I had was a button I could push if I wanted it all to stop. It just wasn’t enough.

    (Look forward to future posts!)

  8. Well this is one blog, I will be reading often, as I have just started a little writing experiment of my own.

    To REMIRTHLESSLY above, why don’t you start your own blog.. even if many people do not read at first, you will get a chance to write. I have also started my own blog recently at webcatcher.blogspot.com

    I am intending to write original stories in this blog, as well as other articles. I am not too paranoid about people stealing my stories :)
    Just hoping somebody reads them.

  9. I’ve been following Zen Habits since last summer, and this looks like it’ll be a great blog to follow. It’s inspiring me to write again. I’m interested in writing short stories or even really super short stories as just a means to keep building my skills. Also, I don’t have a lot of time for a larger writing project right now. This article is great advice.

    It would be nice if there were a place on this blog (in the future) if we could share our writing or even form small writing groups to critique and encourage each other to get better.

    I look forward to reading more from this site!

  10. Rich Ezzo says:

    Thanks for this new blog!
    I also like short stories very much, though I guess I’d call them “one sitting” stories. Sometimes the term short stories implies only a few pages, to me at least.
    I’ve recently written a one sitting book called “When Money Talks, Listen!” which is perhaps an hour and half read. I think I prefer this style because it’s like watching a movie, or writing one. I’ve written a couple of scripts, and find these to be a great exercise for anyone interested in writing, especially for the “eschew adjectives” rule you mentioned. When writing a script for a film, the author doesn’t have the luxury of telling us what the character is thinking, thus it must be “shown”.
    Even if you just practice by writing a scene or an act in the form of a movie script, this will force you to show more than tell.
    I would like to see you tackle another post, “The art of the ending”.
    I feel too often movies and books just fade away, without a satisfying ending. Beginning with the end in mind can help….for example…”the killer/crank caller terrorizing the baby sitter and eluding the police is actually calling from inside the house, in the attic the whole time” Once you know this, your mind will then drop in the appropriate twists and turns, and leave the reader feeling pleased.

  11. Wow! A great post. A writing partner passed your blog site to me and I thought I would give it a read, and I am very glad I did.

    You really, not only hit the nail on the head here, but have refreshed and given me some direction, thank you! I really like what you said about having some thing happen immediately. I love short stories and I have read so many great stories that would just be perfect if it didn’t take so long to get into the action. I have even gone back over my short stories and the novel I am working on and am doing some rewriting..thanks, I am excited to start reading more of your blogs.

    Thanks for this great blog.

  12. Tedel says:

    “Feel free to break the rules…”

    That’s the nice thing about literature… there’s nothing written.

  13. Liora says:

    I might be wrong, but I think you meant to say “eschew adverbs.”

  14. Gio JL says:

    Hi there, i realised you picked my photo for the coverimage of this post. I appreciate that. Next time, if any chance, please inform me by giving me a mail notice on flickr. cheers.

  15. JP says:

    Thanks for the great tips! As a runner I appreciate the choice of photo :)

  16. For anyone who loves writing, and sharing their stories – you’ll love this Web site http://www.storypassers.com! You can start your own story and have your friends contribute to it, or you can contribute to other peoples stories. Either way, you will have fun in this story sharing experience. Go Share Today!