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Opening short stories

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Finding the right place to open a short story can be challenging. (Hell, it’s hard enough to work out where to start a novel!) So often, opening paragraphs bring a reader slowly into the story – too slowly: setting up the location, a main character’s backstory and maybe an outline of the status quo.

Unfortunately, when your story is only 5000-8000 words long, spending a few thousand words at the start to ‘establish the scene’ is a huge drag on the pace. The reader is keen to get to the start of the story, to get involved quickly in the world you’ve created for them. Instead, they’re being frontloaded with set dressing that could be illustrated at later points.

A powerful opening doesn’t have to mean slamming the reader down in the middle of the crisis and scenes of hand to hand combat or demons eating stenographers. It does mean, though, that something must be happening or is about to happen. That pent-up energy doesn’t have to be the inciting event for the plot, though it’s a great move to make it related to the inciting event.

So in short stories, as in novels, an opening needs to be active*. Rather than ‘action’ necessarily, this means that your story should open with a sense of movement or some incipient tension. Some examples of how this might be achieved are:

  • suggest something out of the ordinary is happening beyond the scene, which your character notices (or the reader notices and the character does not – a classic Hitchcock move)
  • introduce a character who is waiting for news|about to take act|obviously avoiding an action
  • open with weather or events that confine a character |are at odds with a character’s needs | reflect a character’s concealed inner state | reflect the characters’s outer state

Whether you open with a place, a person or even the weather** your opening should contain strong feeling or a distinctive sense of place and time. It should be imbued with personality of person, place or even the narrator’s viewpoint. Strong feeling may be positive, like contentment or joy; it darker feelings like loneliness, grief or anxiety. Anything, as long as it has presence.

Then, from an opening which is loaded and buzzing with personality, emotion, tension, maybe impending threat and on the brink of change, tip your reader over the edge and fully into the flow of your story.

This approach is particularly important in short stories, where you have much less time to grapple your reader into your story with hoops of steel and lead them on a journey.

Your opening paragraphs don’t have to be made up of full-on action or angst, but it does have to engage and involve the reader. Ideally, every sentence in a short story (or novel) should tell you about the characters, the setting or the plot. Backstory and description of locale are valid and necessary, but consider how these passages add to your story’s tone, theme, plot, and setting. Even places can have personality and character and add to your overall story.

So – next time you’re writing a short story, review it carefully. How long does it take for you to get to the inciting events of the actual plot? How can you introduce important elements sooner and pull your characters – and your readers – into the flow more quickly?

It takes practice – I still occasionally get editorial notes about not having started in quite the right place – but it’s one of the surest ways to get editors to read your submissions. Because if you take too long to get to the crunchy part of the story, they’re more likely to put it aside in favour of a story that engages them from the get-go.

(*If you’ve subscribed to my quarterly Notes in the Margins newsletter, you should have downloaded Wording, a short book of advice on writing and research. An essay there covers the concepts of ‘action’ versus ‘active’ in story openings.)

(**Wording has an essay on that topic as well.)

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4 thoughts on “Opening short stories

  1. Thank you for this!

    (Also, I want to know more about the stenographer-eating demons! (I actually started typing demon-eating stenographer!).)

  2. This is a timely post, as I am going to explore short stories after practising in the longer medium for a while. Let’s see if I can get used to the pacing of such a limited word count!

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