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Beginning the Short Story

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March 2011
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If the beginning of the short story doesn’t capture the readers attention and inspire them, they won’t continue to read the short story. Therefore you will never get your work published.

To generate interest and curiosity, writers often begin with a narrative hook, which grabs the reader’s attention, motivating them to read on and turn the page.

In this article, I will discuss a few aspects of beginning a short story. The following will be covered:

  • When to start writing the short story
  • Where to begin
  • How to begin

When to Start Writing the Short Story

When should you start writing your short story? Writers use different methods. Some begin after a complete outline of the plot. Others start with a beginning—and not knowing the ending. Still others, begin with a set of characters and the situation. Ideally you want to begin after you have worked out a complete story in your mind and on paper. This is the most efficient method of writing a story. However, since writing is a process of discovery, you cannot always begin after knowing the complete story.

In “Creating Short Stories”, author Damon Knight suggests that you use whatever method works for you. However, if your story becomes “muddled”, you should choose another method of working out your story.

Knight also suggests that as you think about writing your short story, you should ask the following questions to yourself:

  • Who is the story about?–Protagonist
  • What is the story about?-Plot/conflict/situation
  • When does the story take place?-Setting
  • Where does the story take place?-Setting
  • Why are the characters doing what they’re doing?


These questions should be answered as early as possible in your story.

Where to Begin

The beginning of the short story needs to introduce the mood, tone, setting, main character, and situation. You need to begin, as close as possible, before the first important event in the story.

Your opening should do the following:

  • Establish the mood and tone of the story
  • Capture the interest of the reader
  • Arouse curiosity in the reader
  • Open with a narrative hook that inspires the reader to read on

 How much background information should you include? Background details refer to history, climate, weather, culture, and so on. You can read several short stories to get an idea. A good place to begin is by reading short stories in “The Art of the Short Story” by Dana Gioia and R.S. Gwynn.

When writing short stories, especially contemporary short stories, nearly all of the background details are taken for granted. If you write “Toronto”, the reader will fill in much of the background information in his mind, if he/she has visited or lived in that city.

When introducing the setting, provide only the essential details, such as time and place and context, enough for the reader to “suspend disbelief” and “imagine” where the story takes place, as if it were true.

Your goal is to “create a dream in the mind of the reader.” You must do this by making the unbelievable believable. If you include too much detail about the setting, you risk losing the reader’s interest, or your story will become muddled. Remember, you are writing a short story, not a novel.

How to Begin

Writers use different techniques to begin a short story. For instance, in “Barn Burning”, writer William Faulkner introduces the setting. His first line is” The store in which the Justice of the Peace’s court was sitting smelled of cheese.” In Babylon Revisited, writer F. Scott Fitzgerald opens with a question: “And where’s Mr. Campbell?”  Charlie asked.

Use whatever technique works for the story.

Here are the ways to begin a short story:

  • Introduce the conflict of the story.
  • Create a memorable mood. (See short stories written by Poe)
  • Open with the inciting incident or main event of the story.
  • Introduce a problem.
  • Introduce a question. (Read Tom Franklin’s “Alaska”)
  • Reveal the main character.
  • Describe the setting. (Read “Hills with White Elephants” by Hemingway.)

In summary, before you begin writing, you need to know what your short story is about. At the very least, you should know the situation and set of characters in the short story.

Your opening needs to capture the reader’s attention and inspire them to read on. Use a narrative hook to begin your story.

You should begin the short story, as close as possible, to the first important event of the story.


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