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Beginning a Short Story

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August 2011
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By Dave Hood

Suppose you have an interesting idea for a short story, have worked the setting, plot, main character, but you’re not sure how to begin.

In this post, I will explain how to go about writing a beginning for a short story. I will cover the following:

  • Suggestions on how to begin a short story
  • Questions to answer before writing the opening
  • How to open a short story

Suggestions on How to Begin

Jack London begins his amazing short story “To Build A Fire” as follows: “Day had broken cold and grey, exceedingly cold and grey, when the man turned aside from the main Yukon trail and climbed the high earth-bank, where a dim and little travelled trail led….”

William Faulkner begins his memorable short story “A Rose for Emily” as follows: When Miss Emily Grierson died, our whole town went to the funeral.”

Susan Minot begins her realist short story “Lust” as follows: “Leo was from a long time ago, the first one I ever saw nude.”

Tom Franklin begins his short story, one based on a fantastical adventure called “Alaska as follows: “Our aim was this: Alaska.”

In each of these examples, the author has created an interesting opening, one that captures the reader’s attention, inspires the reader to read on, turn the page. Each of these openings asks a question: Why?. Each of these openings stirs curiosity in the reader.

Your opening must grab the reader’s attention. Therefore, you will need an interesting narrative hook to inspire the reader to read your story. You will need an interesting first few sentences, words that capture the imagination of the reader. If your opening is dull, the reader will start to believe that your short story is dull. You risk losing the attention of the reader, who might put down the short story, never read it again.

Questions to Answer before Writing an Opening

Before you write the opening for your short story, you might want to answer the following questions:

  1. Where does the story take place? It is the setting of your story.
  2. What is the story about? You will need to understand the inciting incident, conflict, series of causal events that follow.
  3. Who is the story about? You will need to know who your character is—not only his or her name, but his personality, likes and dislikes, flaws.
  4. Why does the story take place? You will need to know what motives  or desires compel the main character to take action, work toward achieving some particular goal or end.
  5. When does the story take place? In the city, country? Present day? Bygone era? Historical period?

Once you have answered these questions, you will have a better idea how you want to write the opening.

Remember, though, there are no rules for writing fiction. There are just suggestions, principles, and techniques. In the end, when and how you write the opening for a short story is your own decision. But your opening must be interesting—and must capture the imagination of the reader,  inspire the reader to turn the page, and read your short story.

How to Write an Opening?

There have been many books on the craft of fiction, which explain how to write an opening for a short story. In this section, I have used the suggestions of author Josip Novakovich who has an informative book called “Fiction Writer’s Workshop.” He states that there are many ways to write an opening. Here are a few ways to open a short story:

  1. Introduce the setting. It is the time, place, and context of your short story. Setting sets the stage and provides a backdrop to your story.
  2. Begin by introducing the need or want or desire of the main character.
  3. Start your short story with action. Describe a scene in which the main character takes action. Remember to “show, not tell” your reader.
  4. Begin your story with a brief character portrait. Describe the features and attributes that are most significant to provide the reader with a sense of who is the character. Good fiction is about memorable characters, characters that are interesting.
  5. Pose a question to the reader. You can often generate a question indirectly. The obvious question is often “why?” Why did the inciting incident, the main event, take place?
  6. Begin with a memorable scene. Remember, a scene includes setting, vivid details, often dialogue, and action. Be sure to “show, and not tell” your reader.
  7. Opening your short story by revealing the thoughts and/or feelings of the main character.

In this post, I have provided you with a few suggestions on how to write the beginning for a short story. You should read the stories of Chekhov, Hemingway, Carver, Munro, and many others to learn how they begin short stories. A good place to start is by reading “The Norton Anthology of Short Fiction.” You can also read “The Art of the Short Story”, another anthology, by Gioia and Gwyn. (You can purchase these anthologies at Chapters or Amazon.)You should also read “Reading like a Writer” by Francis Prose, “The Art of Fiction” by John Gardner, and “Writing Fiction” by Janet Burroway. Each of these books explains how to go about writing short fiction or a novel.

Remember, there are no rules for writing an opening. However, there are certain acceptable conventions, ways you can begin a story. Learn them, use one of them to write the opening for your short story.

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2 Comments

  1. Good stuff to think about. Thanks! If you ever find the time, I would love any feedback on some of my own works. Thanks again!

  2. Haley R. says:

    This is really good; you know your stuff. What I came to this site looking for was good opening questions like: Have you ever been in a situation you can’t control? — I already had this on my piece, but I was looking for suggestions of how to make a string of questions.
    Even though I did not find what I was looking for, I still think you did a great job on this piece; I would suggest it to my friends it they needed help developing the beginning of their story. Good job, Dave Hood.

    Sincerely,
    Haley

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