How to Begin a Short Story

6
1059

metamorphosisMaybe I’m just impatient, but I’ll generally stop reading a short story if the first two paragraphs don’t answer the following questions:

  1. Who is this story about? (Character)
  2. Why should I care about that character? (Empathy)
  3. Where is this story taking place? (Location)
  4. When is this story taking place? (Time Period)
  5. What might happen during the rest of the story? (Plot)

If I don’t get these questions answered pretty darn quickly, I get lost and bored because I can’t “anchor” what’s going on or what’s supposed to be happening.

Recently, I’ve run across several stories that begin with dialog and continue with dialog for half a page (or more) before providing any details about who’s talking and why I should care. Like this:

“It isn’t magic, it’s antimatter,” said Archibald.
“What is anti… matter…?” asked Moonbeam.
“Don’t listen to the old man. He’s crazy!” said the pet gnome.
etc.

It’s almost like the writer would prefer to write a screenplay. Screenplays are fine when writing for a director who’s used to filling in the details, but it’s fatal to the attention span of the average reader.

I’ve also run across a number of short stories that leap immediately into deep backstory, like this:

Archibald was both a space-traveler and a magician who learned magic in ancient academy of sorcery on Earth.  Space travel had been established three thousand years earlier under the reign of the Ming God-kings, who learned the secrets of the universe taking drugs were discovered by the sage Phandaal in the mountains of Kalagoing, which had been absent of humans since the nuclear holocaust that destroyed the forgotten Dwarf kingdoms…

I’ve only read two authors who can frontload this kind of detailed backstory and make it work: Tolkien and Jack Vance.  And then only when they’re starting a thousand-page trilogy.

In my view, short stories don’t have time for anything more than very minimal backstory and then only after the five key questions have been answered.

Some writers can answer the five key questions in the first sentence, like in Kafka’s Metamorphosis:

“As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into a gigantic insect.”

That line is worth dissecting to illustrate why it works so well:

“As Gregor Samsa [name suggests nationality and therefore identity] awoke one morning [the when] from uneasy dreams [we care because we have all had bad dreams] he found himself transformed in his bed [where it happened] into a gigantic insect [uh, oh. this can’t be good].”

While it’s unrealistic to expect all writers to be as talented as Kafka, I think the best short stories–at least the ones that I want to keep reading–answer the five key questions within the first two paragraphs or so.

6 COMMENTS

  1. Geoffrey, great post. Your criteria is the same as mine.I teach sf/fantasy creative writing at Arizona State University and one thing I show my students is how Bradbury gets us grounded in his stories by the first two or three lines. I also have them read one of Gardner Dozois' Year's Best where you can see how Dozois prefers those stories wherein the conflict isn't clear for many paragraphs, if at all. One of my favorite writers (and sf persons) is Nancy Kress, but it took me a while to accept her method of writing. She's a Dozois protege (much of here early work appeared in Asimov's when Dozois was editing it), and her stories simply start and eventually get around to the conflict. But more and more, sf stories don't have this. But when pulp magazines were flourishing in the Forties and early Fifties, every short story would start with your criteria. (My favorite opening of any story is the long sentence that begins "The Fall of the House of Usher" wherein we get what's happening as well as a hint of the depressive nature of the protagonist's psyche.) Good post.

  2. I've slowly been going through the writings of the other bloggers on this site, and I found an excellent example of how a novel can grab you in the first couple of paragraphs.

    The example I found is Michael J. Sullivan's Theft of Swords, which I looked into because of his post Three is a Magic Number.

    I'll take the liberty of quoting the first paragraph:

    —-

    "Hadrian could see little in the darkness, but he could hear them–the snapping of twigs, the crush of leaves, and the brush of grass. There were more than one, more than three, and they were closing in."

    —-

    I want to call your attention to how Sullivan quickly engages the reader.

    In the first sentence, the reader knows where the character is (in a forest), when it is (nighttime). Furthermore, the situation immediately creates empathy, because being caught in the woods in the dark while being pursued is (literally) the stuff of nightmare. The sentence also foreshadows the plot; you know immediately that this is going to be an adventure.

    In the second sentence, Sullivan tells you something important about the POV character–that he is "woodcrafty" enough to identify the number of people who are approaching in the dark. He does this by qualifying "more than one" into "more than three," thereby simulating the thought process of the character, which further inserts you into the character's head.

    Bam! In two sentences, the reader is engaged.

    • This is interesting for me because I've spent a lot of time in the woods being hunted by and hunting other humans.

      One quickly learns to develop a reliance on other senses; there have been many times that I knew someone was out there stalking me but could not find them with my eyes. However, closing ones eyes and listing almost always gave them away.

      Now truth to tell my encounters were non-lethal, (often felt that way depending on what the outcome of a game might be), but I always found being hunted energized me and thrilled me rather than creating dread or fear. Some of that came from the knowledge that more often than not my skills exceeded those of the hunter(s) and I'd usually be leading them on a merry chase than ended up with them on the wrong side of the equation, but I have to admit that even in a non-lethal environment, there were times when the fear of discovery was nearly paralyzing.

      (I refer to playing paintball when it used to be played in the woods: I've got patches of forest all across north america memorized, lol.)

  3. Tolkien? You mean " When Mr Bilbo Baggins of Bag End announced that he would shortly be celebrating his eleventy-first birthday with a party of special magnificence, there was much talk and excitement in Hobbiton" – ?

    Hmmm. I guess he tells us who, where, and when (in the character's timeline) – he captures our attention with the oddity of counting to eleventy-one, and he promises us a party. 🙂 – The second paragraph goes on to talk of secret hidden treasure, and some oddity around Bilbo's longevity and previous adventures (which the reader may, or may not have read about before picking up Lord of the Rings)

    But then it turns out, of course, that the story is NOT about Bilbo, and it is not a treasure quest in the usual sense, it turns out to be about trying to *lose* a treasure.

    I must admit that when I read Lord of the Rings for the first time, I kept thinking "Ok, so when is this going to become interesting, when will the action start?" until at some stage halfway through the first half of the first book, I admitted to myself that could not put it down any more before I knew they were safely in Rivendell.

    The way the terror of the Black Riders creeps up on us unobtrusively, something we barely notice as threatening at first, but which at some stage we suddenly realize, seems inescapable, is an absolute masterpiece of suspense building, and one which few people have had the courage and, should I call it "plot patience", to try to repeat. Far too many books these days seem to be written with the film version in mind, and they tend to plunge us into a lot of action sequences which really do work better on a screen, than they do on the pages of a book.

    But yes — of course, LotR is not exactly what one would call a "short story", though I do suppose that mutatis mutandis, your rule goes for longer forms as well. Perhaps in a novel, one is given a page or two to establish these things. 🙂

    • Yes, I do think about two pages is correct. One version of this article quoted the beginning of the novel "Gone with the Wind" and contrasted it to the beginning of the screenplay.

      The novel starts with "Scarlett OHara was not beautiful but men seldom realized it when caught by her charm…" then spends about 1500 words setting up the historical context and then has the first line of dialog.

      The screenplay reads as follows:

      Chapter 1 Scarlett's Jealousy

      (Tara is the beautiful homeland of Scarlett, who is now talking with the twins, Brent and Stew, at the door step.)

      BRENT: What do we care if we were expelled from college, Scarlett?

LEAVE A REPLY

Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.