In F. Scott Fitzgerald’s short story, Three Hours Between Planes, a man decides to look up an old girlfriend while he has a few hours to kill in his old hometown. This is established in the first paragraph. By the second page, the dark-haired little beauty is welcoming him into her house with a highball and a smile. No time wasted in this brilliant comic piece.
In Ian Rankin’s chilling crime story, Someone Got to Eddie, the assassin narrating the tale lets us know his victim is lying bleeding and dying on the floor in just over fifty words. We’re gripped from the start.
In Gina Berriault’s classic, The Stone Boy, written in a longer short story format, the tragedy that changes the life of a young farm boy happens on the third page. She gets to the heart of the story as soon as she set up her characters and the world of the farm.
Why do we go wrong?
As writers, we sometimes spend too much time on the introduction of the story. We feel it is important to give every inch of backstory, a detailed description of character, a perfect sense of place. We’re so busy setting the table with fine china and shiny cutlery we don’t see that our readers have dashed out to the nearest Drive-Thru for a takeaway burger.
How do we avoid this?
Start as close to the action as possible. Fitzgerald doesn’t show his character disembarking from the plane, getting his luggage, having a leisurely cup of coffee. No, he is in a phone booth looking up a number—he wants to see this girl now.
Set the tone of the story. In Rankin’s short story, he uses the interior monologue of the killer to speak to the reader. The voice is detached, casual, smirking – which makes the crime even more shocking. We’re immediately in the mind of a killer.
Focus on your main character. In Berriault’s story, she starts with Arnold pulling on his faded dungarees, old grey sweater and teasing his older brother. We immediately identify with the boy as an authentic character, which helps us empathise with him when he makes a tragic mistake.
Three Top Tips
- If you’re not sure if you’re started in the right place, read over your opening page and cross out every single line that is not indispensable. When you get to the line that simply cannot be left out, you’re at the start of the story.
- Don’t reflect on the past, start with the immediate action. Have your character react to something that’s happened just before the start of the story. Start with your character in the cross hairs.
- Spend time with your character. If you know your character really well, you will not feel the need to over explain or over describe the character. This confidence will show in both restraint and authenticity.
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