Where Do You Start Your Short Story?


This is month three of the Short Story Challenge. You should all be busy with your third story now. I am loving the stories that have been posted for January and February and I am proud of you guys. This week, I want to talk about the beginning of the short story.

How do you know where to start your short story?

The simple answer is: Don’t start at the beginning. This means, we don’t start with back story. We need to start in a moment of action, with minimal explanation as to how we got there. This also depends on the kind of telling, but most short stories have been reduced to one event and the explanation of how we got there is usually revealed in the telling.

Three things you should do in the beginning of your short story:

  1. Introduce the main character.
  2. Establish the setting.
  3. Initiate or introduce the conflict in the story. This conflict is resolved in the telling, or not.

Depending on the story, the importance or prominence of these will vary.  The author may decide to be deliberately ambiguous, with the emphasis on deliberately.

Arrive late. Leave early.

This advice is as old as writing itself and it helps us to keep the tension high in a short story. Drop us in the middle of the action. Leave out the childhood and the work angst and the annoying spouse. Only use what is relevant to the opening scene. We can fill the blanks later.

What genre are you writing in?

Genre will dictate the pace of the story, which will influence the pace of your opening.  Sci-fi and Action have a faster pace. Romance and drama can be off to a slower start.

Look at some of these stories and examine the beginnings:

  1. Sometimes the narrator directly addresses the reader. This is effective in first and third person telling.  First person:  Voices by Alice Munro Third person: Brokeback Mountain  by Annie Proulx
  2. Sometimes we start in the middle of a conversation: I.D. by Joyce Carol Oates
  3. Sometimes we start in an action scene: The Old Man at the Bridge by Ernest Hemingway
  4. Sometimes we start in the middle of a relevant description or narrative:  Cats Robo-Cradle by Margaret Atwood

The beginning of your story puts your hero on his or her path, but we’ll discuss the story goal in more detail in a later post. Good luck.

P.S. Please join the group on Facebook if you want to submit your story every month: 12 Short Stories In 12 Months.

If you want to learn how to write a short story, join us for Short Cuts. If you want to learn how to write a book, join our Writers Write course in Johannesburg or sign up for our online course.