When all’s said and done, the beginning of a story is really no more important than the middle or the end. Except for lyric poetry, a short story is the most unified piece of work you can write, or at least it should be. If one part of it doesn’t work, nothing else in it is going to work, either. However, the beginning of your story is the first thing any reader (or any agent or publisher) sees. (And the house I work for receives hundreds of short story submission each week, so you’ve got plenty of competition.) If your first few sentences, preferably your very first sentence, doesn’t capture the reader’s attention, he or she will never get to that wonderful complication on page five or your stunning conclusion on page fifteen.
As a reader, editor, and lover of well written short stories, and as a short story writer as well, I’m more than willing to give up my valuable time to a story that captures my attention and holds it, that gives me enjoyment and satisfaction, that in the end, enriches my life. However, before I devote my time to any short story, there are a few things I want to know.
First, I want to know that the writer knows his or her craft. No one in the publishing world (and very few outside of it) want to read a story written by someone who hasn’t put in the necessary hours of study and work learning how to craft a well written piece of work. If you don’t know your craft, you can forget about acquiring a readership outside of your immediate family and close circle of friends.
Second, I want to know I can trust the writer to deliver the goods, i.e., to tell me a good story, one that will reward me for sticking around. I don’t want to be tricked. I don’t want to read ten pages of one thing only to find on the eleventh that the story was really about something else all along. This kind of trickery isn’t good writing. It isn’t even good trickery. Don’t confuse your reader. Don’t play coy. Playing coy is not a quality that’s prized in literature.
Third, I don’t want my intelligence insulted. I’m an adult and I’m an adult who’s spent almost my entire working life (so far) in the world of editing and publishing. At the same time, I don’t want my intelligence overestimated. I’m not fond of stories in which the writer is deliberately obtuse or abstract and I don’t know any editor or publisher who is. We want to be entertained and we want to be enriched, but we don’t want to have to puzzle things out.
Fourth, don’t forget to rewrite and polish. As an editor, I help writers with their work because that’s what I’m paid to do, but as a reader, I don’t want to do any writer’s work for him. That’s his job.
You’ve probably heard that you have to “make us care.” You have to make your reader care what happens to the characters you introduce on the first page. (And in a short story, you do have to introduce them on the very first page.) If we don’t care what happens to your characters, we really have no motivation to read on. Henry James called this the “stout stake of emotion” and you should introduce it in your very first sentence, if possible. At least somewhere in the first five.
But please don’t confuse the stout stake with the narrative hook, which has become a melodramatic and cheap hook not even used by most Hollywood B movies any more. And example of a cheap hook would be: “Steven recoiled as the gun went off and Kelly fell to the floor.” Okay. Something happened, that’s for sure, but readers are more likely to roll their eyes and say, “Sure, okay” than be drawn in and want to find out why. And really, after a melodramatic opening like that, where are you going to go but down?
In his book, Writing in General and the Short Story in Particular, Rust Hills tells beginning writers to start their story on a day that’s different. We don’t want to know about your characters everyday habits. How he gets up every morning before the alarm rings, puts the coffee on, gets the newspaper, showers, dresses, then eats two eggs and toast for breakfast before leaving for work. We want to meet your protagonist on a day that’s different, on a day when something is going to happen to him that will make him change or will prevent him from changing. We want to meet him on a day when something out of the ordinary happens that he can never change.
A lot on inexperienced writers think that withholding information is the way to keep their readers interested. It’s more likely to make them shake their heads and say, “What in the world is this all about?” then throw your story down in dismay. Suspense is created by what your reader knows, not what he doesn’t know. If we know the character you’ve created has a quick temper and is given to carrying around a loaded .45, we’re going to worry when his boss deliberately aggravates him and simply won’t give up. However, if we don’t learn about the gun until your protagonist pulls it out and kills his boss, then it’s not going to create much suspense and your ending is going to come off like the cheap trick it is.
Of course, you can’t tell us everything right up front. You can’t cram a twelve-page short story into one paragraph. You can, however, impart information to your reader on a strictly need-to-know basis. Don’t try to trick us by withholding the essentials, but do hold back enough to keep us reading. This is a fine balancing act, but it’s one you have to learn if you ever want the stories you write to succeed.
Most beginning writers I edit make the mistake of beginning their stories with dialogue. I suppose they’ve heard or read that a writer has to begin in medias res, so they choose dialogue to open their story at warp speed. This rarely works and can be terribly disorienting to the reader. Dialogue is the most powerful tool in a writer’s toolbox, but if you open your story that way, the reader is often left struggling to decipher who’s doing the talking or what the unique circumstances might be. Worse yet, are writers who attempt to give us exposition in an opening line of dialogue.
Short story writers aren’t playwrights. At least they aren't playwrights when they're writing a short story. And they have far more tools with which to craft their work of art than does the playwright. Use them. Make the most of them. But don’t rely on any one tool too much of the time, and especially not dialogue. Think of dialogue like dynamite – something very powerful and something that if overused, could blow your story to bits.
Lastly, remain true to the fictional world you’ve created. If your character is a dyed-in-the-wool optimist on page one and two and three, he’d better not start worrying over trivialities on page seven. Not unless you give us a very good reason. And remember point-of-view. If you’re telling your short story in the first person, stay with that viewpoint all the way through. Don’t start giving us the thoughts of a secondary character. If you do, you’ll have violated viewpoint and your reader will be confused and you’ll look like a writer who hasn’t taken the time to learn his craft.
Short story writing is very difficult, in part, because of the unity required, however, it can be one of the most rewarding of all the art forms available. Just make sure you do it right.