A friend and I have been reading a lot of short stories lately for an anthology we’re putting together, and she said of one, “The set up is confusing and the story line doesn’t flow. It’s rocky and not really grabbing my attention. I always love a nice, strong beginning, but he’s all over the place” (I’m looking at you, Hannah!).
I think there’s something about a novel that gives us as readers a little more patience. We’re willing to let the story build a tiny bit more. But with a short piece, we want to be engaged almost immediately. There’s no time to dilly-dally!
Beginnings make ALL the difference in a short story. Get to the point. Grab us by the front of the shirt and don’t let go.
Here are a few examples of great ones:
Here’s what it’s like to bear up under the burden of so much guilt: everywhere you drag yourself you leave a trail.
TRUE!—nervous—very, very dreadfully nervous I had been and am; but why will you say that I am mad? The disease had sharpened my senses –not destroyed –not dulled them. Above all was the sense of hearing acute. I heard all things in the heaven and in the earth. I heard many things in hell. How, then, am I mad? Hearken! and observe how healthily –how calmly I can tell you the whole story.
In an ideal world, we would have been orphans. We felt like orphans and we felt deserving of the pity that orphans get, but embarrassingly enough, we had parents. I even had two.
Janet turns from the sink and, boom, all at once her husband of nearly thirty years is sitting at the kitchen table in a white T-shirt and a pair of Big Dog boxers, watching her.
On the burning February morning Beatriz Viterbo died, after braving an agony that never for a single moment gave way to self-pity or fear, I noticed that the sidewalk billboards around Constitution Plaza were advertising some new brand or other of American cigarettes.
Though each of these stories has a very different opening, they all grab your attention in different ways. Short stories should always begin by introducing you to a character, situating you in a setting, or making you ask a question that demands you find out more. From the very beginning, you can hook readers and make them feel like they have to finish your story in order to make their lives complete. That’s the kind of opening you want to create.
Oh, and you have to give them a satisfying ending, but that’s a topic for another day.