1. cazann34
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    cazann34 Active Member

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    What's the best way to start a short story?

    Discussion in 'General Writing' started by cazann34, Mar 19, 2013.

    I want to write more short stories but I'm a little sure of the best approach. I feel my openings can come off as a bit flat. I've tried starting with scene setting, atmosphere setting, characters thoughts and even dialogue but they seem to lack the impact I think short stories should start with. What's the best way to start a short story?
     
  2. Youniquee
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    Youniquee (◡‿◡✿) Contributor

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    Exactly how you would start a novel...
    Since it's a short story, the conflict should be introduced as soon as possible.
    And dialogue usually does the trick, especially if it does the above :)
     
  3. Phoenix Hikari
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    Phoenix Hikari Contributing Member

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    It all depends on the kind and length of the short story you are trying to write. I tend to start mine with confusion or conflict, depending on the topic of the story.
    But what Youniquee said about introducing conflict soon as possible in the story is an important factor. Also, in my opinion, long descriptions and fancy wording should be left out of short stories. You're aiming to make an impression, deliver a message, introduce rounded characters and solve a conflict in only 2k-3k words. That means a short story needs to be carefully lied out to the reader so the transition and the concept become complete.
    My advice, don't start with settings or conflict, start with a character. That usually work better with short stories, when we have a character to follow from the first line, our attention will remain with the story till the end.
     
  4. murasaki_sama
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    murasaki_sama Senior Member

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    If you want to start with conflict, consider starting, not with the first sign of conflict, but about halfway through the conflict. That way you have more words left to resolve the conflict, as well as explore its impact on the characters.

    For example, instead of starting at the beginning of an argument between Character A and Character B, start near the end of the argument, when its already extremely heated and tense.

    Or start in the middle of a sword fight, when the characters are growing tired, and their minor injuries have accumulated to such a point that they can feel the effect of gradual blood loss.

    Start as the war comes to a turning point, as the relationship begins to wither, in the middle of conflict.

    Just a suggestion, of course.
     
  5. NigeTheHat
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    NigeTheHat Contributing Member Contributor

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    With a bang. The same things will hook a reader into a short story as they do into longer ones - conflict, tension, curiosity, action.
     
  6. peachalulu
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    peachalulu Contributing Member Reviewer Contributor

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    I like to start with an event in which characters have to make a choice.
    I also like dilemmas, arguements, fancy word-play, a unique setting or even a
    direct statement - a hook - anything that lures a reader on.

    Plus right off the bat I want to know that these characters are no average joes or janes
    they're unique that's why I'm reading this story. They have to say or do something that
    sets them apart. Even if they're the most ordinary people in the world, I don't want to
    believe that they are.
     
  7. minstrel
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    minstrel Leader of the Insquirrelgency Staff Supporter Contributor

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    Start with a character in a situation that compels him to act. Either he's in a bad situation and needs to improve it, or he's in a good situation that is being threatened, so he needs to save it. But start with a character, and give him a problem right away.

    In a short story there isn't much room to develop atmosphere and setting. I wouldn't advise starting with description or casual dialogue. You can start with dialogue, but it should relate to the problem the character needs to solve. Don't waste space having characters talk about the weather or last night's baseball game or how bad the traffic was on the way to work. Get to the problem fast.
     
  8. SwampDog
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    SwampDog Contributing Member

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    In with a bang. Out with an explosion.
     
  9. Cogito
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    Cogito Former Mod, Retired Supporter Contributor

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    Just start writing. Don't worry about the first thing you write. There's a good chance it won't be the start of your story after you edit.

    In particular, a short story needs to be leaner and more focused than a novel. You can expect to spend plenty of time trimming fat.
     
  10. slamdunk
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    slamdunk Member

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    Anything that intressts the reader is good. I don't think it has to be action or anything specific but it has to be intressting (for some reason) and the text should make the reader wanting more after the first few lines (not after half a page).
     
  11. mammamaia
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    mammamaia nit-picker-in-chief Contributor

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    since you want to write short stories, haven't you been reading/studying the best short stories of all time?... you certainly should have... if you have, you would know what works, by seeing how the best short story writers started theirs...

    if you haven't, i strongly suggest you start...
     
  12. thewordsmith
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    thewordsmith Contributing Member Contributor

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    My knee-jerk reaction is to answer that question with, "At the beginning". But, bear in mind, with a short story you've got about an eighth to a tenth of the number of words to work with as you would in a full novel. With that in mind, you need to eliminate most of the descriptions, which includes most of the scene-setting. For the most part, staging should be at a Spartan minimum. The focus in shorts needs to be on the core of the story. Your MC, Protag/Antagonist, and the crux of the story. Players need to be kept at a minimum as well and so, too, descriptions of characters. Your words are at a premium and you don't want to squander them on peripheral verbiage. You need to jump right into the thick of things. So you don't want to take a leisurely stroll through the Latin Quarter before you get to the heist. Neither do you want to examine the MC's psyche before getting down to that heist nor the "bad guy"'s misspent youth or his anger with the government leading up to that Bank Job. In a short story, you don't have the luxury of too much character examination. Some, yes, but not much!

    So, to answer your question: Where to start the short story? NOT at the beginning! And, unless your characters' dialog is informative and packs a punch at the same time, that's rarely a good place to start. (Yes, I have used that opening in novels before (only once, I think) but in the middle of an action scene.)
    You need to engage the reader from the first sentence. Put them in the middle of what's going on. A sentence or two to set the scene is fine as is a description of the setting - IF that scene is critical to the story. Every word in a short must move the story forward to the denoument.
     
  13. mg357
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    mg357 Active Member

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    I start each of my short stories with the main character doing something, for example their stuck in traffic on the way to work or they are on their way home from work or their at work or their in another room waiting for someone.
     
  14. cazann34
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    cazann34 Active Member

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    You are a remarkable woman. You always seem to answer a question by asking another question.
    Since I have have your attention are there any authors out there that you personally would recommend?
     
  15. minstrel
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    minstrel Leader of the Insquirrelgency Staff Supporter Contributor

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    Acknowledged masters of the short story form include Ernest Hemingway, Flannery O'Connor, Alice Munro, Raymond Carver, Jorge Luis Borges, John Cheever, and Katherine Mansfield. Probably the two most prominent 19th century masters were Anton Chekhov and Edgar Allan Poe.
     
  16. mammamaia
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    mammamaia nit-picker-in-chief Contributor

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    there's no call for sarcasm, cazann... and questions often need to be asked...

    i would have happily given you a list of authors i personally recommend, had you not prefaced your request with what i can only assume was meant as an insult...
     
  17. Phoenix Hikari
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    Phoenix Hikari Contributing Member

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    I really don't think cazann meant it as an insult or sarcasm.
     
  18. AshleyFinn
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    AshleyFinn Member

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    I start with conflict and as close to the end as possible. Conflict is what always grabs me and the reader. For me, generally speaking, internal conflict interests me more than anything. It is something I can relate to.
     
  19. live2write
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    live2write Contributing Member

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    Depending on how long you are going to write it. I say get to the point
     
  20. rhduke
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    rhduke Contributing Member Reviewer

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    You can start with any of those elements you just listed really. If it makes the reader ask a question, then the reader is encouraged to keep reading to find the answer. Maybe it's a small question, maybe it's a big one, but it's really just there to spark interest. You shouldn't spend all your effort on it, because ultimately the meat of the story is going to determine if the reader keeps going or not.

    For example, the short "We can remember it wholesale" by Philip K. Dick starts off with:

    "He awoke - and wanted Mars."

    It's not the most common thing to want after waking up, so it begs the question: why would he want it? It's not overdone with dramatic wording. It does its job by sparking a question and letting the reader know what the short will most likely be about.
     
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  21. peachalulu
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    peachalulu Contributing Member Reviewer Contributor

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    I like John Updike's short stories, Alice Munro, Nabokov, and mixed collections.
    My favorite used book store is having their month long 50 % off sale I've been buying
    up the joint!
     
  22. Markpearce17
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    Markpearce17 Member

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    I have been advised that you need to hook the reader. Give them something which grabs their attention. Character development must be done minimally and use of dialogue can be made to enhance this. I think the expression start with a bang and end with an explosion used by somebody else here was a good way to describe it.
     
  23. Rafiki
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    Rafiki Active Member

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    I enjoy beginning with an image but the key is focus. Its generally a poor idea to begin with generalities or vague musings, you want to be with the audience, there, in the moment; anything less and they lose interest.
     
  24. Thornesque
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    Thornesque Contributing Member

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    "Once upon a time..."

    No, I'm joking.

    The important thing, I think, with a shorter piece of any kind is to grab attention. With novels, readers expect for the action to be slowly worked into, and will usually give anywhere from 2 to 5 chapters for things to get interesting. With a short story, that grab at attention has to be nearly immediate. Whether you do that in what you say or in how you say it is completely up to you.
     
  25. GoldenGhost
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    GoldenGhost Contributing Member

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    Hmmm.. good question.. makes me think of the Socratic Method--a mode of inquiry, where questions are swapped in hopes that the person who first asked a question might arrive at an answer on their own, thus solidifying the concept, while engaging a critical thought process that can be applied to different aspects of life, and doing so without having others think and do the problem solving for you. Makes me also wonder why the method has stood the test of time?

    Question everything, and logic usually provides you an absolute through process of elimination. I personally wouldn't want answers handed to me, and I admire people like maia, and others on the website, who first ask questions before providing an answer, because they make the initiator a better person in the long run.

    As for the OP's question, I side with maia, and the above information. You want to start with something that attracts attention, something that maybe poses a question, or puts the reader in the middle of conflict (google 'in media res'). The best way to find out what works is by looking at great short fiction, and non-fiction--articles, essays, and other mediums that rely on a 'hook' to get their reader attached to the words.

    Inciting a question is always a good way to start, because it forces the reader, if the question is intrigueing enough, to read on in hopes the question gets answered. Sometimes, and I've seen this done in pieces written by Hemingway, Maugham, Bradbury, Chekhov, and Fitzgerald (just to name a few short-story writers), you can start with something that incites a question, and what follows causes the reader to ask themselves an entirely different question, which may or may not have anything to do with the beginning, but gets them reading, anyway.

    Can you think of moments where the initial words of a story really grabbed you? What was it specifically that caught your attention? How did the story begin? With action? Dialogue? Imagery? Did it start from the beginning, or end of the story? Was it a flashback?

    Most good beginnings are extremely to the point, due to the author writing with authority, stating something right off the bat that you are forced to accept, something odd, or painful, or weird, or way out in left field.

    Look at Bradbury's opening line to Fahrenheit 451, "It was a pleasure to burn."

    Look at what then follows, "It was a special pleasure to see things eaten, to see things blackened and changed."

    In the character's perspetive, it was not only a pleasure to burn, but to see things eaten, blackened, and changed? Come on, look at how bizarre those two sentences are, how jolting, how confident, and acute in what's being presented.

    It sets the tone for the entire story, giving the reader the core of Montag's situation right away, also alluding to what would later be his conflict between doing what is right and what is wrong, even hinting at Beatty's perspective on books at the same time. SO much information conveyed in such a short amount of space, while staying open-ended enough to get the reader asking questions, maybe about himself, but more so about why the character feels this way, and why he enjoys burning things.

    The answer, in reality, to the OP's thread, is one I've come to accept as universal when trying to write well.

    That answer is to read, read, read, and read some more, and absorb everything that enters your vision.
     

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