How to begin a short story

Do your short stories consistently fail to hit the mark in competitions?

When judging the Tasmanian Short Story competition, I found that many entries fell into the same classic traps, falling short of the mark and sending them to the bottom of the slush pile immediately. Here are my two top tips on how to avoid those traps.

Take your reader straight into the action

Many writers begin by ‘setting the scene’. This results in a lot of stories opening with logistical details which just aren’t that interesting, or necessary.

The white, stone cottage sat two thirds of the way up the green hill, facing south.

Opening lines are crucial, and that kind of banal detail lets your story down from the outset. It does nothing to set your readers alight, or hook them into the story.

If you look further into your draft you’ll often find a second, third or fourth paragraph which is much more interesting: which really ‘pops.’ Often takes the reader straight into the action. This is where you should begin. Work in the logistical details and description later.

On the path ahead, stepping out from behind a boulder, a man appears.

Neck, by Maggie O’Farrell, in I Am, I Am, I Am, Seventeen Brushes with Death
A mug sits on a table, with the word 'BEGIN' printed on it
Image: Danielle Macinnes, Unsplash

Set up characters with feeling or action, not description

Many writers get caught up in describing their characters literally, focusing on physical appearance. Start with what they’re doing or feeling instead. Then sprinkle description through the text later, as you go.

Be judicious about how much description you actually need. You’d be surprised how little will do. Readers fill in with their imagination, without even realizing it. If they build their own picture of your characters, they’re more invested in reading your work.

It’s a great writerly skill to create your characters with minimal description. The important things are: what they’re doing, how they’re feeling, how they’re connecting with other characters and events.

A friend of mine was rushed to New York Hospital with appendicitis. As soon as I heard the news, I developed pains in the right side of my abdomen.

Hypochondria, by Lily Brett

Try editing your current draft with these tips in mind. It should emerge leaner and more readable, and jump off the page.

Fiona Stocker is the author of Apple Island Wife, a humorous memoir about moving to the country in Australia. She is enrolled in the MA in Writing and Literature at Deakin University. She offers Manuscript Assessment services for writers of short stories, memoir, and longer works of fiction and nonfiction. Find more at www.fionastocker.com

A manuscript assessment does not guarantee success. But it gives you ideas about how to lift your writing so it’s in with a better chance.

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4 thoughts on “How to begin a short story

  1. Great tips indeed. And yes, most of us could actually start off much later in the action than we think we do. ‘Enter late, leave early’ seems to be solid advice here. Thanks for sharing!

    Like

    1. Thanks for dropping by Stuart! I quite often find my favourite and most punchy line going round in my head, and I know that’s where I need to start. And with that, I’ll end! Have a great day.

      Like

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