Written by Diana Jane Heath
When it comes to writing the short story there are two important structural guidelines to remember—the beginning and ending. Although there are other guidelines, the beginning and ending of a short story are considered to be among the most important. These guidelines apply to novels as well, but for a short story there is a limited word count in which to offer an intriguing story-world. So let us get started in exploring how to write a dynamic opening for a short story.
A story’s opening paragraph should be designed to capture a reader’s imagination and inspire them to read more. The opening paragraph acts as a pivotal gateway through which your reader must enter so that they can journey successfully through your story. There are many ways of beginning a story: setting, character description, action, a statement, an idea, or posing a question.
Your setting could be a location: a windswept beach, a dark Dystopian city, a magical underwater world, or a simple hobbit’s hole as described by J. R. R. Tolkien in the opening page of The Hobbit—“In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit. Not a nasty, dirty, wet hole, filled with the ends of worms and an oozy smell, nor yet a dry, bare, sandy hole with nothing in it to sit down on or eat: It was a hobbit-hole, and that means comfort”.
The opening lines can introduce your main protagonist, for example—‘Ella leaned back against the cold damp stone wall. Her porcelain skin was pale and drawn, with deep lines etched around her eyes and mouth, and her once glorious golden hair hung in matted tendrils around her face’.
Starting your story with strong action thrusts the reader into the thick of the story. ‘The baying of the hunting dogs drew closer as she dashed through the thickly wooded forest. Like a mad woman, she fought her way through the close knit trees, until she was suddenly redeemed by a burst of bright sunlight as she stumbled out of the forest into a small clearing’.
The iconic opening statement in Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities is dramatic, poetic and memorable, ‘It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of our despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way …’
How about Jane Austen’s opening line in the classic novel, Pride and Prejudice—‘It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife’.
Starting your story with an idea can really get your reader thinking. Although they may not agree with your idea, they can be compelled to read on to see where this idea will take them.
‘“Where’s Papa going with that axe?” said Fern to her mother as they were setting the table for breakfast.’ Charlotte’s Web, E.B. White.
Beginning your story with a question sets up intrigue in the reader’s mind. You have provided them with a question that needs to be answered and they must commit to the whole story to discover the answer.
I have provided just a few tips on how to write a dynamic opening for a short story in a way that will capture your reader’s imagination. So why not engage in some creative brainstorming and see what kind of ideas you can dream up when writing your own short story.
Diana Jane Heath is a freelance writer and editor, she tweets here. Stay tuned for 'How to Write a Gripping Ending to a Story' next week.