3 ways to begin your short story

1. Cinematic Zoom-in

  • Begin with descriptions of the general landscape or an overview of the world of your story
  • Proceed gradually to narrow the scope of your landscape, “zooming in”, introducing legends or myths surrounding the landscape, civilizations, the types of people, etc
  • “Zoom in” even more, a “long shot” of your primary locations (e.g. a village, a mine, a library, etc), a closer look at the people involved, a more detailed description of the appearance and activity within the locations in question
  • Lastly, the final “zoom in”–introduce your main characters, a “close-up” shot that establishes physical appearance,  immediate conflict, motivation and/or identity

Overall I find this method highly suitable for stories that involve intricate relationships between the people and their land. As observed in Patricia A. McKillip’s short story, The Harrowing of the Dragon of hoarsebreath, she begins the story by introducing the island of Hoarsbreath to the readers. The landscape is important because the story is essentially about how the people of Hoarsbreath built their lives around the harsh weather caused by the spirit of the land itself–an ancient ice-dragon whose breath causes the winter and cold. After introducing the island, McKillip then gradually “zooms in” to its location in relation to other townships such as the mainland, and then narrows down the landscape and depicts the busy harbours, the people working at the harbours, a brief highlight of their habits and customs, and then finally introduces the two main characters of the story.

Once, on the top of a world, there existed the ring of an island named Hoarsbreath, made out of gold and snow. It was all mountain, a grim, briny, yellowing ice-world covered with winter twelve months out of thirteen…

Then the miners gathered the gold they had dug by firelight out of the chill, harsh darkness of the deep mountain and took it downriver, across the sea to the mainland…

Then two miners’ children came back from the great world and destroyed the island.

“The Harrowing of the Dragon of Hoarsbreath”
by Patricia A. McKillip
From “The Harrowing of the Dragon”, a short stories collection

2. Begin your story with a character

  • Introduce your character immediately
  • Begin with an internal monologue and a distinctive, non-conventional voice
  • Begin a character in action, danger or unique set of circumstances
  • Begin with unique, attention-grabbing descriptions of a character

I find this very effective when the story is meant to be character-driven (of course!). Personally, if I’m intrigued by a non-conventional character, I’m drawn into the story because I want to find out what happens to the character and what he or she has to say. For example, in Rhys Hughes’ short story Castor on Troubled Watersshe immediately introduces the main character, Castor Jenkins, who is stereotypical yet “atypical” Welshman:

He’s almost fifty years of age, Castor Jenkins is, which for a stereotypical Welshman must be reckoned venerable, if not ancient. Not that he takes kindly to being considered a stereotype. He likes to point out that real Welshmen don’t live exclusively on a diet of beer and chips, nor do they avoid exercise, work and responsibility every waking minute of the day: the fact that he does those things is a mark of his uniqueness and it’s just a coincidence that the cliche and his individualism are the same.

“Castor on Troubled Waters”
By Rhys Hughes
From “Fast Ships, Black Sails”, a collection of short stories about pirates

Also, adding humour to the character description sets a light-hearted tone and at the same time excites the reader into reading more.

Long ago, in a vast and faraway country, there lived a witched named Baba Yaga. She was sometimes very wise and sometimes very wicked, and she was so ugly mules fainted at the sight of her.

“Baba Yaga and the Sorcerer’s Son”
By Patricia A. McKillip
From “The Harrowing of the Dragon” short stories collection

I don’t know about you but–I nearly died of laughter when I learned about the fainting mules. A terrible sight to behold, indeed.

3. Begin your story with second person

  • Beginning a story with second person (e.g. “you”, “your”) demands the reader’s attention because you are essentially addressing the readers and allowing them to “assume” a role in your story–even though you’re writing about someone else altogether
  • Beginning the second person creates a compelling voice and sense of mystery

I remember reading Ray Bradbury’s (god bless him and may him rest in peace) short story The Reincarnate, I was immediately hooked by the second person perspective.

After a while you will get over being afraid. There’s nothing you can do, just be careful to walk at night. The sun is terrible; summer nights are no help. You must wait for cold weather. The first six months are your prime. In the seventh month the water will seep through with dissolution. In the eight month your usefulness will fade. By the tenth month you’ll lie weeping the sorrow without fears, and you will know then that you will never move again.

“The Reincarnate”
By Ray Bradbury
From “Dark Delicacies: Original Tales of Terror and the Macabre by the World’s Greatest Horror Writers”

Right after I read the first paragraph, I thought to myself: what is going on? And I was eager to read on to find out what happened. As it turns out, “you” are a walking dead, a zombie.

To Close

Anyway. I think these three methods are pretty common and obvious, but actually writing them down and analyzing them really helped me absorbed these mechanisms and officially “put them in storage”. The active storage with lots of traffic, that is. It’s like..the difference between words you use without even thinking, and words you know but don’t really use but might use when the occasion arises. You know what I’m talking about, right? Or am I just babbling to myself…

Anyway. Hope you liked this amazing, breathtakingly beautiful, wonderful, record-breaking post about fiction writing. 😀

Last but not least–will post more when I compile more stuff.


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