One trick for starting a short story is the trick of front-loading, so that the overarching fantastic element, source of melodrama, or underlying theme or emotion, is presented to the reader immediately or shortly after the story commences. This technique is often useful because within the first few lines or paragraphs of your story, the author still has the readers’ complete trust. The reader has not had a chance for doubt to creep in and impinge upon their suspension of disbelief. In short: At this point, they’re still open to buying what you’re selling.
Now before we go any further I should probably point out that this is just one technique which can be used effectively when commencing a short story. It is not the be-all-end-all of how to start a story. There is no single one right way. To quote Nick Mamatas once more from his fantastic collection of essays, Starve Better:
Write what you want, when you want, and how you want to write it. If you keep finding yourself staring up at the lights while the ref counts to three, try another strategy. There are plenty to choose from … whatever gets the story published and enjoyed is what works.
Getting back to the idea of front-loading: Using the term “curse” as a byword for melodrama in plot, Ansen Dibell says in her book :Elements of Fiction Writing – Plot:
There are straightforward ways of setting your curse in the middle of solidly credible things and declaring it right from the beginning. There are other methods of misdirecting attention so that the curse has already happened and been accepted before the reader has a chance to holler, “Hey, now, wait a minute!”
I’ll start with the front-loading ways first—putting the unusual right up front and making it part of the story’s fundamental reality.” (Simon: Emphasis mine)
Ansen then goes on to list a number of ways to do this, and gives examples of: the protagonist in Kafka’s Metamorphosis awaking and realising he is an insect, the opening scene of Star Wars: A New Hope being laser fire between spaceships, and the vampire talking into the tape recorder at the start interview with a vampire. (Note: Ansen’s book is a great book, buy this book.)
Kristi DeMeester, author of Split Tongues, whose short fiction you can find at places like Black Static Magazine, Shimmer zine, and Shock Totem Magazine, says:
“That great short story idea you had? Put it up front. Make it your lead. If your story is about a woman birthing plastic dolls who is then deemed the new Madonna/Mother Mary, start there with the shiny, plastic birth.”
And what a start to a story that would be! In fact, I want to read that story. (Kristi, fill your boots!)
Joe Hill, author of novels such as The Fireman, Heart Shaped Box, NOS4A2, and fantastic short story collections such as 20th Century Ghosts, says on his blog Joe Hill’s Thrills:
“Readers are inclined to just go with you at the very beginning of a story, which is why it’s the best place to drop a whopper on them. I began my short story “Pop Art” like this:
My best friend when I was twelve was inflatable.
The reader’s response? Oh, okay, Joey! Inflatable friend. Got it.
Also: think about if you saw a U.F.O. or a ghost. If you were telling a friend about it, you’d probably drop that shit on them right away: Dude, I was driving back from work last night and I saw a fuckin’ U.F.O. And it landed! And a ghost got out of it!!
You wouldn’t tell him about the business account you lost during the day, the conversation you had with your Mom that made you angry, and the nap you took under your desk. You wouldn’t even *think* of telling him about that stuff, not at first. YOU SAW A U.F.O., DUDE. Start with that part. Don’t be afraid to be amazing right from the beginning.”
Often this kind of declaration of intent that a writer makes, is actually a method of introducing that The Event as well (Refer to Part 1 of this series for more on that)
The following except is from the beginning of Angela Slatter’s British Fantasy Award winning story, The Coffin-Maker’s Daughter and I think it makes a fantastic case study of several cool techniques, including front-loading:
The door is a rich red wood, heavily carved with improving scenes from the trials of Job. An angel’s head, cast in brass, serves as the knocker and when I let it go to rest back in its groove, the eyes fly open, indignant, and watch me with suspicion. Behind me is the tangle of garden—cataracts of flowering vines, lovers’ nooks, secluded reading benches—that gives this house its affluent privacy.
The dead man’s daughter opens the door.
She is pink and peach and creamy. I want to lick at her skin and see if she tastes the way she looks.
“Hepsibah Ballantyne! Slattern! Concentrate, this is business.” My father slaps at me, much as he did in life. Nowadays his fists pass through me, causing nothing more than a sense of cold ebbing in my veins. I do not miss the bruises.
In this scene, Angela does a number of cool things:
- The arrival at the house of the dead man is The Event. The house, more specifically who lives there and the business the protagonist Hepsibah has there, is central to the entire story. So her rocking up on site really is the beginning of the story here.
- By describing the door and the knocker she impresses upon the reader the importance of what is behind the door and instils a sense of trepidation. What horrors lurk behind this portal?? Perhaps also mixed with wonder or intrigue, as the description of the plush garden and reading nooks, and the general affluence of the house is raises questions. Who lives here??
- Then the dead man’s daughter opens the door, leaving us thinking “Who died? And what importance does their death (and perhaps death generally!) have to this story?” Additionally, the contrast of the pale, peachy, lickable maiden who answers the door versus the suspenseful description of the door from the preceding paragraph and the horrors it implied, is masterful.
- And finally, and most crucially as far as this post goes, she front-loads that fantastic—she reveals Hepsibah’s dead ghostly father is beside her berating and beating her “as much as he did in life”.
Within 4 short paragraphs, I’m anticipatory; I’m intrigued and tantalised; I’m not even blinking my eye when she’s telling me there is horrid ghostly fathers that follow around their children cursing them. Hell, I’m buying what Angela is selling, folks!
Alternatively, rather than front-loading the element of the fantastic, an author can front-load the theme of a story or the underlying emotion of a piece for incredible effect.
I’ll use the opening paragraphs (which includes one of the very best opening lines I’ve ever read) from Jack Ketchum’s novel The Girl Next Door:
You think you know about pain?
Talk to my second wife. She does. Or thinks she does.
She says that once when she was nineteen or twenty she got between a couple of cats fighting—her own cat and a neighbor’s—and one of them went at her, climbed her like a tree, tore gashes out of her thighs and breasts and belly that you can still see today, scared her so badly she fell back against her mother’s turn-of-the-century Hoosier, breaking her best ceramic pie plate and scraping sick inches of skin off her ribs while the cat made its way back down her again, all tooth and claw and spitting fury. Thirty-six stiches I think she said she got. And a fever that lasted for days.
My second wife says that’s pain.
She doesn’t know shit, that woman.
Yes, that poignant question is the opening line of a novel rather than a short story, but it illustrates the point I’m trying to make here. Straight away we know what this tale is about. We have some idea of what the subject matter is, the primary theme the novel is going to explore. When you read that opening line you immediately question yourself, you question that knowledge you think you have about pain. I know about pain, asshole. I think. Don’t I??
When you read the following description of the lady who got mauled be the cats, and the narrator’s assertion “My second wife says that’s pain.”, you know know this novel is going to be a treatise on or an exploration of pain. And, indeed, that’s what it is (along with an extreme social commentary on rape culture, mob mentality and many other things).
Important notes/sub-essay in the margin:
When I’m talking about front-loading, I mean front-loading the element of the fantastic or melodramatic; front-loading the theme, front-loading the central emotion of your piece etc. What I’m NOT talking about is front-loading exposition (scene, descriptions of the fucking weather or descriptions of characters) or back story.
When you start up front with backstory, you’re missing the Inciting Incident Describing back story, Donald Maass, literary agent and owner of the Maass literary agency, says in his book The Fire In Fiction:
Backstory is the bane of virtually all manuscripts. Authors imagine that readers need, even want, a certain amount of filling in. I can see why they believe that. It starts with critique groups in which writers hear comments such as, “I love this character! You need to tell me more about her!” Yes, the author does. But not right away. As they say in the theater, make ’em wait. Later in the novel backstory can become a revelation; in the first chapter it always bogs things down.
I’m telling you now folks, this is as true of the first scene of a short story as it is of a novel.
Here I’ll turn to Thomas B. Sawyer, head writer of the classic TV show Murder, She Wrote and author of Fiction writing Demystified:
Don’t front-load your exposition.
Sure, you’ve fully imagined your characters, given them complexity and dimension. You’ve created concise and solid biographies for them. You know a lot about them (though you’ll learn more as your story progresses), and you’re anxious to use it, to tell your readers about it.
Resist, with all of your strength, the temptation to squeeze all that great stuff into the first scene, into those first moments that this or that character is onstage.
Why? Because, as far as the Theory of Locomotion is concerned, exposition is dead writing. It’s not moving things forward at all. Rather, if we do what was suggested in Part 1 of this series and start with or near The Event, and then frontload our story with something appropriate, the start of your story can be a powerful and adroit delivery. On time and on point, so to speak.
Having said that you can still have a slow burn story—one that starts slow and builds up. It doesn’t have to begin with vampire fangs, ghosts, or the apocalypse. There is no requirement set in stone that one must, or necessarily should, front-load the fantastic/theme/etc. There are different horses for different courses, and there are no rules. At the end of the day, what works is what works, what gives the best effect, and what results in a fiction sale is what was appropriate.
For example, one might start near the Event, yet not really front-load anything.
In my own “Little Spark of Madness” (forthcoming 2016, Morbid Metamorphosis, Lycan Valley Press) , we can see that I open it like this:
“She wore a fluffy, pink dressing gown and a vacant stare. The lady stood outside the large red brick house at the end of the cul-de-sac, set well away from the other houses; a building cast under a shadow, as though a cloud had parked itself directly above.”
In this instance, The Event is the character Brodie is meeting the other main character, Sally, in the story for the first time. It’s equivalent of the “Stranger comes to town” archetypal beginning. In this story, and particularly in this beginning, there are no UFOs, no ghosts or full moons, no overt element of the fantastic. There are no laser beams. What relationship or effect this lady is going to have on the protagonist is not immediately apparent. And that’s OK. What I hope the reader might be thinking at this point is: “Who is the woman? Why is she staring vacantly? Is she sick/sad/etc?”. Perhaps they might too consider the contrast between the pink and fluffy dressing gown and the lady’s catatonic appearance.
Nick Mamatas says the following in Starve better, and I think he makes a good point here:
“Start with a hook” is bad advice, ultimately, because of the word ‘hook’. A hook is an important part of a story to be sure, and could do anywhere. It is the motor of the story—it can be the twist at the end, the broad concept, the compelling change the character undergoes, the language or clever structure of a piece…whatever makes a story worth reading is its hook. A hook may go in the beginning, but it need not. Beginnings are for something else. The start of a story, its first paragraph, should assure the reader that they are in capable hands. The beginning of the story should tantalize, not hook, the reader.
Starting with a “strong hook”, front-loading the fantastic, grabbing the reader by the balls, laser beams—is just ONE way to start a story. It is ONE technique.
Try it. Experiment with it. See when and how it works for your fiction.