I’ve read a few short stories in my time. How many hundred, it’d be hard to say. Having written my own short stories and having read so many written by other people, it is pretty clear to me that the hardest aspect of short story writing is nailing the beginning. If I had to make a wild-ass guess, I’d say maybe 3% of writers know how to start a short story.
This is going to be a lengthy post because, frankly, it’s something I’m super passionate about. What I cover here is probably the number one issue that makes me, as an editor, want to stop reading a submission.
Invariably, authors fall into three categories:
- Those who start writing BEFORE their story has actually begun.
- Those who start writing AFTER their story has actually begun (much rarer, in my opinion); and
- Those who begin writing at the start of their story.
I’ll get back to these categories a bit later on.
So what, or when, is the start of the story?
I’ve often heard people say “Start the story as close to the end as possible”. This was certainly one of the 8 pieces of advice the great Kurt Vonnegut has given. I guess this makes a kind of sense, but, personally, it never seemed particularly actionable advice to me as I always found it to be interminably vague. How does someone really know where the end of the story is when they’re just starting to write the dang thing? Hell, if you believe that guff about “Pansters and Plotters”, then probably 50% of people don’t even know what the end of their story will be when they start writing.
One might, of course, argue that this is a form of editing advice, more than it is writing advice. I.e the author should write the story and then return to the beginning and pare things back until they reach the true start of the story. This makes a bit more sense, I suppose—but for the newer writer who still has no idea how to determine the true start of the story, of what value is it to them?
Over time, mostly because I’ve always found it comparatively easier to determine, I’ve started to consider the true beginning of the story to be the “Inciting Incident”.
An explanation of the Inciting Incident excerpted from NarrativeFirst.com:
The Inciting Incident (or “exciting incident” as someone once referred to it) is the event or decision that begins a story’s problem. Everything up and until that moment is Backstory (emphasis mine); everything after is “the story.” Before this moment there is an equilibrium, a relative peace that the characters in a story have grown accustomed to. This incisive moment, or plot point occurs and upsets the balance of things. Suddenly there is a problem to be solved.
I guess if I think about it I always start a short story from the very first incident of that story. So for instance, in my story The Name Game, which is set entirely at a dinner party in which my protagonists, a husband and wife, are meeting their new neighbours for the first time, I started the story with the couple knocking on the door of their hosts’ house – and then any background stuff which is relevant (e.g. they’ve just moved in to their new house) will become apparent through dialogue or short, explanatory sentences attached to either an action or a piece of dialogue which pushes the story forward.
I recently had a great chat with Anthony Rivera, publisher and editor at Grey Matter Press, and after prefacing his comments with the statement that there is no one right way to start a story, he said:
It’s possible to write an effective short story in a number of ways and how it “starts” depends on the piece itself — slow burn or whatever. But, if one is looking to grab the reader’s attention quickly, I would agree with your Inciting Incident approach. I might even go one step beyond and say, if possible (which of course it’s not always, nor does the strategy lend itself to every short story), start in the middle of said “incident”.
The Greeks, as translated by the Romans, called it in medias res: In the middle of things. Starting there, in the middle of things, is even more necessary if your story is going to have negative motivation—that is, if it is one in which your chief character, the protagonist, is reacting against something that has happened. Stories arising from reactions have a past that will try to encumber the story’s beginning if you let it.
That kind of built-in past is called ‘exposition’—the necessary explanations that are needed to understand what’s going on now. Because exposition is, of its nature, telling rather than showing, it’s intrinsically less dramatic than a scene.
This is where the story begins. It is your narrative hook, the tip of the iceberg, early hints at theme, character, setting—and if done right, the conflict. This is where your Inciting Incident happens, that moment in time where the story really begins, that tipping point beyond which things will never be the same. Whether your story is a straight line, a circle coming round, or some other structure, you have to start someplace. As mentioned in previous columns, starting in media res, Latin for “in the middle of things,” is a great way to grab your audience’s attention. You are setting the stage here, so paint a picture, give us the backdrop, and start the thread (or threads) that will run through your narrative. I can’t tell you how often I’ve stopped reading a story because the opening paragraph was random, boring, or confusing.
Personally, I often think of the Inciting Incident not necessarily as a problem or necessarily a direct challenge that protagonist is faced with, but more of an “event”. The Event (as I like to think of it) may be immediately problematic or challenging to the protagonist, or the challenge/problem/change that it sparks may be less obvious and not immediately apparent. This is where I believe the quote from NarrativeFirst.com is actually so brilliant. If you view “exciting” with the meaning “to arouse, to stir up” rather than “to make happy and eager” then this quote makes perfect sense. The Inciting Incident is like someone (or some thing!) plunging into a body of water, stirring the sediment off the pond floor. Until that Event occurred, the water was calm, still and clear. Thus the purpose of the The Event is to create movement, or as I call it elsewhere, Locomotion.
For me, thinking of the Inciting Incident as The Event is extremely useful. When I think of an “incident” (or incitement, for that matter!) I immediately think of something that has gone wrong, something terrible, an emergency, overt conflict. The start of your story is not necessarily terrible; is not necessarily something going wrong; is not necessarily over conflict. There start of your story, however, is an event of one kind or another though. Thinking of it in this way widens the scope so that the starts of the story is no longer only about the explosion or gun going off, but rather the start may be any event of true plot importance. This then opens wide the possibilities for slow-burn stories as well as tales that grip you by the short and curlies form the first line.
What is the result of completely missing The Event—or worse, having no Event at all?
When the beginning of a story strays too far from the Inciting Incident, stories tend to fall into either Category 1 or 2 mentioned earlier.
For Category 1 beginnings, the authors have begun writing before their story has actually begun. In this case, everything before that incident is backstory, a form of prologue, which in the short story world can be a kiss of death for the reader (especially the editor you’re submitting your story to). I somewhat snarkily refer to this as “The Pre-Incident Waffle”. Quite often those authors guilty of Pre-incident Waffle are also offenders of the crime of The Post-Incident Waffle, as well.
Generally speaking, starting close to, or at, The Event will also ensure the story is a memorable one for casual readers and fans. It will be an interesting story that is immediately going places and will encourage readers to continue reading and keep turning those pages.
In another piece, I talk about “Locomotion” and use a freight train as analogy for a story. Backstory is just that, back story. Back story is missing the train. It may be interesting information but doesn’t advance the plot of the actual story you’re trying to tell at all. Think about it—you jump in a train expecting to go forward to your destination, not backwards for a few stops before it starts moving forward once more!
For Category 2 beginnings, as mentioned previously, the author has begun writing AFTER their story has begun. This is actually the more disastrous of the two categories, in my opinion.
When a story has no Inciting Incident, when that initial event that is meant to upset the humours of your protagonist, or present them with a challenge, or push them into action, or cause to step out into the wide world, doesn’t exist—it risks becoming a sequence of events that happen for no reason; or a series of events that just unfold (see: slice of life or vignette). We live in a world of cause and effect. When something happens to us, we respond to it. Our circumstances change. Our story begins to evolve and write itself. Whether we consciously know this or not, we know it at a subconscious level. When you come across a story where that conflict was merely alluded to, or worse still, absent… there is no cause and effect. There is no conflict or incident, no response by the protagonist, no push that propels your story train forward along the tracks.
Category 3 beginnings have the author starting close to, at, or during the Inciting Incident. This means that from virtually the moment the reader begins with the tale, that plot is moving forward. From here on in, your story might be a slow burn to the heavens (or hells), or it might be a rollercoaster ride, but either way, your reader is locked in from the get-go.
To conclude, by way of cautionary advice, I’d like to share some advice from Nick Mamatas. For those who don’t know him, Nick is a former editor of the speculative fiction magazine Clarkesworld; is the editor of the science fiction and fantasy imprint Haikasoru; and is an author of various short stories and collections, and novels such as the forthcoming I Am Providence (pre-order it here). The following advice from is his collection of essays Starve Better. I’ll interject here and there in bold where I think he’s touching on something I’ve talked about:
The cult of advice has misled many a short story writer. Here’s an insidious piece of advice you’ve surely heard before: Your short story has to start strong, with a hook.
On one level, it isn’t even bad advice. Often, writers do just sit down and start writing. They have no idea how to begin a story, so they often begin at the beginning—with their protagonist waking up. Or perhaps with a lengthy bit of scene-setting, or the weather (Simon: literally the two most common bad starts to a story, in my opinion) or a snippet from a historical artifact or newspaper article. Pages and pages of background information, or the results of research, or tooling around with breakfast foods, keep the reader from getting to the story for pages and pages(Simon: I think this what I call the “Pre-Incident Waffle”). The most common variations are especially deadly—I once had a streak of five stories in a row that featured a protagonist awaking confused in a strange room. Even if the fifth story was actually very good and absolutely required such an opening, I was already poisoned by its competitors. (Don’t fret, though; I walked my dog and came back to the fifth story after a short break. It was terrible.)
The flaw of the “Gotta have a hook!” advice is that it leads to a secondary error on the part of many writers. Having heard that new writers tend to have a few pages of nonsense up front and that stories have to be engaging from the get-go, they often create an energetic first paragraph full of gun fights, monsters, characters cursing (“Fuuuuck!” or “Oh SHIT!” are very common story openings these days), and various other “hooks.” Then, almost invariably, the author reveals that the gunfights are on TV, the monsters from a dream, the cursing character has woken up with a back spasm or is simply stuck in traffic (indeed, “stuck in traffic” might be the new “just woken up”) and then we have the several pages of nonsense before the story actually begins (Simon: I think this is what I refer to elsewhere as the “Post-Incident Waffle”). Rather than correcting the error of a boring beginning by eliminating the boring beginning or by changing the story’s structure so that it is interesting from beginning to end, they simply added some “action” up top.
I believe this advice from Nick is cogent and gels pretty well with my own beliefs on the matter, in that it advises the writer to eliminate the boring beginning and move to the start of the story and once that start is found, to eliminate the following pages of garble that are so common afterwards. Nick also makes a great point that the opening of the story need not be a string of explosions or curse words; rather, as I’ve stated previously, it should be The Event.