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 for storytellers. These guidelines apply to novels as well, but with a short story a writer has a limited word count in which to offer an intriguing story-world. So how can a writer create a dynamic opening or beginning for a story?
A story’s opening paragraph should be designed to capture a reader’s imagination and inspire them to read more. The opening paragraph also 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.” Setting the scene in the first paragraph creates a mental picture for the reader. Humans are primarily visual creatures, and as most books do not provide pictures, the more dramatic you make your story’s setting the more your reader will be able to visualise your scenario.
The opening lines can introduce your main protagonist, for example – “Ella leaned back against the cold damp stone wall. The heavy brass chains that encircled her ankles chafed painfully. Her porcelain skin was now pale and drawn, with deep lines etched around her eyes and mouth, and her once glorious golden hair was now hanging in matted tendrils around her face. Her stomach grumbled loudly as the guard pushed a few dried up sandwiches through the hole in the door, but the smell of the stinking urine from the prisoner in the adjoining cell made her feel nauseous. She would go hungry tonight.” Vivid description and making use of the senses: touch, sight, and smell makes for an effective beginning to your story.
Beginning your story with strong action is a great choice as it 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 sharp low hanging branches that scraped against her skin, 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… “
Introduce an idea.
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.
Posing a question.
“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 story that will capture your reader’s imagination.