I wrote a post a few months ago about How to Start a Story which goes into detail about what to include on the first few pages of a longer piece or a novel. The “4 C’s and a Q” are super important to include, but I’ve read quite a few teen short stories over the past few weeks which have started in the wrong spot, with either too much or not enough of the 4 C’s – character, context, care, & conflict.
It’s tough to figure out exactly when to start your story.
Some of the stories I’ve read have begun with back story, but back story isn’t story, and in all honesty, it’s boring unless I know and care about the characters. This is too much context.
Some have begun with dialogue which is confusing because I have no idea who these characters are or what they’re talking about. There’s no context.
Some haven’t given enough information or emotion for me to know why the character is doing whatever it is that they’re doing, again, not enough on characters or context.
The challenge is that a short story is just that, short, so you don’t have tons of space to write pages of back story, but you need to give enough information so that the action and dialogue makes sense.
So, where should you start your story? What should you focus on in those first few paragraphs?
Ask yourself the following three questions to help figure that out and start your story off strong.
1) At what moment does your main character’s life change or are their beliefs and values challenged in a major way?
Start as close to this moment as possible.
If your main character’s life doesn’t change, in a BIG way, you have no story. Now don’t think that every story has to include the apocalypse. They don’t, but the change must be major to your character.
Novels often start with big life-changers, like The Hunger Games where Katniss finds she suddenly has to fight for her life, or The Lord of the Rings trilogy where Frodo discovers he has to destroy a ring to save Middle Earth.
But, short stories often start with smaller moments, the kind that impact us every single day. For example, possibly a student is bothered when he sees another being bullied by a friend after a football game. That’s how one of my favorite stories, “Satyagraha,” begins.
Or you could start your story like Ron Hansen does in “My Kid’s Dog.”
“My kid’s dog died.
I hated that dog.
The feeling was mutual.
We got off on the wrong foot. Whining in his pen those first nights. My squirt gun in his face and him blinking from the water…”
This is a fabulous example. It’s a small moment. A hateful dog died. We also know right away the character is a dad who’s kind of mean to animals. The writer has established so much with a few short lines. We don’t know what the dad looks like or where he lives, but we don’t need to know that at this point.
In all of these examples, the main character’s life changes or their values and beliefs are challenged.
2) How close to this moment can you begin?
You want to start as close as possible which means ACTION right away. Throw your characters into the situation. If your major event happens in the afternoon, don’t start your story with them getting out of bed, having breakfast, getting dressed, brushing their teeth…are you bored? Yeah, your readers will be too.
Again, this is especially important in a short story. But, remember not to begin with dialogue as the reader has no idea who’s talking. You need to create some sort of context first. To figure out what information you should include, ask yourself…
3) What MAJOR details about your character or the setting do you need to include so the character’s conflict or life change makes sense?
Only include those major details in the beginning. No back story, unless of course you’re writing a novel, your name is John Green, and you can write an amazing and necessary prologue like he does in Paper Towns. If you are not John Green, lose the prologue or paragraphs of background information.
I realize this may sound harsh, but I have read (in all honesty) hundreds of stories written by teens and 80% of the time, introductory paragraphs which introduce the setting, the weather, each character including their appearance and their major personality traits, and the overall situation are unnecessary and worse, boring.
This information may be super helpful for you, the writer, to know. In fact, you should figure out all of that information, but that doesn’t mean you need it in the beginning of your story.
To get a better sense of how this works, read like a writer and grab a book of short stories. If you don’t have one, go to the library, look at your Literature book from your English class, or find some classic stories online.
Read the first few paragraphs or the first page of a few stories. How do they start? What do you like about them? Take some quick notes.
Then, apply those lessons and strategies to your own stories. Remember, imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, and it’s also how we learn to become better writers.