Crafting the perfect story – Part 1: The beginning

This is the first of a series of articles in which we split the short story form into 3 parts: the beginning, the middle and the end. Each is important to get right in order to grab your reader’s attention, keep them entertained and make the whole thing worth their while. No pressure then!

We’re starting in a logical place with arguably the most important sentence of your whole short story: the very first one. Crafting the perfect beginning to a story is an art form in itself and should not be taken lightly.

Starting strong is important so that you draw the reader in immediately. Everyone is busy these days and we all have lots of other things we could be reading or distractions waiting to poach our attention away. Starting strong means grabbing our attention and giving us a reason to keep reading.

Having said that, beware that you don't go in too strong or crazy or shocking for the sake of it. You need to leave somewhere for your story to go and if everything after the first line is slow, the initial promise is going to end in disappointment. Also, if your story involves a good deal of worldbuilding, be careful not to overwhelm your reader by making them work too hard. Reading about too many things they have no concept of or trying to imagine a place they don’t know can be a surefire way to lose someone. (See our article on worldbuilding in a short story here)

Where the story starts is a question you should consider carefully. We’ll be going into more detail about structure in the 2nd article of this series, but it also applies to the beginning of the story. Starting at the beginning is perhaps the obvious answer, but often the very start of a scene or events can be quite slow. You want to be quick and succinct in setting the scene because, unlike in a novel, you don’t have time for lengthy introductions. Do your reader a favour and skip the boring parts. Try playing with your structure and dropping the reader right in the action.

Introducing mystery at the very beginning is a clever technique for enticing the reader and making them want to keep reading. If you raise questions early on, natural curiosity should drive them forward. This, too, becomes a challenge in balance; you want just enough mystery to drive your story forward but not so much that the reader is left baffled. Avoiding confusion is vital because if your reader thinks ‘What is going on?’ for too long, they’re likely to lose interest. Introduce too many characters straight away or drop them in the middle of a complex situation and you’re at risk of being unclear or confusing.

Opening with dialogue is another option for the start of your story; it can be an effective way of getting right to the point with little preamble. However, it’s also risky because you don’t want the reader to feel lost at who is talking and where or why the conversation is happening.

Some examples

To wrap up, let’s look at the first lines of some stories we’ve published in past issues of Firewords and I’ll tell you why I think they’re effective beginnings...

His gills gave him away – he could barely breathe in the office.
In a small pond, by FJ Morris (from Issue 6)

The mystery is established straight away and we do a double take, eager to read on.

“You have a lot of saliva,” she says.
Do dinosaurs taste like chicken? by Richard Davis (from Issue 6)

This is a great example of opening with humorous dialogue. As it’s not something you would usually say to someone, it raises questions straight away.

Hugh placed his plastic cup of sparkling wine beside the picnic hamper and pushed the tweezers deep into Lottie’s left ear.
It Is All Little Marbles In Our Ears, by Stephen Thom (from Issue 2)

This sets the scene well; we know we have a couple having a picnic in what seems like a romantic scene, but this is then juxtaposed by the bizarre second half of the sentence.

Jack doesn’t look up when the fighting starts.
How to Not Get Eaten by Tigers, by Vicki Jarrett (from Issue 2)

Here is a perfect example of being dropped right in the action. It also raises questions straight away that the reader will want to know: who is fighting and why doesn’t Jack look up?

I woke up to a seagull sitting on my chest.
Night Swim, by Louis Rakovich (from Issue 3)

This strong opening is quickly explained to be a dream, but it sets the tone for the rest of the surreal story and lets the reader know that not everything may be as it seems.

The first and last time they touch is on a cold Tuesday morning on a busy street.
Arrangement of Souls on a Plane, by Andrea Glenn (from Issue 3)

This is a risky first sentence because it could be seen as a spoiler, but it works because the reader will want to know why it’s the last time they touch; they’re immediately invested in the characters before even knowing anything about them.