A short story is like a chess game: The opening is a huge part of whether you win or lose. The first sentence of a short story doesn’t just “hook” readers, it also sets the tone and launches the plot. So here are the seven major types of short story openings, and how to pick one.
Sure, the opening sentences are important in novels, too. A strong beginning, in a novel, can help provide momentum that will carry the reader all the way to the last page, sometimes in one sitting. But short stories are different: the first sentence, or the first paragraph, often hangs over the whole rest of the story. Many short stories are really about one idea, or one situation, and that’s what the opening sentences establish.
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2) The conflict establisher.
There’s absolutely nothing wrong with an opening sentence that shows the exact moment when your characters knew they were in trouble. The classic “we were halfway to Mars when our fuel tank blew up” beginning. It creates a nice sense of urgency, and then you can go back and fill in the details once people are on board with the fact that exciting stuff is happening.
Why you might use this one: If you want to start your story with a bang.
Why you might not: If your bang falls flat, then your story is lost. This is actually a high-risk opening. It’s also easy to overuse the “starting with a bang” style. Sometimes you want to be a bit more subtle, and draw your readers in slowly before dropping the boom on them. Your readers may expect the rest of your story to keep that propulsive feeling, and to revolve around the incident you describe at the start, so you have a lot to live up to.
“When it starts we’re in a hotel room, the two of us curled up on a double bed. It’s a two-star kind of place: cracks in the walls, curtains covered in faded daisies, the clinging smell of camphor attaching itself after the first few minutes of your stay. The television stutters as we flick through the channels, colours blending together and rendering the devastation a fuzzy blue or green. Still, we see it happen: the great machines of the merfolk coming up over the shore, rampaging through the city with devastating effect.” — Peter M. Ball, “On the Destruction of Copenhagen by the War-Machines of the Merfolk.”
“Hala is running for class when her cell phone rings. She slows to take it from her pocket, glances at the screen: UNKNOWN CALLER.” — Kij Johnson, “Names for Water”
“They left Abal in a hurry, after Ozma’s mother killed the constable.” — Kelly Link, “The Constable of Abal”
“I slammed the door in the child’s face, a horrific scream trapped in my throat.” — Nnedi Okorafor, “On the Road”
“When Denis died, he found himself in another place. Dead people came at him with party hats and presents.” — Rachel Swirsky, “Fields of Gold”
3) The mystifier
At first, it doesn’t entirely make sense, because it refers to stuff we don’t know about yet. Or it throws us into a situation without giving us all the pieces right away.
Why you might use this one: There’s nothing more intriguing than a mysterious situation, where you’re thrown in the deep end. People are willing to hang with you for quite a while to find out what this is all about.
Why you might not: The mystery has to be really cool, for this to work. Also, you’re asking your readers to work pretty hard — they have to ponder the clues you’re throwing at them, but then they also have to get into your world and your characters. I feel like the “thrown in the deep end” opening is the riskiest type, because it’s the kind that asks the most of the reader. You have to be pretty skillful, to unravel your cryptic opening at the same time as you’re introducing the world and the characters, and it’s a bit of a high-wire act.
“I still have the dollar bill. It’s in my box at the bank, and I think that’s where it will stay. I simply won’t destroy it, but I can think of nobody to whom I’d be willing to show it — certainly nobody at the college, my History Department colleagues least of all. Merely to tell the story would brand me irredeemably as a crackpot, but crackpots are tolerated, even on college faculties. It’s only when they begin producing physical evidence that they get themselves actively resented.” — H. Beam Piper, “Crossroads of Destiny”.
“‘They don’t look very dangerous,’ Xiao Ling Yun said to the aide. Ling Yun wished she understood what Phoenix Command wanted from her. Not that she minded the excuse to take a break from the composition for two flutes and hammered dulcimer that had been stymieing her for the past two weeks.” — Yoon Ha Lee, “The Unstrung Zither.”
“Mariska shivered when she realized that her room had been tapping at the dreamfeed for several minutes. ‘The Earth is up,’ it murmured in its gentle singing accent. ‘Daddy Al is up, and I am always up. Now Mariska gets up.'” — James Patrick Kelly, “Going Deep”
“I remember the night I became a goddess.” — Ian McDonald, “The Little Goddess”
“Memory is a strange thing. I haven’t changed my sex in eighty three years.” — Vandana Singh, “Oblivion: A Journey”
“There is a magic shore where children used to beach their coracles every night.” — Sarah Rees Brennan, “The Spy Who Never Grew Up”