Want to know a brutal truth? Here it is: you’ve about one page to impress an editor with your short story, so make it a damned good one.
This little pearl of editorial wisdom is something that’s always stuck in my head, going back to my first days of writing and submitting short stories. Back then, I collected all sorts of info-nuggets offered up by editors, agents, and writing coaches, and at some point I quit counting how many of those bits pertained to story openings.
“Don’t open with a bored character.”
“Don’t open with somebody waking up.”
“Don’t open with a lot of exposition or info dumping.”
“Open with something happening. Open with action. No, not just action, but ACTION!”
Generally speaking, all of those are solid guidelines. It’s also true that a writer who knows what they’re doing can bend or break them, along with every other “writing rule” that’s ever been put forth. Unfortunately, the odds are much greater that a writer will end up falling into one of the traps each of these notions represents. When that happens, it’s likely that the editor reading your story will place it on top of their rejection pile.
Recently, I was given the opportunity to read a large number of short stories and select a small percentage of them for further reading and review. It’s been a while since I last read through such a large number of stories for such a purpose, but as I went about this task, it didn’t take long for me to recall several nuggets of advice and wisdom I’d heard dispensed over the years by editors far more accomplished than I. Guess which one kept ringing in my ears with every story I read?
I was surprised at how many stories opened in a manner that didn’t compel me to keep reading. I actually gave most of the submissions much longer than a truly overworked and underpaid editor ever could hope to devote to such a task, hoping that maybe a poor opening was merely standing in the way of a great story and just needed a little tightening. No such luck. In short order, I realized that culling down the number of stories to a manageable level was going to be both easier and more frustrating than I’d expected.
One story went on for three pages of exposition before ever giving me anything resembling a hint as to the central character.
Another tale hit me with nearly two pages of rapid-fire dialogue. Much of it was well-crafted and even witty, but I had no idea who was talking or why I should care.
In general, a number of the stories were hampered by the fact that nothing interesting was actually happening on those opening pages. The true story, if indeed there was one, started much later, preceded by a great deal of “ramping up” that usually didn’t need to be there. In journalism, this would be called “burying the lede,” but in fiction? It’s just a death sentence.
So, it was with a heavy heart that I sent those stories to the rejection pile.
My personal preference when it comes to short stories is to open with a problem of immediate and critical importance to the central character. I don’t necessarily mean crazy action or peril—though I do enjoy writing and reading such stories—but the character has to be engaged in doing something that (hopefully) grabs the reader's interest, and then I fill in the necessary details as the story unfolds. The fancy term for this storytelling technique is “in medias res,” or “in the middle of things,” but I usually sound stupid when I try to speak Latin, so I typically just go with something like, “Open with a bang!”
The idea is to grab the reader from the first page, the first paragraph, even the first sentence, and only grudgingly let go. Make it so that it’s only after the reader comes up for air five or six pages later that they realize just how far down you’ve managed to pull them into your story. A recent example of this in novel form is Andy Weir’s The Martian. Since the bulk of the book is presented as a journal, it’s not an action-packed opening, but it still grabs you, almost from the first word as the main character, astronaut Mark Watney, tells us that he’s in deep trouble. Indeed, the book has perhaps one of the funniest and most riveting openings I’ve read in a long time.
Experienced writers already know that a strong opening is just the first of many things they need to do to make their story stand out from everything else a harried editor has to read. For those of you still working toward that first sale or publication, take a look at that story you’re writing, and read just the first page. Does it sell your story to an editor who might not reach the next page?
Don’t give that editor an easy reason to set aside your story. Make them turn that page.