Bridge to Story

A Dozen Ways to Start a Short Story

Let’s say you are ready to tackle that [Opening] place marker. Maybe you’ve read about how important a good beginning is.  You’ve read warnings like: Get the reader’s attention right away. Introduce conflict from the start. You need to hook your reader at once.

Maybe you intend on doing that, but when you read your own work you find that all of your beginnings start the same way. It’s the only way you think to start. Besides, how many possible ways can you start a story?  Or a scene for that matter? Are there tricks to starting?

Let’s take a short story that already has a main character, a plot line, and an ending thought out: Goldilocks and the Three Bears.  We all know how it goes.  As an exercise, take a look at each of these Start methods and their explanations, then  try to write an opening for the Goldilocks story using as many as you can:

Narrator directly to the reader: Let’s say the baby bear is narrating

‘Let me tell you this, if poppa hadn’t been in  such a growly mood I would’ve had a helluva Show and Tell come Monday’

Setting: Where a scene is set by writing a description of where it is.

Setting with Character: Where a character is reacting or interacting with the setting that’s been described.

Thematic: the narrator’s (not the Author’s) opinion or thoughts. Or a generality.

‘Trespassers, no matter their rationalizations, are the scum of the earth.’

Emotional: an attention grabber that uses the reader's emotional reaction.

Action: Because action is like a cahracter all on its own, a good action sequence starts things off well.

Interrogatory: Begin with a question -

"Why do bears make such bad hosts?"

In the middle of things: called in medias res, this means you don't begin with Goldie's life before her visit to the bears, but right there where they find her in bed, and the porridge is already gone.

Characterization: describing the character, and not just showing how she looks either. Try for the tone in what she says, how he says it, or what she's doing as she says it.

Reflective/confessional: A journal entry, diary page or letter. Telling someone about it.

"Well officer, yes I did enter the premise without being invited in."

A Puzzle: mixing fact with whimsy or a mystic tone.

Factual: journalistic in the tone;.

"At 8:47 AM, the little girl was pronounced dead."

Example Toggle


Look at some examples of openings here. What are these openings doing? Do they say ‘Once upon a time’? Do they say ‘Let me tell you what color hair she has’? Do they show you the weather? Do they talk about where folks were born or how old they are?

Nope. What we have here are some half dozen openings that give you a hint of things to follow.

  1. The guy at the back table, the one rustling his newspaper every five seconds, Bobby’d take him out first.
  2. Somewhere along the way I lost my glasses. Everything from then on was a blur.
  3. First thing in the morning they’ll be coming for Suzette and Daniel. My babies.
  4. It was January when Gabe said he didn’t want her to see him this way. He told her to go.
  5. First off, stop to trying to figure out what started it all between the two of you.
  6. “Lost that steer today Tommy. I’ll have to remind Jake about that part of the fence.”

That last one, #6 – who is Tommy, why is the narrator reporting to him about lost steers and someone named Jake? Why isn’t Tommy out there in that pasture? In just two lines we want to know who these folks are and what the situation is with ‘that part of the fence’.

Lesson Exercise 1 Toggle

Lesson Exercise 1:

Look to your own openings. Are you doing this type of work? No? Look back to the dozen opening types and see about edits to your own work. Revise.

Still Can’t Get Past Writing Descriptions?

If you’ve written a ‘description opening’ for a character it might be a bit boring – like looking at a still-life painting, or out the car window at a building you’re approaching. It’s static. But if you must, then this exercise may help.

Writing out a description of your MC usually has very little movement to it. Plus, the most common thing that novices do is step away from the scene while they’re telling their readers about the colour of someone’s hair, or the clothes that they wear. If you’re going to tell us about those things, make them do double duty by reflecting either the character’s state of being, or the tone you’re trying to get across in your narrative voice.

Rethinking your opening gives the reader actions your characters make. Writing ‘in-scene’ from an opening line like, “Joey gripped his bb-gun and watched the fog of his breath rise in the early morning chill.” is better than “Joey stood, dressed in camo and a bright orange vest” type of description.

One shows how those actions reflect your characters’ motivations, reactions, or emotions right from the beginning. Your word choice is storytelling from the very beginning:

Gripped = nerves?  Rise = hope? Chill = dread?

In the line-up of smart writing elements, description used poorly is rather low. Action for description, or action’s sake, ( Joey stood…) isn’t even top of the go-to list over Action with word choices, that convey motivations, reactions, or emotions.

Make a description count with the words you choose and the actions within the description you are give the reader.

If you are going to open with describing your characters from the start – your descriptions can go so much deeper than a physical one.  Paint a picture with the intangibles too. Make those verbs equal something that tells more of the story.