HOW NOT TO OPEN A SHORT STORY

I generally don’t like this kind of negative approach: lists of what not to do. I prefer to encourage you to do things, not discourage you from doing things, but back to the subject of short stories, I can’t help but point out some very common pitfalls that I’ve seen over and over again for years—decades, actually. So here goes, in no particular order, half a dozen things you should never do in the first page of a short story:

Too Many Ideas in a Sentence

Especially in the first sentence of your story, limit each sentence to one idea.

Example of what not to do:

I woke up that morning wondering when I would stop having visions of the future when all of a sudden a flying saucer landed on my front lawn.

Is this a story about a guy with precognitive abilities, or UFOs, or both? It could be both, but that doesn’t mean you have to list them all up front.

Example of what to do instead (from “Enchanted Village” by A.E. van Vogt):

“Explorers of a new frontier” they had been called before they left for Mars.

This is a story about a voyage to Mars. Let’s see what else happens as the story progresses.

The Newspaper Lead

It could be that practitioners of this gem took some journalism classes. A good newspaper reporter doesn’t want to “bury the lead.” But a good fiction writer needs to imbue his or her work with a sense of discovery. Don’t sum up the whole thing in the first paragraph, or your readers (like most newspaper skimmers) will leave it at that.

What not to do:

I am a robot, model ZXQ7, manufactured on Zeta-3 for industrial labor, and when I fell in love with a human woman I ended up destroying both our lives. Here’s how it happened . . .

What to do (from “Brightness Falls from the Air” by Margaret St. Clair):

Kerr used to go into the tepidarium of the identification bureau to practice singing.

Ms. St. Clair’s first paragraph goes on to describe what a tepidarium is, but only really in the context of why Kerr is there to practice singing. It’s about her character’s emotional connection to the place. No more of the plot, setting, and characters is explained in that paragraph than is necessary to get you to the next paragraph. The reader is participating in the unfolding drama, not being read a list of events…

Read the rest in…

Editor and author Philip Athans offers hands on advice for authors of fantasy, science fiction, horror, and fiction in general in this collection of 58 revised and expanded essays from the first five years of his long-running weekly blog, Fantasy Author’s Handbook.

 

—Philip Athans

 

Follow me on Twitter @PhilAthans

Link up with me on LinkedIn

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Find me at PublishersMarketplace

Or contact me for editing, coaching, ghostwriting, and more at Athans & Associates Creative Consulting.

 

About Philip Athans

Philip Athans is the New York Times best-selling author of Annihilation and a dozen other books including The Guide to Writing Fantasy and Science Fiction, and Writing Monsters. His blog, Fantasy Author’s Handbook, (https://fantasyhandbook.wordpress.com/) is updated every Tuesday, and you can follow him on Twitter @PhilAthans.
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19 Responses to HOW NOT TO OPEN A SHORT STORY

  1. Pingback: HOW NOT TO OPEN A SHORT STORY « Espiritu en Fuego/A Fiery Spirit

  2. Gwen says:

    Reblogged this on A few words and commented:
    This is a really excellent post on how to begin short stories. I think it’s good advice to follow for just about any kind of writing.

  3. Candy Korman says:

    Very funny and very true! I think I’ve read each and every bad opening — and not always gone much further into the story.

  4. Good stuff. My favorite part of writing short stories is the first sentence. Every word after is colored by that initial impression.

  5. I’m bookmarking this blog. Very helpful reminders of mistakes that are all too easy to make.

  6. Joe says:

    at the local diner there is a pinball machine of johnny mnemonic. i dont know why i posted this, just thought you would be interested.

  7. Lots of great tips here! Thank you
    Jason Lee
    Author / Marketing Coach to Authors
    http://www.EbookHowTo.org

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  13. PHS says:

    Reblogged this on Archer's Aim and commented:
    Good writing tips no matter what the genre!

  14. Micki Peluso says:

    Good tips which I try to use but one has to be careful to tell just the right amount to have a beginning ‘hook’ to keep readers going forward. Believe it or not I have a horror story just like your cat example which won an International Award and is in an anthology and book collection.

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  16. Pingback: How Not to Open a Short Story, by Philip Athans | Wordherders

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  18. Short stories should always be relevant to writers life experiences, for easy writing.

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