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.
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.
Or fail to establish, sometimes.
There are many great ways to start a short story. But not every type of opening is right for every story. Here are seven types of short story opening, and how to decide which one is right for you.
Note: This article is a slight departure from our usual writing advice columns. Instead of using made-up examples of crappy writing, I'm actually using real quotes from real stories, because we need examples of good writing this time around. Also, I realized that there's no way to categorize every short story opening accurately, and there are definitely some great openings that don't fit into any of these seven categories.
This is possibly the most common type of short story opening. The action doesn't really begin in the opening paragraph, instead we join the characters in a pause before the action, and this allows us to get to know the characters and the setting first. This can be a workmanlike "Smith yawned and looked around his space capsule" thing. Or it can be a gorgeous literary flourish, that sets the mood and creates a strong image in the reader's mind at the start of the story. Often, the action begins in the second or third paragraph.
Why you might use this one: If the setting is a huge part of your story, or if a big part of your goal is to establish a powerful mood. Or if your story isn't really about plot, but about a particular feeling.
Why you might not: Sometimes you want your story to get going a bit faster. Sometimes the ideas, or the plot, are more important than the setting. And sometimes you find that you can do scene-setting in the second or third paragraph, and it'll have more impact.
"Jarvis stretched himself as luxuriously as he could in the cramped general quarter of the Ares. 'Air you can breathe!' he exulted. 'It feels as thick as soup after the thin stuff out there!'" — Stanley G. Weinbaum, "A Martian Odyssey"
"Bianca Nazario stands at the end of the world. The firmament above is as blue as the summer skies of her childhood, mirrored in the waters of la caldera; but where the skies she remembers were bounded by mountains, here on Sky there is no horizon, only a line of white cloud." — David Moles, "Finisterra"
"The swell was gently lifting and lowering the boat. My breathing grew slower, falling into step with the creaking of the hull, until I could no longer tell the difference between the faint rhythmic motion of the cabin and the sensation of filling and emptying my lungs." — Greg Egan, "Oceanic"
"The balloon of a Phoenix-class airship is better than any view from its cabin windows; half a mile of silk pulled taut across three hundred metal ribs and a hundred gleaming spines is a beautiful thing." — Genevieve Valentine, "The Zeppelin Conductors' Society Annual Gentlemen's Ball"
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"
4) The Third Person Narrator Speaks to You
If your story has an especially chatty third-person narrator, you can start off by having the narrator explain something directly to the reader, often in the second person. Perhaps the narrator can tell us some useful information, that helps us to get intrigued about your story. This could be funny, a la Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. Or it could be just a stark explanation of something that the reader isn't going to get any other way — I use a very stripped-down version of it in my story "Six Months, Three Days." Either way, it's clearly the narrator talking to you, the reader, and imparting stuff the narrator knows or understands.
Why you might use this one: If your story has a chatty narrator, then addressing the reader directly creates a nice warm tone. It allows you to feed the reader a ton of information, without necessarily feeling too much like an infodump. If you're actually a funny writer, you can make this sort of thing funny.
Why you might not: It has to be entertaining, or it will feel like a bit of an infodump. You have to be willing to sustain that level of narratorial chattiness, at least on and off, for the rest of the story. Some readers get freaked out about being addressed directly.
"To get to Earth from the edge of the solar system, depending on the time of year and the position of the planets, you need to pass through at least Poland, Prussia, and Turkey, and you'd probably get stamps in your passport from a few of the other great powers. Then as you get closer to the world, you arrive at a point, in the continually shifting carriage space over the countries, where this complexity has to give way or fail. And so you arrive in the blissful lubrication of neutral orbital territory." — Paul Cornell, "One of Our Bastards is Missing"
"Being assigned to The Head for eight hours was the worst security shift you could pull at the museum." — Elizabeth Hand, "The Maiden Flight of McCauley's Bellerophon"
5) The First Person Narrator Speaks
This is sort of similar to the previous one, except that instead of the third person narrator explaining, it's the first-person narrator saying something reflective, that almost makes the story feel like a personal essay. The first-person narrator muses about some ideas, or about his/her feelings. When it's done right, this opening can create a more intimate feeling, as well as putting us right into your main character's brain — rather than just showing us the outside world through your character's eyes, the way a typical first-person opening does. This can also be the start of a rant, or an extended monologue, by the first-person narrator.
Why you might use this one: If you're writing in the first person anyway, why not have the first-person narrator soliloquize a bit? This can pack quite an emotional punch, or help the reader to bond with your narrator right off the bat. Plus it blurs the line between fiction and essay, which is always a plus.
Why you might not: Sometimes we bond more with your first person narrator if he/she gives us some scene-setting or tells us something about what he/she was doing at the start of the story, instead. That way, we're not just getting to know your character, we're getting to know him/her in the world. Plus it really depends how philosophical you want to get.
"There is a principle in nature I don't think anyone has pointed out before. Each hour, a myriad of trillions of little live things — bacteria, microbes, "animalcules" — are born and die, not counting for much except in the bulk of their existence and the accumulation of their tiny effects. They do not perceive deeply. They do not suffer much. A hundred billion, dying, would not begin to have the same importance as a single human death." — Greg Bear, "Blood Music."
"You sent us out here. We do this for you: spin your webs and build your magic gateways, thread the needle's eye at sixty thousand kilometers a second. We never stop, never even dare to slow down, lest the light of your coming turn us to plasma. All so you can step from star to star without dirtying your feet in these endless, empty wastes between. Is it really to much to ask, that you might talk to us now and then?" — Peter Watts, "The Island"
"I remember the future. The future was glorious once. It was filled with sleek silver spaceships, lunar colonies, and galactic empires. The horizon seemed within reach; we could almost grasp the stars if we would but try." — Michael A. Burstein, "I Remember the Future"
"You ask me if I can forgive myself? I can forgive myself for many things." — Neil Gaiman, "The Truth is a Cave in the Black Mountains..."
"I wanted to be washed up on a foreign shore, but this can't be it. I wanted, first, for a long, long beach, so I could lie there and recover for a while. After all, I'd be tired." — Carol Emshwiller, "All washed Up While Looking for a Better World."
6) The Quotation
In journalism, there's a bit of a taboo on starting an article with a quote. But that doesn't really apply to fiction, and people sometimes do start a story with a quote, hanging on the first line by itself. If the quote is intriguing enough, it compels you to find out who's speaking and what they're talking about. I'd also lump in the type of story opening where you quote from a document or a transcript of an interview with someone.
Why you might use this one: It's like the "thrown in the deep end" opening crossed with the mystery opening, except that you're also giving us someone's voice at the same time. You're getting the raw personality of the speaker, as well as getting tossed into the middle of the story right away. You can convey stuff in a line of dialogue that it would take a paragraph or two of narration to get across.
Why you might not: It can be a bit clunky, especially if the quote is hanging there by itself. It has all the disadvantages of the "mystery" and "deep end" openings. The single line of dialogue needs to be ultra-sharp, or you'll fall flat.
"'Who makes the roads roll?'" — Robert A. Heinlein, "The Roads Must Roll".
"'You're a nasty little — human being,' the newly formed Z-Type robot shrilled peevishly." — Philip K. Dick, "James P. Crow"
"'Cool. It's a freak show,' says Aidan. 'I didn't know they had those anymore.'" — Diana Peterfreund, "The Care and Feeding of Your Baby Killer Unicorn"
"Bill," Kihn says, his voice all too clear, that unreal clarity of early AM longdistance commsat voices speaking from the void or maybe Cleveland, "I've seen one." — William Gibson, "Hippie Hat Brain Parasite"
7) The Puzzler
Why choose between establishing conflict on the one hand, and mystifying your reader on the other? You can do both — with an opening that sets up the conflict of your story succinctly, while making your reader guess at what the Hell is going on.
Why you might use this one: This is the trickiest form of short-story opening to pull off. But if you can hit your reader with a concentrated blast of strangeness and verbal pyrotechnics, then you're already way ahead of the game. When it works, it's the best kind of story opening, for my money. You can totally mess with the reader's head, in a good way.
Why you might not: When this type of opening falls flat, it really falls flat. You have to be very confident of your ability to deliver quality WTF-age without losing the reader.
"Diving back into the universe (now that the universe is a finished object, boxed and ribboned from bang to bounce), Carlotta calculates ever-finer loci on the frozen coordinates of spacetime until at last she reaches a trailer park outside the town of Comanche Drop, Arizona. Bodiless, no more than a breath of imprecision in the Feynman geography of certain virtual particles, thus powerless to affect the material world, she passes unimpeded through a sheet-aluminum wall and hovers over a mattress on which a young woman sleeps uneasily." — Robert Charles Wilson, "Utrisque Cosmi"
"It has long been said that air (which others call argon) is the source of life. This is not in fact the case, and I engrave these words to describe how I came to understand the true source of life and, as a corollary, the means by which life will one day end." — Ted Chiang, "Exhalation"
"He found the girl crouched in a ditch by the side of the deserted road, using a jagged rock to try to sever the muscled cords that connected her heart to her body." — Susan Palwick, "Sorrel's Heart"
"JSN reached up to the row of glowing buttons across his forehead and changed his mind with an audible click." — Lewis Shiner, "The Gene Drain"
"There were two mutant girls in the town: one had a hand made of fire and the other one had a hand made of ice." — Aimee Bender, "The Healer"
Magazine cover images via MickyThePixel and Horzel on Flickr.