I’ve been reading fiction submissions for Apeiron Review for four years, and I’m not exaggerating when I say I’ve gone through a few thousand short stories in that time. With that experience comes (I hope) a greater understanding of the mechanics of short fiction.
I could ramble endlessly on what makes or breaks a short story, but today I want to focus on some tips for beginnings.
Create a Bridge for the Reader
It’s impossible to know what state of mind your reader will be in when they first read your story. You want to bring them into your world, but if you throw too much at them at once, your world may seem overwhelming and hard to follow. Or perhaps they’re not ready for the mood, themes, or subject matter you want to work with.
Now I’m not saying you should start off boring, but starting with explosions or drug-filled orgies will usually ring hollow because the reader and the author have not yet established a relationship or an understanding. Sure, maybe some people are open to odd propositions from strangers, but most of the time people need to be eased into things.
Start with a hint of interest inside a realm of normalcy and then build from there. You want people to see your first few lines and rub their chin, smirk, or maybe lean forward. Don’t go for the gut punch immediately. Play footsie and flirt a little. Intrigue before you seduce.
Establish Setting & Tone
Your story shouldn’t exist in a vacuum, so briefly establish where events are transpiring, otherwise your reader may just imagine floating bodies walking and talking in some kind of netherscape. Or worse; a formless narrative voice ranting in a void.
Now when it comes to description, you may be tempted to give rich descriptions of the environment, but that isn’t necessary. Purple prose is overrated and can solicit an eyeroll. You can depend on the reader to imagine things if you give them a few hints.
The setting should start as simple as possible, and you should only make the environment more complex as you add elements that create the mood or establish plot elements that are absolutely necessary. Odds are you won’t need much, since hopefully the characters move things forward with their actions. Just think of the tone you want to express and then find a way to establish that without explicitly saying it.
Let the scenery establish a broad emotional context and then move on. As the story unfolds, mood, tone and themes can be fine tuned.
Stories Should Move Forward
Start at the beginning and go. Too many stories I see jump into extended backstories in order to set up the actual story, which doesn’t really begin until page three, at which point the reader will likely lose interest.
Readers usually want to see characters actively doing things or interacting with others, so start there.
Don’t pile on loads of scene-setting and don’t have the narration explain things. In fact, explain as little as possible. Now don’t take that as an excuse to be incoherent, but just imagine the pace at which a reader wants to read:
Smooth and steady at first, then faster and harder as they get immersed. Don’t give them things to trip over and break their flow.
Limit the Number of Characters
This one is easy. Ever been to a party and immediately forgotten everyone’s name? Don’t throw four or five names at the reader at once and expect them to remember everything. Furthermore, if you have lots of characters who all do very little, they aren’t going to be very compelling. It’s better to have a few complex and memorable characters than a bunch of one-note folks.
No False Starts
Don’t start with a big fantastic dream sequence and really set the scene if you’re going to have the protagonist wake up and completely shift gears without connecting those two worlds in any real way. Don’t focus on a cartoon a child is watching, making us think we’re going to get a story from the child’s point-of-view, only to zoom out and have a parent watching the child and guide us into a whole different direction.
These kind of sudden turns shake up the reader and ruin their flow. Furthermore, the reader might feel tricked, as if they had their time wasted, which damages the credibility of a story.
Subject Matter Won’t Save You (Or Hurt You)
It’s okay to be inspired by headlines, social justice issues, or personal demons, but never use subject matter as a crutch, expecting dramatic topics to carry your story.
Your story depends on your skills as a writer and your ability to connect on an emotional level with the reader, not on what you are referencing, what you believe in, or what you’ve been through. If you think melodrama, politics, or a hot topic will help your story, you’re wrong. Readers can sense when you’re not truly feeling the topics and honoring them. They can smell that hollow approach a mile away.
On the other hand, if you’re scared to write a story because it touches on some sensitive subjects, I would encourage you not to be afraid, so long as you truly feel strongly about these subjects and the deeper emotions intertwined in them. And if you write your ass off.
I once read an absurdly crazy incest story from an author and was completely ready to publish it – until another magazine beat us to the punch because it was so damned good. In short, write what you want, just focus on doing your best.
Xavier Vega is the Fiction Editor of Apeiron Review. A copywriter by day, his short stories have been published in various literary magazines and he hopes to one day publish a novel.