Writing – How to Begin a Good Short Story

I am a short story writer. I always have been, and probably always will be, regardless of my position in the writing world. Writers know it is good practice to read extensively in their chosen medium. If you write graphic novels, read a copious amount of graphic novels, poetry, read poetry collections. Read, write, and hone your skills. This means I have read hundreds of short stories by dozens of authors over the years. I have a bookshelf in my bedroom dedicated to short story collections as if their inner workings will seep into my brain during sleep.

One thing stands out in the stories that stick with me. They answer the following questions within the first few lines or paragraph, and certainly before the end of the first page:

  • Who?
  • What?
  • When?
  • Where?

I did it at the start of this blog entry and you probably didn’t realise.

  • Who? – Me (I am)
  • What? – a short story writer
  • When? – always have been, and probably always will be
  • Where? – regardless of my position in the writing world.

To illustrate this point, I’ve pulled a few books off my sacred short story book shelf and chosen some examples at random. Let’s have a look at six below from various authors. I’ve listed the full sources in a Bibliography at the end of this post.

Any other June, we would be in Hengwrt by now.

from ‘The Fox on the Line’, Emma Donoghue

Who? – the narrator and other people

What? – they would be in a certain place

When? – by now

Where? – Hengwrt

Even though her eyes were still closed, Martha Briggs knew that the sun was shining. The warmth was creeping slowly, gloriously across the blankets, and any minute now it would reach her face.

from ‘Last Day of Spring‘, Celia Fremlin

Who? – Martha Briggs

What? – waking up

When? – probably the morning

Where? – she is most likely in bed

I have never spent Christmas alone before.
It gives me an uncanny feeling, sitting alone in my ‘furnished room’, with my head full of ghosts, and the room full of voices of the past.

from ‘Christmas Meeting’, Rosemary Timperley

Who? – the narrator

What? – sitting alone reminiscing

When? – at Christmas

Where? – in their furnished room

‘Oh, there is one, of course, but you’ll never know it.’
The assertion, laughingly flung out six months earlier in a bright June garden, came back to Mary Boyne with a new perception of its significance as she stood, in the December dusk, waiting for the lamps to be brought into the library.

from ‘Afterward‘, Edith Wharton

Who? – Mary Boyne

What? – remembering what someone said as she stood in the dusk waiting for lamps

When? – December

Where? – the library

I met Myra at the Arts Club. It was lunchtime on the sort of summer day which makes you want to eat outside, off a table with a luminous white cloth.

from ‘Dog People’, M John Harrison

Who? – the narrator and Myra

What? – meeting for lunch

When? – on a summer’s day

Where? – at the Arts Club

So there’s Scallie and me wearing Starsky-and-Hutch wigs, complete with sideburns, at five o’clock in the morning by the side of the canal in Amsterdam.

from ‘The Thing About Cassandra’, Neil Gaiman

Who? The narrator and Scallie

What? – wearing Starsky-and-Hutch wigs

When? – 5am

Where? – by a canal in Amsterdam

I could keep going, but I think you get the point. Of course there are many stories that do not follow this pattern, it’s not a hard and fast rule; but it does set up a short story quickly, and grabs the reader’s attention. So go on, choose a few short story collections and have a look and start a discussion in the comments below.

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Donoghue, E., ‘The Fox on the Line’, in Donoghue, E., The Woman Who Gave Birth to Rabbits, Virago Press, London, 2002, pp.29-40.

Fremlin, C., ‘Last Day of Spring’, in Fremlin, C.,  Don’t Go to Sleep in the Dark – Short Stories, Faber and Faber Ltd., London, 2014, pp.35-40.

Gaiman, N.,‘The Thing About Cassandra’, in Gaiman, N., Trigger Warning Short Fictions and Disturbances, Headline Publishing Group, London, 2015, pp.14-32.

Harrison, MJ., ‘Dog People’, in Royle, N (ed.) Best British Short Stories 2018, Salt Publishing, Cromer, 2018, pp. 80-93..

Timperley, R., ‘Christmas Meeting’, in Dahl, R (ed.) Roald Dahl’s Book of Ghost Stories, Penguin Books, London, 2012, pp. 91-94.

Wharton, E., ‘Afterward’, in Dahl, R (ed.) Roald Dahl’s Book of Ghost Stories, Penguin Books, London, 2012, pp. 229-272.

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