Thursday, February 18, 2010

Cheat Post - Beginnings

Yes, that really is a picture of me (without the mustache).

I'm cheating today, and following on from Kate's post, which certainly hit the mark at the moment. I am in the middle of trying to resurrect a few short stories that have not been sent out in an embarrassingly long time, and yes - you guessed it - struggling to put together first paragraphs that actually manage to snatch someone's attention.

This is part of my all out effort to get all my stories onto the market (thanks to Sarah's pointy shoes). I actually have four out there (and written two new ones!), but have three more to go.

I don't have any intro scenes featuring changes in the weather, but I do have someone narrowly dodging a bucket full of nano-bacteria (does that count, Sarah?).

Recent intro paragraph suggestions include:

  • Sex scenes
  • Protagonists being attacked on awakening by Freudian monster
  • Protagonists being attacked in the shower (Freudian monster optional)
  • Character killing someone (reluctantly)
  • Kinky mud-wrestling.

So what really grabs you as an opening of a short story?


Rowena Cory Daniells said...


I like to start deep in someone POV, and have them deep in mid story. I want to be involved. I know you have the problem of introducing back story then. But at least I'm engaged.

Oh and the other thing I like is for a story to have an ending. Mood pieces that don't go anywhere don't do it for me.

I'm old school.

I'm a big fan of Saki. 'Shredni Vashtar'. (spelling?) I read that story 30 years ago and it still sticks in my mind.

The OnyxHawke Agency said...

Clearly I'm grabbed hardest by weather and long complicated math explanations, and I will never fail to jump for joy at a careful recitation of each and every ill done to a character in their entire life.

Anonymous said...

What Rowena said.

It's even more important in a short story, you don't have the verbage to waste, and the reader can just flip a few pages to the next story. But even with books, you need to start with the story starting, no scene setting.

Yeah,we know you had a great time, and sweated buckets creating this world. But we don't need more than the faintest hint to grasp the setting. Really.

His sword ticked against the wall [Aha! A fantasy.] He wiped his sweaty palm and put his hand on the grip of his laser. [Umm, mixed tech] and hoped this sewer came out, outside the QWXZ!ril's cordon [a war with Aliens, sounds like we're losing].

We could give him a name, toss in how many years it had been since they met the Q's, and how long it took to mortally offend them if we really wanted to. But only the name is actually needed. In a book, the details could be worked in at need, in a short, just forget them.

Perhaps an immediate goal should be mentioned in the first paragraph or two. A keep, a base, the spaceport, his hidden courier ship, his wife's parent's farm or whatever.

Thing is, give the reader a hint and _he_ will do all the filling in, in his head. Give him the *story* and he'll happily do so. You can mention the rising water in the sewer, if it's important. Otherwise, trust me, he's already hearing the drips and feeling the water soaking through his boots.

Dave Freer said...

I must admit to a weakness for taking a cliche and turning it. This may bypass the tired and overworked slushreader...

He was a dark and stormy knight.

She awoke with a terrible start. Not that he was that bad looking in daylight, just that fat, elderly and most importantly rich, in a feather bed would have been a lot better than young and scrawny on a ragged cloak in a hay-loft.

Chris McMahon said...

Hi, Rowena. I am completely with you on the preference for an ending. The other short that really gets my goat is the one that deliberately plays with expectations. Various writers may thinks its clever, but to hook with a set up then deliberately dance around it is very frustrating for me as a reader.

Chris McMahon said...

Mike - I'm getting this great idea for a gloomy mathematician character, trapped in a snowstorm in New Jersey:)

Chris McMahon said...

Hi, matapam. Sounds like a case of losing/killing a few darlings. To get that sense of immediate flow and being the middle of the story you just about need to write the story and through the first one third away (well - I do anyway).

Chop, chop! The story of my life. I look at something cross-eyed and two thousand words appear. If I try to trim something - invevitably I cut a careful 500 words out and add another 1000!

Thank, matapma. So great suggestions.

Chris McMahon said...

Hi, Dave. That certainly works for me. I think like any humour is breaks the psychic deadlock in the readers (slush readers?) mind.

Me I want to hear more about the fat elderly guy and the complex woman who has fallen for him:)

Anonymous said...


Most of my books start with a huge data dump at the start and a character list at the back. The Character list keeps growing, so I can keep track of names and places. The data dump gets mined and bits stuck here and there.

When I'm all done, the first chapter gets massive surgery, and sometimes doesn't survive at all. The character list goes to another file just in case I need it.

Stephen Simmons said...

As a reader who's hoping to become a writer, I'm with matapam. Give me substance NOW, something to latch onto and emotionally connect with. I can wait to find out that you were inspired to come here because of your third cousin's deathly allergy to this particular type of mold, or that the petals on the cherry blossoms clash horribly with your armor. Introduce some sort of action/conflict/question immediately, give me context as its needed. There's time.

Sarah A. Hoyt said...

Start with something the character wants more than life itself. Make it something concrete and immediate. Something we can visualize and crave, too. Start with the character in dire straights. How he got there, you can usually give in a line here, a line there, during the fight/love making/chase that follows your crux point.

Something I've recently learned as a way of improving short stories -- not always, but short stories tend to answer one question and the stronger the question, the stronger the story. "Are uplifted sharks human?" "Should she kill her infant?" make for much stronger stories than "what lipstick should she buy?" or "is this the day they win the game?" Not that these last two can't make wonderful stories, full of allegory and interest. It's just unless you're going for a specific market: Lipstick Weekly; Boy's Sport's, you'll start from a handicap.
Asimov's Nightfall -- a story I don't personally care for but which is justly famous -- What would happen if men saw the stars only in a 100 years; Ray Bradbury's The Veldt -- what happens when you let tech raise your kids; Cold Equations -- will a future of tech and spaceship have room for human beings?
Once you have the question, you have the theme and you can start layering your answer. It doesn't mean that you shouldn't have a complex background world, (though it should in general push or obstruct your theme, thereby clarifying it for your character)but that you shouldn't give us details up front. Start with the crux. Go where it hurts. Put your character at the point where the question is pressing the hardest or his need is greatest.

A novel, in general, answers more than one question and you might not even be sure what the questions or the answers are as you start, except for one central theme. At least I started DST with "what is human" but ended up with a bundle of other questions subjects about how one remains human, ranging from bioengineering, to education to law.

Anyway, I hope that makes some sense and it's not clear as mud. I was being flip yesterday as I lacked the mind for a serious answer.

Chris McMahon said...

Hi, Stephen. I am much the same, which is why I tend to favour books that focus on a single character at the outset. The old cast of thousands approach, with dialogue used to introduce political background is a real drag for me.

Chris McMahon said...

Thanks, Sarah. Not sure if that will help me fix my current shorts, but its certainly food for thought for the new ones. Unfortunately, my usual process is to start with a single inspiration and elaborate. So the key question - and the theme - only emerges much later. Or at least I only consciously recongise it them.

Starting with the question would represent a different approach for me, but one that would no doubt be useful if I could apply it early enough.

Kate said...

Um. Leaving aside any of the numerous silly suggestions...

Cognitive disconnect. Preferably one that hits more than one sense and encapsulates what the story is about.

Like it or not (and not many people do) the standards for getting picked up out of slush or even "published author slush" are a whole lot tighter than the standards for "has a Name".

Of course, Dave down in the comments on my post yesterday illustrates exactly why. I couldn't do something like that in a million years.

Stephen Simmons said...

The short I submitted this week opened with our protagonist fleeing from an angry god. Literally. I can let you know in a few weeks how it was received, if that helps.