The sentence you are currently reading has the potential to brand itself indelibly upon our cultural consciousness and to alter the course of Western Civilization. OK, maybe that’s an exaggeration. But what author doesn’t dream of crafting an opening line that will achieve the iconic recognition of “Call me Ishmael,” or the staying power of “In the beginning, God created the heaven and the earth …”? In writing, as in dating and business, initial reactions matter. You don’t get a second chance, as mouthwash commercials often remind us, to make a first impression.
This post is by Jacob M. Appel. Appel is a physician, attorney and bioethicist based in New York City. He is the author of more than two hundred published short stories and is a past winner of the Boston Review Short Fiction Competition, the William Faulkner-William Wisdom Award for the Short Story, the Dana Award, the Arts & Letters Prize for Fiction, the North American Review’s Kurt Vonnegut Prize, and more. Visit him at jacobmappel.com.
So it’s unfortunate that opening sentences frequently receive short shrift in writing workshops. While drilling aspiring literati on the subtleties of characterization and plot, few, if any, writing instructors offer lessons on crafting a first line, or even an introductory paragraph—though many agents and editors, if not impressed after a sentence or two, will read no further. I started devoting an entire session of my writing class to opening lines when I realized that the last formal instruction I’d had on the subject was the grade school admonition that stories should begin with “a hook.” In the years since, I’ve come to believe that the fate of most literary endeavors is sealed within the initial paragraph—and that the seeds of that triumph or defeat are usually sown by the end of the very first sentence.
Think of every opening line you write as a pebble tossed down a mountainside: The stone may jolt back and forth within a limited path, building up force, but the trajectory of its initial release largely determines its subsequent route. Never forget that the entire course of a story or novel, like an avalanche, is largely defined within its first seconds. To craft a compelling story, you must first launch it in the right direction.
Here are 10 ways to do it.
1. Build momentum.
The first cardinal rule of opening lines is that they should possess most of the individual craft elements that make up the story as a whole. An opening line should have a distinctive voice, a point of view, a rudimentary plot and some hint of characterization. By the end of the first paragraph, we should also know the setting and conflict, unless there is a particular reason to withhold this information.
This need not lead to elaborate or complex openings. Simplicity will suffice. For example, the opening sentence of Flannery O’Connor’s “A Good Man Is Hard to Find” tells the reader: “The grandmother didn’t want to go to Florida.” Already, we have a distinctive voice—somewhat distant, possibly ironic—referring to the grandmother with a definite article. We have a basic plot: conflict over a journey. And we have a sense of characterization: a stubborn or determined elderly woman. Although we do not know the precise setting, we can rule out Plato’s Athens, Italy under the Borgias and countless others. All of that in eight words. Yet what matters most is that we have direction—that O’Connor’s opening is not static.
Immediately, we face a series of potential questions: Why didn’t the grandmother want to go to Florida? Where else, if anywhere, did she wish to go? Who did want to go to Florida? A successful opening line raises multiple questions, but not an infinite number. In other words, it carries momentum.
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2. Resist the urge to start too early.
You might be tempted to begin your narrative before the action actually starts, such as when a character wakes up to what will eventually be a challenging or dramatic day. But unless you’re rewriting Sleeping Beauty, waking up is rarely challenging or dramatic. Often, when we start this way, it’s because we’re struggling to write our way into the narrative, rather than letting the story develop momentum of its own. Far better to begin at the first moment of large-scale conflict. If the protagonist’s early-morning rituals are essential to the story line, or merely entertaining, they can always be included in backstory or flashbacks—or later, when he wakes up for a second time.
3. Remember that small hooks catch more fish than big ones.
Many writers are taught that the more unusual or extreme their opening line, the more likely they are to “hook” the reader. But what we’re not taught is that such large hooks also have the power to easily disappoint readers if the subsequent narrative doesn’t measure up. If you begin writing at the most dramatic or tense moment in your story, you have nowhere to go but downhill. Similarly, if your hook is extremely strange or misleading, you might have trouble living up to its odd expectations. As a fishing buddy of mine explains, the trick is to use the smallest hook possible to make a catch—and then to pull like crazy in the opposite direction.
4. Open at a distance and close in.
In modern cinema, films commonly begin with the camera focused close up on an object and then draw back panoramically, often to revelatory effect, such as when what appears to be a nude form is actually revealed to be a piece of fruit. This technique rarely works in prose. Most readers prefer to be “grounded” in context and then to focus in. Open your story accordingly.
5. Avoid getting ahead of your reader.
One of the easiest pitfalls in starting a story is to begin with an opening line that is confusing upon first reading, but that makes perfect sense once the reader learns additional information later in the story. The problem is that few readers, if confused, will ever make it that far. This is not to say that you can’t include information in your opening that acquires additional meaning once the reader learns more. That technique is often a highly rewarding tool. But the opening should make sense on both levels—with and without knowledge the reader will acquire later.
6. Start with a minor mystery.
While you don’t want to confuse your readers, presenting them with a puzzle can be highly effective—particularly if the narrator is also puzzled. This has the instant effect of making the reader and narrator partners in crime. An unanswered question can even encompass an entire novel, as when David Copperfield asks, “Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station will be held by anybody else, these pages must show.”
7. Keep talk to a minimum.
If you feel compelled to begin a story with dialogue, keep in mind that you’re thrusting your readers directly into a maelstrom in which it’s easy to lose them. One possible way around this is to begin with a single line of dialogue and then to draw back and to offer additional context before proceeding with the rest of the conversation—a rare instance in which starting close up and then providing a panorama sometimes works. But long sequences of dialogue at the outset of a story usually prove difficult to follow.
8. Be mindful of what works.
Once you’ve given some concentrated thought to your own opening line, obtain copies of anthologies like The Best American Short Stories and The PEN/O. Henry Prize Stories and read only the first sentence of each story. As with any other aspect of writing, openings are their own distinct art form—and exposure to the masterwork of others is one of the best ways to learn. (Of course, the challenge of this exercise is to avoid being lured into a story with such a compelling opening that you aren’t able to put it down!)
9. When in doubt, test several options.
Writers are often advised to make a short list of titles and try them out on friends and family. Try doing the same with opening sentences. An opening line, like a title, sometimes seems truly perfect—until you come up with several even better choices.
10. Revisit the beginning once you reach the end.
Sometimes a story evolves so significantly during the writing process that an opening line, no matter how brilliant, no longer applies to the story that follows. The only way to know this is to reconsider the opening sentence, like the title, once the final draft of the story is complete. Often a new opening is called for. That doesn’t mean your first opening needs to be scrapped entirely; instead, file it away for use in a future project.
Needless to say, a brilliant opening line cannot salvage a story that lacks other merits, nor will your story be accepted for publication based on the opening alone. But in a literary environment where journals and publishing houses receive large quantities of submissions, a distinctive opening line can help define a piece. A riveting opening can even serve as shorthand for an entire story, so that harried editors, sitting around a table as they evaluate the crème de la slush pile, may refer to your piece not by its title, but as “the one that begins with the clocks striking 13” (as does George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four). Even after the rest of the story has evaporated from conscious memory, the opening may stick with editors, an iron peg upon which to hang their hats—and, with any luck, it will have that effect on readers, too.
My own personal favorite opening is the first line of Elizabeth Graver’s story “The Body Shop,” which appears in The Best American Short Stories 1991. It begins: “My mother had me sort the eyes.” I dare you not to go out and read what comes next.
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Most writers have too many short story ideas, not too few. However, therein lies the problem, because the more ideas you have, the harder it can be to choose the best one.
Here’s my advice: If you’re in the mood to begin a new short story, stop trying to find the best short story idea. In an interview with Rolling Stone, George R.R. Martin said, “Ideas are cheap. I have more ideas now than I could ever write up. To my mind, it’s the execution that is all-important.”
The best short story idea in the world won’t help you if you don’t write it, and a mediocre idea can be made into an award winning story if it’s written well. Stop worrying about finding the best idea and choose one that’s good enough (or even an idea you’ve already started). Your goal isn’t to have the best ideas, it’s to have the best short stories.
That’s why this list is so short. Some websites give 44 story ideas, 100 ideas, or even 1,000, and while that can be fun, it kind of defeats the purpose. More ideas won’t help you if you don’t write them, and they might just distract you from your true purpose.
Short Story Ideas
With that in mind, why not use these ten short story ideas to write your first ten stories, one per week, over the next ten weeks? I promise you, your life will look totally different if you do it.
Here are the short story ideas:
1. Tell the story of a scar, whether a physical scar or emotional one.
To be a writer, said Stephen King, “The only requirement is the ability to remember every scar.”
Good writers don’t cover up their wounds, they glorify them. Think for a few moments about a moment in your life when you were wounded, whether physically or emotionally. Then, write a story, true or fictional, involving that wound.
2. Your character discovers a dead body OR witnesses a death.
In 2011, 20 short stories were published in Best American Short Stories. Half of them involved a character dying. That same year, all 13 of the novels shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize involved the theme of death.
Think about your favorite films or novels. How many of them either show a character die or have the character’s dealing with the death of another.
Good writers don’t turn away from death, which is, after all, the universal human experience. Instead, they look it directly into it’s dark face and describe what they see on the page.
3. Your character is orphaned.
Pop quiz: What do Harry Potter, Superman, Cosette from Les Miserables, Bambi, David Copperfield, Frodo Baggins, Tom Sawyer, Santiago from The Alchemist, Arya Stark, and Ram Mohammed Thomas from Slumdog Millionaire have in common? Beside the fact that they are characters in some of the bestselling stories of all time?
They’re all orphans.
Writers love orphans, and statistically they appear in stories far more often than in the world. Orphans are uniquely vulnerable, and as such, they have the most potential for growth. It’s time for you to write a story about one.
Read more about why you should be writing stories about orphans here.
4. Your character discovers a ghost.
One more pop quiz: What do Edgar Allen Poe, Ron Weasley, King Saul from the Bible, Odysseus, and Ebeneezer Scrooge have in common?
Each of these characters* from literary classics saw ghosts!
Even if you don’t believe in ghosts, they make great stories. Have your character find one.
Need more reasons to write about ghosts? Check out our article, 3 reasons to write about ghosts.
*Edgar Allen Poe was not exactly a character, but he was the narrator of “The Raven.”
5. Your character’s relationship ends.
Whether it’s a friendship or a romantic relationship or even the relationship between a parent and his or her child, write about the end of a character’s relationship.
As you write, be sure to keep this in mind:
“Every story has an end, but in life every ending is just a new beginning,” says Dakota Fanning’s character in Uptown Girls.
While it might feel like you’re writing an ending, remember that this end is the opportunity for a new beginning, both for your character and your story.
More Short Story Ideas
Ready to get writing? Get our workbook 15 Days to Write and Submit a Short Story for a step-by-step guide through the process.
6. Your character’s deepest fear is holding his or her relationship OR career back.
“Why bats, Master Wayne?” asks Alfred in Batman Begins.
“Bats frighten me,” Bruce answers. “It’s time my enemies shared my dread.”
We all have pieces of ourselves we’re trying to hide. You do, and so do the characters in your short stories. However, your characters’ secret fears and insecurities are actually the source of their power. Dive into them and you’ll unlock a captivating story.
For more, read our article When You Don’t Know What to Write, Write About Your Insecurities.
7. A character living in poverty comes into an unexpected fortune.
This storyline is one of the seven basic plots, and it describes the plot of some of our favorites stories, including Cinderella, Aladdin, Great Expectations, several of the parables of Jesus, and even Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone.
However, not all fortunes are good. As Tolstoy’s short story How Much Land Does a Man Need?and John Steinbeck’s novella The Pearl illustrate, sometimes discovering a fortune will destroy your life.
8. A character unexpectedly bumps into his or her soulmate, literally.
In film, it’s called the meet cute, when the hero bumps into the heroine in the hallway, knocking her books to the floor, and forcing them into conversation. In another story, they meet on a bus and her broach gets stuck on his coat. In another, they both reach for the last pair of gloves at the department store.
What happens next is an awkward, endearing conversation between the future lovers.
First, setup the collision. Then, let us see how they handle it.
9. Your character is on a journey. However, they are interrupted by a natural disaster OR an accident.
This is the plot of Gravity, The Odyssey, and Lord of the Rings. It’s fun because who hasn’t been longing to get to a destination only to be delayed by something unexpected.
10. Your character runs into the path of a monster.
In Flannery O’Connor’s short story, “A Good Man is Hard to Find,” a family is on a road trip to Florida when they get into an accident beside the hideout of a murderer who had just escaped from prison. What happens next is one of the most famous encounters with a monstrous criminal in short fiction.
Monsters, whether people who do monstrous things or scaly beasts or a monster of a natural disaster, reveal what’s really inside a person. Let your character fall into the path of a monster and see how they handle themselves.
Want more story ideas? Want to learn how to execute those ideas better, and get your short stories published? Check out this book Let’s Write a Short Story, a guide that will get you started writing and publishing short stories. Get it here.
Testing Your Short Story Ideas
Spend a few minutes today thinking about these 10 story ideas and coming up with a few of your own.
But before you start writing, try testing out your idea by sharing it with a friend, your writer’s group, or even our online community Becoming Writer.
If the people you share it with aren’t very excited about your idea, consider reworking it or even starting over. If they start getting visibly excited about the story, on the other hand, then you know you’re onto something.
I recently combined idea #7, the unexpected fortune, along with idea #5, end of a relationship, to create this idea:
A writer who is inexperienced with women suddenly gets the courage to date not one but two women—the old friend who had twice rejected him and a barista he’s long been attracted to—but after several months of balancing them, both relationships end leaving him alone.
I then posted the idea for feedback in Becoming Writer. And the feedback I got not only helped me see I had a promising idea, I got more ideas from members of the community about how to make the story even better.
As I wrote the story, I was more confident because of the feedback I had gotten, and when I finished, the story turned great.
Once you have your idea, join Becoming Writer to test them out. Oh, and if you join, here’s the link to mine if you want to share your feedback! I’ll be there ready to check it out.
How about you? Do you have any short story ideas? Share them with us in the comments section!
About Joe Bunting
Joe is a ghostwriter, editor, and author. He writes and edits books that change lives. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter.