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Cut to the chase - Three ways to get your short story started

Cut to the chase - Three ways to get your
short story started
Created by Writers Write at Keep Calm-O-Matic
In F. Scott Fitzgerald’s short story, Three Hours Between Planes, a
man decides to look up an old girlfriend while he has a few hours
to kill in his old hometown. This is established in the first
paragraph. By the second page, the dark-haired little beauty is
welcoming him into her house with a highball and a smile. No time
wasted in this brilliant comic piece.
In Ian Rankin’s chilling crime story, Someone Got to Eddie, the
assassin narrating the tale lets us know his victim is lying bleeding
and dying on the floor in just over fifty words. We’re gripped from
the start.
In Gina Berriault’s classic, The Stone Boy, written in a longer short
story format, the tragedy that changes the life of a young farm boy
happens on the third page. She gets to the heart of the story as soon
as she set up her characters and the world of the farm.
Why do we go wrong? As writers, we sometimes spend too much
time on the introduction of the story. We feel it is important to give
every inch of backstory, a detailed description of character, a
perfect sense of place. We’re so busy setting the table with fine
china and shiny cutlery we don’t see that our readers have dashed
out to the nearest Drive-Thru for a takeaway burger.
How do we avoid this?
Start as close to the action as possible. Fitzgerald doesn’t show
his character disembarking from the plane, getting his luggage,
having a leisurely cup of coffee. No, he is in a phone booth looking
up a number—he wants to see this girl now. Set the tone of the
story. In Rankin’s short story, he uses the interior monologue of
the killer to speak to the reader. The voice is detached, casual,
smirking – which makes the crime even more shocking. We’re
immediately in the mind of a killer. Focus on your main
character. In Berriault’s story, she starts with Arnold pulling on
his faded dungarees, old grey sweater and teasing his older brother.
We immediately identify with the boy as an authentic character,
which helps us empathise with him when he makes a tragic
Three Top Tips
If you’re not sure if you’re started in the right place, read
over your opening page and cross out every single line that is
not indispensable. When you get to the line that simply
cannot be left out, you’re at the start of the story.
Don’t reflect on the past, start with the immediate action.
Have your character react to something that’s happened just
before the start of the story. Start with your character in the
cross hairs.
Spend time with your character. If you know your character
really well, you will not feel the need to over explain or over
describe the character. This confidence will show in both
restraint and authenticity.
Email [email protected] for details on our Short Cuts
workshop on 29 March 2014 in Johannesburg.