Wednesday, May 2, 2012

The Magnificent Seven?

Are there really only seven ways to start a short story?

I stumbled across this article by Charlie Jane Anders last year, and I've been pondering it ever since. Obviously, there isn't a whole lot under the sun that's new, but I like to think I'm able to stretch my creative wings and start my short fiction any unique way I like. Even so, there appear to be seven ways that most stories start out:

1. Set the Scene (Boring, but we're all guilty of it.)

2. Establish the Conflict (Drop the reader in medias res.)

3. Mystify (Huh? What's going on? Oooh, now I get it.)

4. 3rd-person Narrator Speaks (The chatty, omniscient type)

5. 1st-person Narrator Speaks (The intimate, reflective type)

6. Quotation (The more profound, the better)

7. Puzzle (Establish the conflict AND mystify your reader -- it's a 2fer!)

What do you think? Should Dialogue or Establish the Characters be added to the list, or are they already covered? I guess Establish the Conflict would take care of both...

My openings vary from story to story and genre to genre, but I can easily identify the ones I use the most. Do you find yourself leaning toward a few of these methods, or have you managed to come up with something entirely different?


  1. I think "Establish the Character" would fall under "narrator speaking" since the narrator/character talking to you or himself tends to set up what kind of person the character is.

    "Dialogue" could fall into a few things: conflict/mystify (what are they talking about?)/a way around the narrator speaking

    Sadly, I don't think I've come up with anything different. I tend to use the 1st-person narrator speaking for conversational pieces. Mystify for horror, bizarro, and dark/reg fantasy. Conflict for actiony stories. I've even done Puzzle too, but not intentionally.

  2. I think they seem to cover it. I tend to drop people in the action and puzzle them.

  3. I'm not sure Mystify is distinct from the others. Just like Puzzle is Mystify and Conflict together, I've done Mystify with 1st Person Narrative, by having the narrative start off by creating a mystery before going on to reveal it. I think I usually try to start with some element of mystery as a hook.

    I have the feeling that this is more of a two-dimensional classification, but I'll have to ponder it some more.

  4. Getting the balance of mystify/intriguing/piquing interest and not putting folk off is tricky and I'd certainly put 'profound quotation' at the bottom of my list. Perhaps a better idea might be to look at the books I discard after three lines to analyse why ... but for the fact that they have been discarded and cannot be referred to.
    And does a novel's opening sentence have to be much different to a short story?

  5. I'm a big proponent of an "establish the conflict" opening.

    I like to bring the reader in at an action scene or tension-filled dialog when possible, hook them, and fill in the background later.

  6. I often start with dialogue. The dialogue needn't be that of the narrator but it should do something useful such as introducing the conflict. Establishing characters is really another form of scene setting, so I think you've got it all covered.