How Not to Open a Short Story, by Philip Athans

I generally don’t like this kind of negative approach: lists of what not to do. I prefer to encourage you to do things, not discourage you from doing things, but back to the subject of short stories, I can’t help but point out some very common pitfalls that I’ve seen over and over again for years—decades, actually. So here goes, in no particular order, half a dozen things you should never do in the first page of a short story:

Too Many Ideas in a Sentence

Especially in the first sentence of your story, limit each sentence to one idea.

Example of what not to do:

I woke up that morning wondering when I would stop having visions of the future when all of a sudden a flying saucer landed on my front lawn.

Is this a story about a guy with precognitive abilities, or UFOs, or both? It could be both, but that doesn’t mean you have to list them all up front.

Example of what to do instead (from “Enchanted Village” by A.E. van Vogt):

“Explorers of a new frontier” they had been called before they left for Mars.

This is a story about a voyage to Mars. Let’s see what else happens as the story progresses.

The Newspaper Lead

It could be that practitioners of this gem took some journalism classes. A good newspaper reporter doesn’t want to “bury the lead.” But a good fiction writer needs to imbue his or her work with a sense of discovery. Don’t sum up the whole thing in the first paragraph, or your readers (like most newspaper skimmers) will leave it at that.

What not to do:

I am a robot, model ZXQ7, manufactured on Zeta-3 for industrial labor, and when I fell in love with a human woman I ended up destroying both our lives. Here’s how it happened . . .

What to do (from “Brightness Falls from the Air” by Margaret St. Clair):

Kerr used to go into the tepidarium of the identification bureau to practice singing.

Ms. St. Clair’s first paragraph goes on to describe what a tepidarium is, but only really in the context of why Kerr is there to practice singing. It’s about her character’s emotional connection to the place. No more of the plot, setting, and characters is explained in that paragraph than is necessary to get you to the next paragraph. The reader is participating in the unfolding drama, not being read a list of events.


If I read another short story that begins with a list of complaints, I’m going to write a list of complaints about it. Wait. I think I might be doing that right now.

You may be writing a story about someone who’s having a bad day, or a bad life, but no one likes a whiner, and few readers will force their way through a page of whining to get to the meat of the story.

What not to do:

Everybody was bored waiting for the king to speak. The throne room was hot, and smelled like sweat and ambivalence. Bronwyn was so sick of all this standing around she started to think about all the different ways she might kill herself. A woman next to her started crying.

What to do (from “Drunkboat” by Cordwainer Smith):

Perhaps it is the saddest, maddest, wildest story in the whole long history of space. It is true that no one else had ever done anything like it before, to travel at such a distance, and at such speeds, and by such means. The hero looked like such an ordinary man—when people looked at him for the first time. The second time, ah! That was different.

See how we know there’s going to be some sadness here, but still the first paragraph ends with a ray of hope? Though our negative example may end up with Bronwyn heroically saving the day and ushering in a new, less boring and sweaty future, how much work are you asking your reader to do to get there? At least Mr. Smith here gives us something to cling to: Our as yet unnamed “hero” is somehow special, even if it sounds as if he’s got some trouble ahead. A story about someone rising above misery is more interesting than a story about someone wallowing in it.

The One-Paragraph Plot Twist

This terrible cliché can take a number of forms, but these two seem to be the most common: Start with the summary paragraph from the Newspaper Lead then end with a “twist”:

What not to do:

I am a robot, model ZXQ7, manufactured on Zeta-3 for industrial labor, and I am in love with a human woman.

You can practically hear the soap opera organ come in at the end of that one.

The second is sort of the reverse, in which it appears something horrible is happening but then “surprise,” it’s really mundane.

What not to do:

The scratching at the door grew louder and more insistent. The hair on the back of my neck rose, and a tingle of fear ran down my spine. My hand shook as I reached for the doorknob, as though the very muscles in my body protested. Don’t let it in, my nervous system insisted. Don’t let it in! But I knew I had to see what it was, no matter the consequences, and when I tugged the door open I choked back a scream and tensed, waiting for a lunge, a bite, the tearing of flesh—but it was only the cat.

What did I do, forget I had a cat?

What to do (from “Johnny Mnemonic” by William Gibson):

I put the shotgun in an Adidas bag and padded it out with four pairs of tennis socks, not my style at all, but that was what I was aiming for: If they think you’re crude, go technical; if they think you’re technical, go crude. I’m a technical boy. So I decided to get as crude as possible. These days, though, you have to be pretty technical before you can even aspire to crudeness. I’d had to turn both those twelve-gauge shells from brass stock, on a lathe, and then load them myself; I’d had to dig up an old microfiche with instructions for hand-loading cartridges; I’d had to build a lever-action press to seat the primers—all very tricky. But I knew they’d work.

Here we have a guy who’s getting ready for something intense. It’s clear he isn’t going turkey hunting. We’re also learning about the world a little, at least that you can’t just go down to the local Wal-Mart and buy shotgun shells. And all of this feels personal. Our narrator has some clear ideas about how he fits into his world, and there’s a sense that something is building—and whatever it is, it isn’t then undercut by that last-sentence pull-back.

The Script Fragment

If I had a dollar for every short story I’ve read that begins with line after line of unattributed dialog, most of which goes nowhere, I would be a wealthy man.

I’m not even sure I want to torture either of us by creating an example of what I’m talking about here. If you see this in one of your stories, stop doing that. I can say that I flipped through all of the stories in The Science Fiction Century, Edited by David G. Hartwell, and not a single one of the 45 stories in that anthology (from which my positive examples were drawn) begins with a string of unattributed dialog.

“What I mean by unattributed,” Phil said, “is a line of dialog that has no indication of who is saying it.”

In that last line, Phil said is dialog attribution You know who said that line of dialog.

The Present Tense Statement of Purpose

A close cousin of the Newspaper Lead, the Present Tense Statement of Purpose also tells you exactly what the story is about in a single sentence, which for reasons unknown is rendered in present tense even if the rest of the story isn’t.

What not to do:

In the basement of my house is the body of an alien recovered from the Roswell crash and now the FBI knows it’s there.

And now your readers feel as though they’ve missed the first half of the story. This is a fine logline, but don’t lead with that. It’s just . . . unimaginative.

What to do (from “Ginungagap” by Michael Swanwick):

Abigail checked out of Mother of Mercy and rode the translator web to Toledo Cylinder in Juno Industrial Park. Stars bloomed, dwindled, disappeared five times. It was a long trek, halfway around the sun.

Look how much we find out just in those two sentences. We meet Abigail, and come to realize she inhabits a future Earth, or more accurately a future solar system. There are names in there that touch back to reality (Toledo, Mother of Mercy) mixed with SF tech-speak (translator web). This is exciting and interesting. We’re going to get to explore a strange new future with Abigail, who has a very traditional name so can’t be too different from us, and we’re drawn in without having to be spoon fed “the point.”

And . . .

Oh, there are more. So many—too many—more. But let’s leave it there for this week, with some final words of advice:

Start strong. Start in the middle of the action. Start with compelling words and ideas, and a sense of some personal connection between a character and a place or event. You do not have to “set the scene,” and you sure as hell don’t have to tell us what’s going to happen.

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