Start Your Story in the Middle

When you are first learning how to write a short story, it’s a good idea to think about where your story will start. It’s easy to make the mistake of starting the story too soon and, as a result, giving too many details to your reader.

Look at this example of how to start a short story from Flannery O’Connor’s “Everything that Rises Must Converge”:

“HER DOCTOR had told Julian’s mother that she must lose twenty pounds on account of her blood pressure, so on Wednesday nights Julian had to take her downtown on the bus for a reducing class at the Y. The reducing class was designed for working girls over fifty, who weighed from 165 to 200 pounds. His mother was one of the slimmer ones, but she said ladies did not tell their age or weight.”

Notice how the first two words of the story suggest we already know who is meant by “her.” This familiarity strives to draw us into the next sentence. We learn a lot about the characters here – the mother is overweight, Julian does would prefer not to take his mother downtown, and the word “reducing” suggests restraint and an old-fashioned way of talking. We read that “Julian had to take her downtown” and know that Julian would prefer to be doing something else. The word “reducing” is less specific than “losing weight” yet still lets us know the reason for the class.

Another example of a good start to a story is this opening paragraph of O’Connor’s “A Good Man is Hard to Find”:

“The grandmother didn’t want to go to Florida. She wanted to visit some of her connections in east Tennessee and she was seizing at every chance to change Bailey’s mind. Bailey was the son she lived with, her only boy. He was sitting on the edge of his chair at the table, bent over the orange sports section of the Journal. “Now look here, Bailey,” she said, “see here, read this,” and she stood with one hand on her thin hip and the other rattling the newspaper at his bald head. “Here this fellow that calls himself The Misfit is aloose from the Federal Pen and headed toward Florida and you read here what it says he did to these people. Just you read it. I wouldn’t take my children in any direction with a criminal like that aloose in it. I couldn’t answer to my conscience if I did.”

In the very first sentence, we know the grandmother’s thoughts on going to Florida. We hear only her voice, which fills up the entire first paragraph. We might be thinking that this woman talks a lot. If she talks a lot, that might be annoying to her family. If she is annoying to her family, they might not listen to what she has to say very often.

O’Connor does not spend time telling us how they planned the trip, what led up to them taking the trip, etc. She chooses to start with the grandmother attempting to persuade her son not to visit Florida and is able to show us something about the grandmother’s character and personality in the process.

 

A good start to a short story contains the following:

A clear start;

An idea of what the characters are like (best shown through their words and actions);

An attention to individual words to show a character’s dislikes, likes and motivations.

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