The power of a captivating opener can’t be underestimated when it comes to writing effective short stories. A story beginning should grab attention, intrigue, surprise, shock, or spark an emotional reaction in your reader. This will lead them to finishing the story. If you can’t hook them at the start, you might lose them entirely.
Here are 8 short story opener strategies, a few tips, and some writing prompts to get you started!
8 Strategies For Starting a Short Story
Here are 8 solid strategies for starting a short story. Different methods might suit your story better than another, so choose carefully, and don’t be afraid to experiment!
In Medias Res Opener
In medias res is Latin for “into the middle of things”. In literature, we use this term to refer to stories that start in the middle, rather than having any lead-up before the real plot begins.
“Start late, end early” is a common piece of writing advice for a reason! Especially in short stories, this type of opener can save you lots of page space for more important things, plus get your reader right in the middle of the action from the jump.
Of course, not all stories are suited for this method, so keep reading to see if another might work better for your goals.
You might open your short story with a bit of dialogue. This can be an intriguing or fun way to start a story. Be careful with this one: It’s easy to go overboard trying to make the first line interesting, and it might end up coming off a little trite.
Flash Forward Opener
A little snippet of the future might interest your readers and make them want to know what led up to that event. Be careful with this one, too. It’s sometimes tempting to “cheat” with this method by using an exciting flash forward out of context, then the story can’t build up to and “earn” that scene. With any opener strategy, be sure you’re using it strategically and not as a shortcut.
Many stories start with the setting. If setting is important, representative, or symbolic for your story, you might open with description.
This is a great strategy for genres like horror, where the setting is often pivotal to the plot and/or character development. Look at this devastatingly sexy opener from Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House.
This is a strong literary example of the Setting opener. Hill House is almost the main character of the story, dragging each human character through their own personal trials and realizations. Opening on a spooky description of the book’s main setting makes perfect sense. Also consider weather, season, and time of day when choosing your opening setting.
You can also open stories with something shocking, confusing, or intriguing in order to pull your reader in immediately. Take this paragraph from the short story St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves by Karen Russell:
This paragraph opens several questions that the reader wants immediately answered. Who are these human/wolf creatures pissing all over this school? Is it a school, or a church, or something else? Why are they learning to be “civilized”? Who are their parents? What the hell is going on?
That’s what you want your opening paragraph to do: Intrigue.
The “Once Upon a Time” Opener
This one is exactly what it sounds like–winding up your story like a Proper Story. This is typically best from an omniscient perspective, and it might be considered a “Setting” opener as well. Here’s an example from Mother of Starlight.
This is a Storytelling Voice with an omniscient narrator. This perspective and tone suit stories like fairytales, children’s stories, and allegories. It is pretty stylistic, so this is something you won’t see very often in adult literature, but it can bring whimsy to your opener.
The Ending Opener
Begin with the end. I mean this differently than the “flash forward” opener, as this can be as simple as a single line, observation, character thought, or description. A tight way to end your short story is to connect it with the beginning–you can set this up in the actual first lines of the story.
This opener gives a beautiful description of something very strange, which pulls the reader into the story immediately.
TWs for The Mermaid: adult language, violence, homophobia, murder, SA
Writing Prompts for Short Stories
Here are some writing prompts for each of those strategies to get you rolling!
En Media Res Writing Prompts
- Your character is on the floor of a bank, being held up at gunpoint. Who is the robber?
- Your character wakes up blindfolded and tied to a chair, with no memory of how they got here. They feel a pain in their head, smell mold, and hear a consistent drip of water plinking against metal. What now?
- A spaceship alarm blares, waking a character from a cryogenic sleep. They are floating around the room because the artificial gravity has failed. The character woke early because their little robot bed (idk, I’m not an astronaut) came unplugged. The character has to fix the problem before it wakes everyone else. What do they have to do? And what do they do after? And where is the ship headed? And does the character have to poop immediately (I always assumed, but I really don’t know)?
Dialogue Writing Prompts
- “Is someone sitting here?”
- “I found this on the floor.”
- “Where are you going?”
Flash Forward Writing Prompts
- Your character is looking down at the consequences of their actions on the floor. What is it, and how did they get here?
- A character runs through a dark forest until they find a cabin. They hurry inside and lock the door behind them. How did they end up alone in the woods, and what are they running from?
- A vampire brings a nearly dead human into the hospital and disappears. When the human wakes, what story do they tell the doctor of how they ended up like this?
Setting Writing Prompts
- Open your story in a nighttime swamp. Describe the sights, sounds, smells, and feeling of the setting.
- Begin your story with an overhead shot of Mount Everest (or some other tall guy). Describe the snow and wind and the human corpses they blow over. Then reveal your character.
- Follow the POV of a rat in the walls as they scurry through a castle, poking their head into different rooms and hearing snippets of conversation. This will give the story context before it begins.
Huh? Writing Prompts
- A character brazenly admits to killing a family member/close friend. Why did they do it?
- A character is scribbling in their journal before they pause to climb onto a chair and press their ear to the ceiling. They step back down and write something else.
- Open a story with a character calmly walking the street at night, musing on their day so far, until they reach a house. They creep into the yard, pull a bottle of lighter fluid and box of matches from their bag, and set the house on fire. Spend the rest of the story revealing why.
“Once Upon a Time” Writing Prompts
- Many years ago, a mother had a strange idea.
- In the distant future, long after the rivers are dry and seemingly the only surviving species is cockroaches, a baby is born.
- On a planet quite similar to ours, a child quite similar to you peers through a lens pointed at Earth.
The Ending Writing Prompts
- Start a story with a character sitting under a tree, then end it with the character seeing that tree many years later.
- Title your story with a question, then make the last line of the story work as both a logical last line, plus the answer to the question.
- Make the last line of your story the same as the first, but with the complete opposite meaning.
Description Writing Prompts
- Describe a character as they dress in spelunking gear, including unexpected tools that hint at what waits below.
- Tell a brief, minimalist story by describing what a character has packed in their bag.
- Open a story by describing the room in which you currently sit, but something dark lurks.
Writing a strong opener is imperative to collecting readers that will stick with you through the end. Employ these tips and strategies to start your story off on the right foot. Now, how do we write the ending of a short story?