beginnings – a good place to start

‘The first line counts more than any other,’ writes Unthology co-editor Ashley Stokes in an article posted on the Thresholds short story forum ‘Electicism: How Unthology Works.’ It’s point 2 of a 5-point wish list detailing what the Unthology editors are looking for in their short fiction submissions. Ashley goes on to clarify that the first line should ‘create charge and anticipation’, explaining that he and co-editor Robin Jones can often get a sense of whether they will publish a story if the first line ‘lights us up.’

As a PhD Creative Writing student a fair way through writing my first collection of short stories, this shouldn’t have been big news to me, but it was, because in recent months I’d become utterly obsessed by endings: keeping them in the air like an un-popped bubble, keeping them open without making them seem unfinished, and choosing my last words with such care and precision that they’d reflect not only the theme but the mood of the piece. I’d become so obsessed by endings that I’d judge other writers on the strength or weakness of their final word regardless of the other three thousand nine hundred and ninety-nine before it. And I’d become so obsessed by endings that, horribly, I knew exactly what I’d see when I started scrutinising my beginnings – that terrible sense of a writer dipping her toe into the story’s waters and gently easing her way in, wearing a pair of bright orange armbands and clutching the side of the pool.

Yes, my openings included a doorstep conversation (two in fact), and a chat over coffee. There was the apology, the dreaded exposition (really?), and, worst of all, a couple of bland statements by two characters neatly placed at the top of the page. They all began with dialogue rather than action (and I don’t mean the car-chasing, gun toting kind of action), but that was okay wasn’t it? After all, wasn’t the ending where the money was at[1]?

At a recent masterclass, as part of the London Short Story Festival, Claire Keegan said that you should start your story as close to the end as you dare, but that it should be representative of things to come. If some of my beginnings were anything to go by, my readers could grab a cup of tea and a slice of angel cake and settle down in front of Emmerdale (and not one of those plane crash or house fire episodes either).

Earlier this month, at the International Short Story Conference in Vienna, Pulitzer prize winning author Robert Olen Butler said that the one thing missing from many literary short stories, even published ones, is yearning; that desire for something that genre fiction writers know only too well. He explained that a character’s yearning should be visible within the first 500 words of the story, and even went as far as saying that if a student showed him a piece of writing where there was no yearning in its opening, he’d tell them to rip it up.

Ashley Stokes offers the reader some examples of excellent short story openings:

Some things exist in one place, one time, and with only one person. – Angela Readman, ‘A Little More Prayer’, Unthology 5

My wife knew my missing-presumed-dead ex-girlfriend was back before I did, right before I got the letter. – Sarah Dobbs, ‘The Lemonade Girl,’ Unthology 1

When Marianne asked me to help her kill herself, I thought it would be relatively easy. – Sandra Jensen, ‘So Long Marianne’, Unthology 3


And these openings helped me to see that ‘Please, you say to me. ‘Please, Mum. Please?’ should be nowhere near the start of my work.

Through a series of much needed revisions I’ve learnt three things about writing beginnings: 1) that characters, like the rest of us, have to have something they want or need, 2) that you should always give something of what’s to come, and 3) that first lines should be so electric that they light up your page. I also realised three things about my own writing: 1) that it’s never just enough not to pop the bubble, 2) that the bubble has to be blown with premium brand washing up liquid (like Fairy), and 3) that it’s very important to blow really carefully if you want to make sure that your bubble is big.

[1] Metaphorical money, that is. Everyone knows writing short stories makes you poor.