Beginning, middle, end. Every story, regardless of length, has those three aspects, and it cannot be changed. If one part is missing, you have a vignette, a scene or an idea, not a story—short or otherwise. The three sections of the story are not normally equal in word length; the beginning and end are likely shorter than the middle.
The very beginning (those first few words or couple paragraphs) is called the Hook. I sometimes refer to is as the “calling” or “invite” where your job as creator is to tantalize the reader and pull them into your tale.
Give them excitement at the very start. This is not the place for backfill, which is often called “Info Dump.” The history of your world and characters, ideally, should be sprinkled in throughout the action, shedding bits of light as the story grows and clarifies. There is time for backfill, but gone are the days of James Fenimore Cooper’s technique of spending pages of description prior to getting to the point, and thus forward movement.
Grab the reader by the lapel and yank them into your world. Here’s the beginning paragraph of my completed short story, Eyes of Destiny, which I just pulled forward from my “cooling” period to revise.
Kolvett’s stomach churned, the buggy bread threatening to lurch out of him onto slick planks as the Emperor’s war galley rose and fell on the frothy sea. He shuffled with small steps measured by thongs connecting his ankles, glanced to his side so the early morning sun and ocean spray splashed his face, and squinted across white caps at land peaking above the horizon. The shore was the gondrag’s destination, and for whatever reason, him with it. He glanced at his wrists where bloody sores had healed to bruises and reminded him there are shackles other than steel that bind men.
This opening paragraph attempts to do several things:
1. Introduces the character whose story this is, Kolvett. In most cases, I like the character tag in the first sentence. Character is what all stories are about in the end. If the reader cannot associate with the character and does not care what happens to them, they won’t continue reading. Losing a reader is the worst thing for a writer.
2. Gives the setting; Emperor’s war galley rose and fell on the frothy sea. The implication is an earlier time in history measured by thongs connecting his ankles, though at this point, time and placement is unknown and will be revealed later in the story.
3. Sets up a problem; shuffled with small steps measured by thongs connecting his ankles. Kolvett is bound and being led somewhere, but does not know where or why. The shore was the gondrag’s destination. The use of the word, gondrag, which was earlier described as the Emperor’s war galley indicates the fantasy element of the story.
4. Mystery: and for whatever reason, him with it. Every story needs an element of mystery, if nothing more than the reader’s question of, What is going to happen?
5. A promise of something more: He glanced at his wrists where bloody sores had healed to bruises and reminded him there are shackles other than steel that bind men.
Another example from a work in progress, a planned novella entitled Nychelle’s Gate.
Nychelle staggered through the flap, gasping, and fell to her knees on the tent’s dusty floor. She spun around at her mother and father. “I won’t do it!” she spat, and tasted blood from the Elder’s backhand. That was not the worst of being “taken,” though, nor the most painful. And far from the most humiliating, she admitted, and shuddered at the all-too-recent memory.
Again, the opening paragraph attempts to accomplish the following:
1. Introduces the main character, Nychelle.
2. Gives the setting, at least at this point in the story, being the tent and probably that of her parents. Using “tent” implies that they are nomadic or at least have not reached the point as a culture of developing towns or cities. Or they are outsiders. Either way, there is some mystery as to the situation of the people that populate the story.
3. Confrontation by her dialogue, “I won’t do it” shows a problem and that her parents are at the center of it. This confrontation is geared to raise the tension of the scene.
4. There are other hints within these 64 words such as the hierarchy of the culture (Elder), which indicates a clan rather than a kingdom, that she had been struck (tasted blood from the Elder’s backhand), and that she endured something cringe-worthy (shuddered at the all-to-recent memory).
5. It hints at Nychelle’s character: strong and defiant, even against great odds of opposing her parents and the Elder.
Idea? Please comment. Don’t be shy, we’re all friends here, and we share the same struggles.