Last Monday my U3A writing group (who have grappled gamely with Zoom and capricious email to turn in some really great work this year) had three short stories to consider and they made me think of the importance of openings.
The group are all very aware of the pitfalls of working out where a story does or doesn’t begin, which led to a discussion of in medias res – the concept of jumping in at the right place, avoiding back story which (if the reader really needs it) can be dripped in as the story goes on.
However I can see now that this was a bit of a red herring. The in medias res idea is about where to begin and what I was trying to get at was how to begin. Because however enticing it is to jump in with a line of dialogue oh no, that’s torn it! yelled Pete or a moment of high drama, the wave towered over the stern of the boat I’m a big fan of CONTEXT. Yes, the opening has to pose a question, but it has to be a question that intrigues the reader rather than mystifies. It’s the difference between what on earth’s going on here and ooh, I wonder what will happen next. So, i.e. why is Pete so vexed, and whose boat, where, when?
I realise I might be out on a limb here, and I’m probably influenced in my views by having been on the judging panel for the occasional short story competition (next event here.) After reading, say, 100 short stories in a matter of a few weeks, my tolerance of mystery or even intrigue becomes limited. An opening that simply lets me know who this is about and where/when it’s happening is a thing of rare beauty!
The biggest clue here, is I think the ‘who’. In a short story the reader needs a stake in it from line one – or two at the very least – and although you may get away with creating a brilliant atmosphere in which to set your action, I’m most interested to know who is involved and what’s bothering them. So I would prefer Pete heaved a sigh of relief and picked up the broken vase. Thank God Sarah was upstairs and hadn’t heard the crash.
Pete threw down his phone in frustration and clung to the rail for dear life as the wave towered over the stern of the boat.
Okay neither of these is the start of great literature and I foresee some objections, but I hope you get what I mean. And talking of great literature, I’ve been catching up on some of Katherine Mansfield’s short stories, now on BBC Sounds. The first one is Marriage a la Mode –which starts like this:
On his way to the station, William remembered with a fresh pang of disappointment he was taking nothing home for the children.
See what I mean? We’re already worried for William. The ending is even better.
Unfortunately BBC Sounds has eaten this particular link but there are plenty more Mansfield classics here.
And going back to in medias res, if anyone wants a nifty introduction to the topic (which doesn’t ignore the pitfalls) this article by K. M. Weiland is a good start.