When you’re writing your memoir as a series of short stories, as the students in my class are learning to do, it’s important to know where to open your story. Spoiler: it’s seldom where you think. Remember that this is a class about writing technique whose goal is to make your stories un-put-down-able to people who don’t even know you. To know where to open your story, you need to first understand the nature of conflict in stories. So, this lesson on short story openings is a big learning process that isn’t as easy as it sounds.
In Short Story Openings, Please Bank the Exposition
Most folks begin their short story openings with exposition. That means background information. They think readers won’t understand the story unless they’re given all this info up front. This is a bad habit of which I want to break my readers before they even start writing. If you pick up any well regarded book or watch any interesting film or TV show, you’ll notice that they almost never open with a long explanation of background information. (Star Wars and The Big Lebowski being two prominent breakers of this rule. To be discussed later.) So, why do most writers do so? It’s because they don’t respect the reader’s imagination. When you create a short story opening with conflict and action, readers are able to fill in the blanks of missing background info. That’s something the human mind is capable of doing and enjoys. Sure, you’ll still need to provide a certain amount of exposition, but bank it for now. Save it for later. So, how do we open with action?
Understanding Conflict is the Key to Opening with Action
Opening with action is a simple matter of understanding the nature of conflict. To have it, you need a character with a goal and some obstacle to that goal. That sounds simple, but having taught numerous classes on the subject, I notice people find this concept very difficult to grasp. Most people describe their character’s goal in these ways: “to have a good time,” “to improve my life,” “to feel loved.” Those goals are real, but when writing literature, they don’t count as goals because they’re universal. Pretty much everyone wants those things, all the time.
You need to break your story down into very small pieces so that in each moment you find your character with a unique goal. If that goal is simply to get a cup of coffee, that’s fine. It just so happens you’re trying to get that coffee from the hospital cafeteria while your son has an operation for a brain tumor. (Apologies to one student for borrowing her story for this blog.) Yet, your attempt to overcome some sort of obstacle in order to get that cup of coffee is actually the dramatic action of the story, NOT your act of sitting and waiting for your son’s operation to be over. Yes, it sure seems like a brain tumor is more dramatic than a cup of coffee, but, action-wise-speaking, sitting and waiting is a lot less dramatic than walking down a hallway while rubbing your lucky penny.
Give Readers Someone to Root for
Once you have found the character’s goal in the story (Just to complicate things: it must be difficult but not impossible to achieve) you have found your key to short story openings. Open with a character taking action on a goal, and you’ll always open in a dramatic and interesting place. A character with a goal is someone readers can root for. Having that goal creates suspense as to whether or not it will be achieved. But this prompts students to ask, “How then do I get all that background info into the story?” Excellent question, and that is the gist of next week’s lesson, called “Make ’em Beg for It,” all about exposition.
If any readers not in the class are interested in joining us, just use the contact form on this site to get in touch!