3 June 2020

Dissecting the Opening of a Short Story

I am finally digging myself out of Covid-19 procrastination with a short story which is fast turning into a novelette, as much of my short fiction seems to do. It’s quite a while since I uploaded a how-to post, so I thought I’d share the beginning of my work-in-progress. Upfront I’ll say that I am more of a pantser than a plotter, so when I started I knew little more than what you’ll read.

What is needed for an opening? Many writers just write, then see what they have, re-write it, and edit that into shape. I can’t work that way. I need more than a character: I need to know his/her general backstory and, most important, find the tone necessary for the character to embark on his/her journey.  If these aren’t in place when my imagination makes the leap then the whole thing has a tendency to go awry. Have a read:

The Forever House
    There’s an old saying that you never truly know a house until you remove its wallpaper. It’s proved correct with every house we’ve owned, from our first Victorian two-up, two-down with its dicey electrics, to the oak wainscotting discovered behind a botched plasterboard job in the house at Rutherford.
    So when the damp wallpaper lifted to reveal the message pencilled on the plaster, I didn’t think, just smiled and turned to call over my shoulder, ‘There’s nine—’
    I recall the metal scraper ringing against the wall as the jolt seared through me, and somehow my shoulder coming to rest in the corner of the walls, the smell of old glue and powdery plaster in my nostrils.
   That’s the problem with doing something rhythmic, something mindless. You sort of slip into a parallel reality where a normal action still means what it’s supposed to. Nine lengths to door. In that reality Jason would have looked up and grinned. In this reality, my reality, he’s no longer here to respond. 

A double-blank line follows, which even for me is some going after only 170 words. However, due to what comes after, it fits. I have given the title because it isn’t just a title, it’s a recurring motif which impacts both on the house and the character’s evolving mindset. Even at this stage, when I had little idea of genre, subsidiary characters, and only a glimpse of a possible ending, my creativity was adding depth. As an aside, the title’s phrase was passed to me in conversation by a friend, and immediately lodged in my subconscious for future use. Occasionally it happens like that; most times I’d need to write the complete story and then mine it for a suitable title.

The story is a first person narration, chosen because there will be a lot of internalisation and it is easier to convey that on the page using first person viewpoint. During the writing, the hurdle I need to watch for is the number of uses of “I”. At a pinch the character could be construed as male, but it was always destined to be female. There is no name, or description of her, because at this point I don’t want to detract from the importance of The House, hence going into such detail in that first paragraph, even to naming a non-existent town.

The exception to this is in the use of contractions to give a sense of an ordinary person narrator. [You thought the use or not of contractions was ad hoc? LOL!] The tone I wanted was one of bittersweet reflection, hence beginning with There’s an old saying… rather than straight in with You never truly know… At the very start the bittersweet slant might be more in my mind than on the page, but it grows as the story progresses and the character starts to question not just the house but her perception of her life and those who lived in the house before her.

A word about characters in general: I hardly ever describe them. The picture I wish to conjure in a reader’s mind comes from what characters say, or do, or hold, and that picture will be different for every reader. Instead, I try to convey glimpses of the characters’ lived lives to act as scaffolding.

Here the narrator and partner – the we – have bought and renovated a series of properties, moving up the price ladder as they did so. As much as this emphasises a type of person with the traits necessary to bring such to fruition, it excludes others. This reading-between-the-lines is for the reader to assimilate as they progress, thus building and continually adjusting their own mental picture of the characters, and in this case the house: ...the smell of old glue and powdery plaster...

The section finishes with the information that the narrator is recently widowed, fighting denial while both grieving and rationalising, thus I start to put across the turmoil of her emotions which will become a mainstay of the story. I deliberately slam on the brakes in the final paragraph via the multiple use of commas and the word reality – I use it four times and may yet edit it to three – but its use is as much about the house as the narrator. It is also the only occasion in the entire story when I pull the reader into the moment by the use of second person you.

Did I plan this conclusion to the section? No, I was madly creating as I went. Does what follows continue the tone and the character’s internal thought processes? No, it is real-world exchanges, hence the need for a double-blank line.

Other facets you may be interested in – well, this sort of thing interests me – is that by the time I’d reached this point I knew the genre, subsidiary characters, the house and its previous occupants, and the ending. The initial seed? I was scraping wallpaper and uncovered a long-ago decorator’s note pencilled on the plaster. Immediately it pinged the gifted title-phrase lodged in my subconscious and I stood back, scraper in hand, with What if…? roiling through my mind.

If you have found this post of interest you may want to read Research 1 – Is It Necessary For Short Fiction? Or just scan down the titles of my Writing Tips page. I dissect entire stories in Reading A Writer’s Mind.

Image by Wokingham Libraries via Pixabay


  1. Excellent piece, Linda. It's always fascinated me; the way a writer's mind works, especially when a story is developing in that mind. The creative process is quite mysterious, almost, dare this agnostic say it, miraculous. I'd love to read The Forever House when it's complete.

    1. Thanks, Stuart. It's the sort thing that always intrigues me, which is why I wrote it (before I forgot the machinations!). I'll let you know when it's ready to roll.

    2. Thanks. I look forward to it.