Short stories are one of the most valuable tools in a writer’s arsenal. They provide a calling card to readers and a way to practice your craft without committing to a whole novel.
Writing a short story means cramming a great deal of plot and character into a small space. Over the next three weeks, we’re going to look at how to do that, starting with the first act.
Start with the Protagonist
As with any story, it’s good to start with a person. That way, empathy draws readers into the situation.
In a short story, you don’t have time to write a character just for the prologue, as George R. R. Martin did in Game of Thrones. You need to start with the protagonist.
Set up the character in context. Show how they fit into their world. This is best done through action – not necessarily action in the blockbuster sense, but the character doing something. Make it an activity that shows you who the character is and what’s important to them. A warrior in battle, an artisan crafting a statue, a philanthropist helping a beggar – something that gets at the things that matter to them.
If possible, also show the character’s central flaw. Ideally, this should relate to their grand passion, as this gives the flaw more significance and makes it easier to introduce. Is the crafter obsessive? Does the philanthropist have a prejudice that shapes how she gives?
Shaping the Readers’ Response
The opening act of the story also needs to shape the reader’s response.
Part of this is showing them why they should care about the story and the character.
Reveal the character’s more likeable traits, so that readers will care about them as a person. Are they generous, funny, passionate? Show that in how they’re acting.
Show why the situation the story will explore is important. Are many lives at stake thanks to the philanthropist’s work? Is the fate of a nation in the hands of the warrior?
This is also the point at which to set audience expectations. This works in two ways.
Firstly, you’re setting the tone and style. An action-packed story should start with action. One that’s heavy on reflection and description should start with reflective character and scene setting. This way, readers know what they’re getting into.
Secondly, raise the questions that will be resolved at the end of the story. If you start by raising big social issues but end with the protagonist sorting out his love life, readers will feel the mismatch. Set up issues that you’ll resolve at the end, even if it’s not obvious to readers that that’s what you’re doing.
Getting Things Moving
In a short story, you don’t have time to dawdle in showing the status quo. You need to get the story moving quickly.
Start with something striking in the opening – a bold image, a piece of action, a threat, or an interesting question raised. Remember, this needs to tie in to the protagonist.
Quickly move from this into rising action. The tension mounts, the stakes heighten, problems arise. Show the storm clouds gathering as problems force the character into action.
End the act by showing how the character starts to respond. One of the best ways to do this is to provide them with a choice. They’re given two options for how to deal with their situation. Readers can see that one option is healthier and more productive. But the other is tempting – maybe it’s easier, maybe it fits the character’s world view, maybe it’s just the way they were heading anyway. And so they make the wrong choice, setting up trouble down the line.
It’s not the only way to get the story moving, but it shows a general point. A problem arises that the character cares about and that the readers can see the importance of. As they try to tackle it, things start to get worse.
You’ve got your story started. Next time, we’ll look at how to develop it in the middle act.