Writing an Effective Short Story Introduction

September 10, 2020

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Jason Sizemore is the editor-in-chief of Apex Magazine and the publisher of Apex Book Company. You can follow him online via his Twitter feed @apexjason.

The questions which one asks oneself begin, at least, to illuminate the world, and become one's key to the experience of others. James Baldwin

Yesterday, we announced the return of our annual Holiday Horrors Flash Fiction contest. Our Twitter feed was immediately filled with writers bemoaning the difficulty of writing flash. I agree, it isn’t easy. But writing an effective short story introduction is a good first step for not only writing flash, but for short form fiction in general. The good news is that the basic concepts of writing an introduction are not difficult and there is a relatively simple pattern to follow that works for most writers.

Note that these tips apply to one of the most common types of short story openings–action-oriented stories–though the suggestions can apply to most forms of openings.

The Three Questions

Many “How to” articles on writing introductions state that you need a hook. I find this bit of advice to be misleading. Certainly, having a snappy opening line helps draw the reader into your world. But a hook on its own won’t keep them around. To maintain reader interest, your opening lines need to answer the following three questions:

  • Where? (Setting)
  • Who? (Character)
  • Genre?

These questions ground the reader and pull them into your world.

Cartoon face with three question marks above its head.
Think of this as your reader considering the three questions.

I’m going to use a favorite story of mine from Apex Magazine to show how this works in practice. Amal Singh’s issue 119 story “Professor Strong and the Brass Boys” provides a textbook example. Here is the opening to the story:

I stand backstage, anxious. My cognitive implant, fed by a recursive code, tells me this is a bad idea. It tells me this decision is, as humans would say, impulsive.

Where are we? We are backstage. As a reader, our brain immediately builds the landscape around us–stage lights, faceless crowd of onlookers, possibly curtains and other stage gear.

Who are we? We are an automaton or android of some type based on the distancing observation “as humans would say, impulsive.”

Genre? Science fiction based on the character sporting a cognitive implant.

Not every story follows this basic structure, but as Amal Singh shows us, it can be extremely effective. Think about those opening three sentences. They prompt a series of followup questions for the reader. Why is the character backstage about to make an impulsive decision? Is the character suffering from performance anxiety or does the character have a reason to fear? What is the character going to perform? Based on the title, it might be a musical act, though that’s not certain.

Using The Language of Genre as a Shortcut

A wonderful aspect of genre fiction that makes it such a joy to read is that each sub-genre has its own shorthand that an author can tap into. “Cognitive implant” immediately clues a reader that we’re likely dealing with a science fiction story. In Derek Lubangakane’s fantasy tale “A Fool’s Baneful Gallantry” the author uses marker terms like “spellcaster” and “wyrmrider.” In Kristi DeMeester’s horror short “With Lips Sewn Shut” she drops in words like “blood-pricked” and “speak without mouths.”

Use your genre markers in the first two or three sentences to help answer the three reader questions of who, where, and genre.

Other markers (some commonly associated with genre) such as tropes and descriptors are other shorthand tools you can use to build the foundation of your story. They come into play in our next section.

Beyond the Three Questions: Theme and Tone

As an acquiring editor, another aspect of introductions I like to see defined in the early stages of a submission are two vital elements of storytelling: theme and tone. I don’t expect to see these addressed in the first two sentences, but by the end of your introduction they should become apparent or at least hinted at.

Copied below is the entirety of Amal Singh’s introduction to “Professor Strong and the Brass Boys.”

I stand backstage, anxious. My cognitive implant, fed by a recursive code, tells me this is a bad idea. It tells me this decision is, as humans would say, impulsive. I am desperate. Desperate to make a good entrance. Desperate to make a point. Much of what has happened in the last few weeks would come to fruition today. The future of the droids in front of me depends on how I make this entrance. It could be good, or it could be bad. It could be so much worse.

My brass thumb caresses the wooden violin neck. I sense an electric shiver in my right arm, the one which is clutching the bow. I grip the violin so tight, the neck might just break. I fear for the worst, trying too hard not to freak out. But I know I must not. Because if I break now, so will my brass boys.

“Professor, I think you should have prepared the speech instead,” says Lovolo, the frogoid with the trombone.

“I will not succumb. I shall overcome.” Vinthian, the owl-like droid in charge of the saxophone, hasn’t stopped chanting those two sentences, in ris oily, too robotic voice. The humans haven’t seen these droids in any other capacity than servitude. Fragile species that they are, the humans are known to respond to a change in status-quo with anger, frustration, even violence. Thousands of years of history, embedded in my memory banks, tells me this. It also doesn’t help that I am a history professor at the school. And a respected one at that.

“Professor, I think it won’t be the same without Yuyu,” Lovolo voices ris concern.

“Remember, boys, we’re doing this for Yuyu,” I say in my best professory voice. It is a preset baritone. I also emulate a slight cough, even though, in the company of these droids, I don’t have to. Coughs are for humans. Sighs are for humans. Ahem, ahem, clear the throat before you begin the speech. One, two, three, sound check, before you begin the song.

But music is also for humans, so we were told. And here we are.

I decide to take that step. For me. For them. For the one missing brass boy who couldn’t make it.

After Amal’s excellent job of addressing the three questions, he provides the story’s core thematic concerns: what it means to be human, the role music plays in our humanity, and how empathy should be seen as a condition of humanity. Addressing these themes, the author uses a familiar science fiction trope–that of an artificial intelligence seeking to be treated as equal to humans.

Amal’s use of common descriptors is interesting to me. He assigns human characteristics to his android protagonist. “Professory voice.” His nervousness prior to a public performance. Anxiety. Clearing the throat for attention. It’s quite clever and subconsciously strengthens the thematic building blocks.

Tonally, we instantly grasp the importance of the upcoming performance by the series of anxiety descriptors used to cue the reader.

Finally, in the last line of the introduction, Amal drops the actual hook. “For the one missing brass boy who couldn’t make it.”

From the reader’s perspective, the author has presented an empathetic character and placed us immediately in a science fiction world. We know the stakes are high. Then the author poses the mystery that will keep us (me) reading–who is the missing brass boy and why is he not there?

Be smart when leaning into tropes and descriptors. Used too heavily and your story will cause a reader to roll their eyes and discard your work. A “less is more” philosophy is definitely encouraged here.

Bonus Material: Sensory Details

I’d like to close this essay with a trick I recently learned from Hugo Award-winning novelist and short fiction author Mary Robinette Kowal. You should watch her guest lecture on writing genre short fiction in Brandon Sanderson’s BYU 2020 creative writing class. I guarantee you’ll come out of it a better writer.

In the lecture, Mary Robinette suggests linking sensory detail to your setting. To paraphrase her example, instead of saying “She stood in the station’s engine room” you might instead say “The thrum of the station’s engine resonated through her feet.”

Here is an example of how author Wole Talabi makes use of sensory details (dusty, bumpy) in the opening of his “Necessary and Sufficient Conditions.”

The dusty, bumpy road linking the magnetic hyper-expressway to Ijebu-Ode was nothing like the smooth, organised, and illuminated tunnels from which it branched out. 

Parting Shot

Even great writers stumble with their story openings. Usually, by the time I’m reading a story that has come through our slush, two other readers have pushed it forward in the process. Despite that, the most common reason I reject stories has to do with openings and introductions that fail the piece. It’s arguably the most important aspect of your story, and we want to see you do them right.

So remember the three questions, consider theme and tone, and include sensory details. These suggestions will help you find better slush pile success!

FOR WRITERS

FOR WRITERS is a bi-weekly feature from the Apex Magazine editorial team covering various aspects of writing. Visit our archive to read more FOR WRITERS content!

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